Feeling Good about – Self Esteem

Ask teachers whether they can identify students in their classrooms whose functioning is impaired due to low Self Esteem. Without exception during my 18 years as a superintendent, the response was an unqualified “Yes!” Why then are so many school leaders reluctant to take steps to enhance the Self Esteem of their students?
Some of the reluctance undoubtedly stems from the confusion over what Self Esteem really is and whether efforts to enhance it can make a difference.

The kind of Self Esteem I am referring to is not derived from “warm fuzzies,” “happy feelings” or lots of “happy face stickers.” It is quiet confidence in one’s potential and involves both feelings of self-efficacy as well as self-respect. It is based on the development of multiple skills such as the skill of self-examination and self-acceptance, interpersonal skills, goal-setting skills and systemic skills.

Notable Characteristics

Psychological research has consistently indicated that individuals with low Self Esteem are more depressed, have more social problems, are less able to make independent decisions and possess those characteristics that inhibit creativity, performance and effective interpersonal relationships.

On the other hand, those who exhibit authentic high Self Esteem typically model the behaviors we would all like to see in our students–interest in learning, respectful of others, optimistic, goal directed, willing to take on challenges, unthreatened by change, work cooperatively with others and take pride in their accomplishments. High Self Esteem is not synonymous with narcissism, egotism and self-centeredness, as some have claimed, for most authorities agree that those who exhibit such characteristics are merely compensating for low Self Esteem.

Several studies have pointed to a lack of conclusive evidence that efforts to increase Self Esteem result in higher academic achievement. What the media has failed to report is the close relationship between Self Esteem and other problems. In our preoccupation with academic achievement and test scores, we have overlooked the fact that a significant number of our students are seriously at risk. According to studies by National Center for Health Statistics and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention among others, we are losing up to one-third of our youth as productive citizens due to drug and alcohol abuse, teen-age pregnancy, crime and violence, dropping out of school or suicide. This should be cause for concern on the part of every school administrator.

A growing body of research documents the significant relationship between Self Esteem and these problems. Low Self Esteem has been identified as the most significant problem in the lives of alcoholics and the universal common denominator among literally all people suffering from addiction. It is a major symptom of the eating disorders anorexia nervosa and bulimia as well as a common factor among those who engage in violence, become pregnant as adolescents, drop out of school or attempt suicide. In fact, Self Esteem has been called the underlying psychodynamic mechanism underlying all deviant behavior.

Positive Impact

Experience now has demonstrated that Self Esteem programs can be implemented to create the characteristics of high Self Esteem without sacrificing academic excellence. Evidence suggests that potential school dropouts and other at-risk students can be identified at an early age, enabling educators to significantly reduce negative behaviors. A 12-year study by the University of Washington Social Development Research Group found that those students who were involved in an early intervention program based on the principles of Self Esteem and emotional intelligence grew to become adolescents who were 19 percent less likely to engage in violent acts, 38 percent less likely to indulge in heavy drinking and 35 percent less likely to have caused a pregnancy or to have become pregnant. Schools that have implemented Self Esteem programs have experienced a 30 to 50 percent drop in anti-social behavior, according to studies that I helped to conduct in elementary schools.

When I served as superintendent of the Moreland School District in San Jose, Calif., I found that after focusing on Self Esteem of students for five years our district saw significant changes. Achievement increased 10 percent, student attendance reached 99.7 percent, vandalism was cut by 50 percent, the percentage of those going on to college or the university increased from 65 percent to 89 percent and the dropout rate fell to 5.4 percent. Students were believing in themselves and focusing on what kind of person they wanted to become and what they wanted to do with their lives. As one student stated, “I have more important things to do with my life than get sidetracked in risky behavior such as sex or drugs.”

In a recent study on the impact of a Self Esteem program known as Esteem Builders, which was put to use with 1,040 students in rural, urban and suburban schools with high percentages of at-risk students, significant changes were noted at all three sites at the end of one year. In surveys conducted at the end of the program, 98 percent of the teachers noted improvement in school climate and positive changes in student behaviors; 100 percent reported students spoke more positively; 95 percent reported students were more respectful and tolerant of each other; and 93 percent said students were more cooperative. Fights involving students fell 41 percent, and student detentions dropped 46 percent.

Over the same time, the teaching staff saw a significant increase in students’ ability to make decisions and establish goals, exhibit independence in activities, willingness to undertake new tasks, initiate new ideas and contribute to discussions. Sixty-five percent of those students identified as being at risk at the beginning of the school year because of their attitude and behavior had lost that designation by the end of the first year, according to research I helped to conduct.

Full-Fledged Programs

Many schools are incorporating isolated units into the curriculum to address the needs of students at risk. However, to make a genuine difference schools must adopt a comprehensive schoolwide plan that addresses the following:

* Enhances staff Self Esteem;

* Builds self-awareness and self-acceptance;

* Fosters feelings of significance, responsibility and personal power;

* Expects students to interact respectfully with others;

* Provides opportunities for recognition for all students;

* Encourages cooperation and support of others;

* Develops social skills and reduces isolates;

* Encourages students to set short-term and long-term goals; and

* Builds academic competencies.

At a time when schools are seeking to reduce or eliminate bullying, anti-social behavior and violence, administrators need to incorporate the elements of Self Esteem as a critical element of any prevention program. While programs at the middle-school level have proven effective, it is especially important that elementary schools implement such programs because by 3rd grade students generally have established patterns of behaving and learning that shape the course of their entire school career. With the increases in the at-risk student population and the alarming rise in student depression, aggression, anger and emotional needs, schools must take a pro-active role to address the social and emotional needs of students, in addition to building cognitive skills.

Robert Reasoner, a former superintendent in California, is president of the International Council for Self Esteem, 234 Montgomery Lane, Port Ludlow, WA 98365. E-mail: [email protected]