Building Self-Esteem, Concretely

“We find that people’s beliefs about their efficacy affects the sorts of choices they make in very significant ways. In particular, it affects their levels of motivation and perseverance in the face of obstacles. Most success requires persistent efforts, so low self-efficacy becomes a self-limiting process. In order to succeed, people need a sense of self-efficacy, strung together with resilience to meet the inevitable obstacles and inequities of life.” – Albert Bandura

Often, educators’ and psychologists’ suggestions to bolster students’ self-esteem seem abstract, mystical, and out-of-reach. Although I don’t deny the usefulness of such suggestions and strategies, there are still questions in my mind pertaining to the attainability and practicality of such proposals.

For example, in the late 1980’s and early 1990s’, the world was flooded with self-development books. People all around the world talked about positive self-image and suggested ways to attain one. Most of the suggestions that I have personally came across were inspiring and emotionally moving (in the form of quotations). However, authors in this field were labeled as having exceptional verbal/linguistic intelligence and knew how to manipulate and play with words to touch our minds and hearts. These inspiring quotations do little or nothing to actually change one’s self-image in a favorable manner.

Words (ingeniously put together to form clauses and sentences) can elicit mental reactions, and arouse emotions. However, positive self-talks do not necessarily intervene in situations where they are truly required. Even if one recalls an inspiring quotation from a great writer in moments of emergency, it is unlikely that the quotation itself serves as a tool to respond and gain control over the emergency situation. Most often, humans react, rather than respond to situations in which they find great amount of frustration and discomfort. In this sense, we as humans continue to develop and experience lowered image of ourselves due to our inability to gain control of circumstances that come our way on a daily basis.

In my opinion, we need to be more concrete when we talk about building the self-esteem of students. Teachers know that anything that cannot be observed and measured are difficult to attain. That’s one reason why teachers are required to write SPECIFIC objectives in their lesson plans. These objectives are used to gauge the quality of teaching and learning. Without them, teaching will take place haphazardly and accomplish little or nothing!

How can we be specific about a psychological construct like self-esteem? How can we help build self-esteem of students in an observable and measurable manner? The answer is: use specific, observable, and measurable classroom intervention! Let me explain.

What kind of students do you think suffer from low self-esteem in the classroom? (For now, let’s forget about others factors that contribute to a low self-esteem, like the home environment, neighborhood, SES, etc. Instead, let’s focus on the teaching-learning experiences and how self-esteem is related to these two activities that take place in the classroom).

You are right! Students who suffer from low self-esteem in the classroom are those who have not performed well and who think (wrongly) that they will never perform well (in one or more subjects). Albert Bandura was correct when he proposed that there is a direct, positive correlation between self-efficacy and self-esteem. According to him, the knowledge (awareness) and ability to master (or gain control) and achieve competence in different areas of learning are necessary to bolster the self-esteem of students. Students feel small and de-motivated when they experience significant lack of control in their pursuit to accomplish different academic tasks.

I can relate my personal experience to illustrate this point. I grew up in an unstable home and my childhood experiences gave me more reasons to develop low-esteem than otherwise. When I went to school, there were subjects that I excelled in, and there were also subjects that I struggled with. One such subject (at high school) was math. I struggled with math and continued to struggle simply because my math teachers constantly instilled in me a hopeless attitude toward the subject (“You can’t become competent in math because you are not made for it. So forget about mastering the subject”). Eventually, my math teachers were successful in psyching me to think that I can never master the subject of math, hence, ruining my self-esteem (by reducing my self-efficacy in this particular subject). Their views about my abilities in math were so untrue because during my ninth grade, I had Chinese friends who personally helped me with the subject. I scored high in the board exam, qualifying me to a science stream/specialization at tenth grade. By not helping me through appropriate intervention, my math teachers were responsible in destroying the way I looked at myself and my ability to gain control of a relatively easy subject such as math.

Teachers often use their time and energy to ‘select’ capable students and work exclusively on making them better. But isn’t this a futile endeavor especially when education is supposed to build and nurture each individual student in the classroom? Instead of engaging in the selection of already-capable students (and working solely with them), teachers should consider everyone in the classroom as needing positive intervention in BUILDING and DEVELOPING competence. When this happens, students’ will be helped to view themselves in a more positive and hopeful manner.

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Since the main activity in the classroom is the learning of subjects, helping students to gain control (mastery) over academic subjects would lead to an increase in positive self-esteem. To achieve this, teachers will have to use their resources and professional abilities to provide on-going support, instead of prematurely concluding who will and will not make it in the learning process.

Education is not about testing and validating students who have the potential to develop and grow into successful people. Rather, it is all about bringing out and nurturing the already-existent potential in each and every student (individual differences noted) regardless of his/her current performance. When teachers do this, they invariably engage in the process of actively building a favorable self-image among students.

In conclusion, I would like to stress that teachers can concretely boost students’ self-esteem by building competence and allowing students opportunities to gain mastery in various areas of academic tasks.

Copyright July 2006 by Dr. Edward Roy Krishnan,

1 thought on “Building Self-Esteem, Concretely”

  1. I appreciate and echo much you have written here. I believe that inherent in EVERY person is a skill or talent that they are truly good at. Often the student who may not excel academically has excellent social skills that will allow them to blossom in the business field later on in life. My goal in my classroom is to find that “one thing” (or several things) that a student is good at. I echo it, remark on it, and communicate to parents about it.

    Every child has intrinsic value and is a beautiful gift to the world. As a teacher, I can encourage and help them or discourage. The most shameful people I know are the teachers who pigeonhole their students and harm them. The best people I know are the teachers who find and release the inner spirit of a child as they discover what they are truly good at.

    This puts in practical terms what is often left to the abstract. I think it is a helpful article for teachers to read.

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