Early attempts to nurture Self Esteem tended to focus on the development of positive attitudes toward self. Unfortunately, the activities often used were referred to as “touchy-feely” and soon became discredited as being ineffective. Concern has also been expressed about the need to avoid “narcissism,” which refers to an exaggerated investment in one’s own image versus one’s true self and in how one appears versus how one actually feels. Dispositions of narcissism include the tendency to behave in seductive and manipulative ways, to strive for power, to sacrifice personal integrity for ego needs. They are sometimes described as self-absorbed, self-centered, or selfish. Individuals with these characteristics often believe they are entitled to special factors. They tend to exploit others, with an excessive need for admiration, conceit or they can become hypersensitive, anxious, timid, and insecure.

Healthy Self Esteem refers to realistic and accurate positive appraisals of the self on significant criteria across a variety of interpersonal situations, including the ability to cope with negative feedback. Unhealthy Self Esteem as in narcissism refers to insensitivity to others, with excessive preoccupation with the self and one’s own image and appearance in the eyes of others. What we want is for children to achieve optimum healthy Self Esteem.

Such practices as “All About Me” books where the child provides information about the child’s home and family, what they like to eat, what they like to watch on TV, etc., focus the child’s attention toward his or her own inner gratifications, rather than encouraging the child to think of themselves as a discoverer, an investigator, a producer, an initiator, an explorer, a puzzle solver, a wonderer or a problem solver. We should be encouraging children to think about is “What I’d like to know more about,” “What I am curious about is,” and not stress trivial things but emphasize such traits as perseverance, their desire to help others, etc. (Katz, 1998)

A large body of research indicates that children benefit from positive feedback. Yamamoto (1972), for example, provided research that indicated that for every negative criticism a child received, it required a minimum of five positive messages to maintain their Self Esteem. Many early Self Esteem strategies therefore emphasized praising children and avoiding negative feedback. Many teachers have relied greatly on gold stars, smiling faces, and decorative stickers to provide positive feedback. Such practices have tended blur the distinction between praise and flattery, resulting in a distorted sense of identity. Some children develop unrealistic impressions of what they can do, believing all the praise they receive, much of it not related to specifics. Other children become what might be termed “praise junkies,” striving only for adulation from others. In the absence of such praise they cease to be motivated.

For this reason, it is felt important to make a distinction between praise of children and recognition or appreciation for specific actions, accomplishments or achievements, Healthy Self Esteem is more likely to be developed when children are engaged in activities for which they can make real decisions and contributions than in activities that are frivolous and cute. It is particularly helpful to have children develop criteria of competence of their own. Children need positive feedback about their behavior and their efforts, but it is most likely to strengthen their Self Esteem when it is specific and informative rather than in the form of general praise. It has become evident that it is not possible to “give” others healthy Self Esteem. It is possible to make them feel good, but Self Esteem is more than just having happy feelings. Since that time there has been a stronger emphasis by most authors on the development of particular skills to foster Self Esteem.

Personal efficacy is not developed through the simple incantation of capability. Saying something as if it is true should not be confused with believing that it is true. Telling young children that they are special or flattering them typically does not result in feelings of efficacy. Self-esteem is related to the extent to which one sees oneself as the cause of effects. The essence of self-confidence is the feeling of having an effect on things and being able to cause or affect events. Likewise, feeling loved by significant others involves knowing that one’s behavior and status really matters to others.

Self-esteem does not exist in a vacuum, but is the product of evaluating oneself against one or more criteria and reaching expected standards on these criteria. It is typically not fostered by easy success on a series of trivial tasks, but on tasks the individual sees as challenging. These criteria vary not only between cultures and subcultures, but also within them. To complicate the process, individuals typically change their values and the criteria against which they evaluate themselves as they proceed from childhood to adolescence and adulthood.

Nathaniel Branden (1994) has identified six major components of Self Esteem found to be essential for nurturing and sustaining of healthy Self Esteem:

  • The practice of living consciously, eg. seeking to understand not only the world external to oneself but also ones’s inner world;
  • The practice of self-acceptance, eg. the willingness to experience one’s own thoughts, feelings, and actions, without evasion or denial;
  • The practice of self-responsibility, eg. taking responsibility for one’s choices and actions;
  • The practice of self-assertiveness, eg. treating others with respect and authenticity, refusing to fake the reality of one’s true values and one’s true self;
  • The practice of living purposefully, eg. identifying short-term and long-term goals or purposes and formulating an action plan to achieve those goals; and,
  • The practice of personal integrity, eg. living with congruence between what one knows, what one professes, and what one does

One’s level of Self Esteem can also vary according to the situation. Although the overall context of experience may remain constant, changes in the situation may cause reassessments of the self. Thus, a teacher may have a fairly high estimation of herself when teaching her own class, but upon the entrance of a colleague or the principal she may shift her estimation or self-evaluation downward. Thus, shifts in self-evaluation fluctuate according to one’s experiences and contacts. While adults can seek contexts and interpersonal situations that maximize their Self Esteem and can strive to avoid those that minimize it, children are at the mercy of the adults who direct them.

There is general agreement that the level of Self Esteem of children can be enhanced when significant adults and peers treat them with respect, when there are strong feelings of trust, when their views, preferences, and opinions are considered, and where they have opportunities to make real decisions and choices about events and things that matter to them.

A review of numerous research studies indicated that there is evidence that children’s Self Esteem can be enhanced by teachers’ encouragement of self-rewarding behavior on the part of their students. With increasing Self Esteem comes improvement in academic performance which, in turn, enhances Self Esteem. Further, above-average levels of Self Esteem were associated positively with better adjustment, more independence, less defensive and deviant behavior, and greater social effectiveness and acceptance of others (Gurney, 1987).

There are a variety of approaches to the enhancement of Self Esteem in the school situation, though no research has been done on the comparative benefits of these different approaches. These approaches seem to fall into five categories:

  • Cognitive approach
  • Behavioral approach
  • Experiential approach
  • Skill developmental approach
  • Environment approach

The cognitive approach focuses on changing the manner in which individuals view their experience, to help them view things positively rather than negatively. Thus, individuals are taught how to look for positive outcomes rather than negative aspects of their situation. They are taught that they have a choice in how they wish to perceive an event or experience, and that can be either positive or negative.

The behavioral approach teaches children to adopt specific behaviors so that they express themselves confidently so that others will relate to them in a positive manner. Activities focus on posture, voice, and the manner in which they deal with others. Through this approach many individuals who see themselves as victims take a more assertive approach and are no longer treated as victims.

The experiential approach designs activities or situations that enable individuals to experience their strengths, to relate to others in positive ways, and to receive positive feedback from others in order to develop a more positive sense of identity. An example of this approach is when a student is selected as “Student of the Day” and given positive feedback by members of the class.

The skill developmental approach focuses on the development of specific skills with the assumption that by functioning at a higher level individuals begin to achieve greater success and thereby enhance their Self Esteem. These skills include communication skills, problem solving skills, conflict resolution skills, reading skills, goal setting skills, etc.

The environmental approach addresses all those aspects of a system, such as school climate, that provide a positive environment where individuals can become involved in decisions that directly affect them, set goals for themselves, receive encouragement and specific feedback regarding their progress, and be treated with respect. This approach creates an environment that enables individuals to use their “self powers,”empowering themselves and taking responsibility for their own Self Esteem.

The most effective means for nurturing Self Esteem is probably a judicious mix of all of these approaches rather than relying solely on one approach.

It is not possible to outline the basic tenets or constructs of all the approaches to Self Esteem. However, here are a few examples of the elements different authors have felt to be critical to the nurturing of Self Esteem of children and adults.

Bean, Reynolds. (1992) The Four Conditions of Self Esteem.

  1. Sense of Connectiveness
  2. Sense of Uniqueness
  3. Sense of Personal Power
  4. Sense of Models

Borba, Michele (1989) Esteem Builders

  1. Feeling of Security
  2. Feeling of Selfhood
  3. Feeling of Affiliation
  4. Sense of Mission
  5. Sense of Competence

Branden, Nathaniel (1994) Six Pillars of Self Esteem

  1. Living Consciously
  2. Self-Acceptance
  3. Self-Responsibility
  4. Self-Assertiveness
  5. Living Purposefully
  6. Personal Integrity

Glenn, Stephen (1989) Raising Self-Reliant Children

  1. Perceptions of Personal Capability
  2. Perceptions of Personal Significance
  3. Perceptions of Personal Control
  4. Intrapersonal Skills
  5. Interpersonal Skills
  6. Systemic Skills
  7. Judgmental Skills

Reasoner, Robert. (1989) Building Self Esteem

  1. Sense of Security
  2. Sense of Identity
  3. Sense of Belonging
  4. Sense of Purpose
  5. Sense of Personal Competence

Those interested in implementing programs for youth or adults are encouraged to investigate these models, all based on sound research. While there is obviously a great deal of similarity, there are some unique differences in the programs.