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Published in Print: November 25, 1998, as Today's Lesson: Self-Esteem

Today's Lesson: Self-Esteem

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Curricula designed to make students feel better about themselves may seem like a nice idea, but some researchers say they don't work.

Passaic, N.J.

Lea Ann Fernino is warming up her kindergarten class one chilly fall morning with a little lesson on self-love.

"I like me because I like my hair," announces 5-year-old Lydia Melendez, twisting her beaded braids.

"I like me because I do my alphabet and my numbers," Louie Burgos bellows.

"I like me because I like my Yankees hat," Stephanie Rodriguez squeals.

For the next 10 minutes, two dozen preschoolers at William B. Cruise Elementary School in a largely poor neighborhood here stand and declare their likability as part of a curriculum created to foster students' self-esteem. The program is called "I Like Me!"

Ms. Fernino plans to punctuate the next three months of school with similar activities, including songs and readings from personalized story books.

"These kids don't know they are special," the bright-eyed, 29-year-old teacher says. "They need to be taught."

Many educators have been singing this tune since the "Me Decade" of the 1970s. The problem with troubled youths, they say, is a deep-seated lack of self-esteem. If children could just buck up and feel better about themselves, they would be less likely to turn to violence or drugs, and more likely to do well in school.

But a growing body of research in the 1990s is introducing a sour note into the popular educational refrain.

While it's true that students who like themselves tend to perform better academically, there is little evidence that self-esteem programs have any effect, many researchers say.

Their studies indicate that children's self-esteem can be elevated only if they gain recognition for particular tasks or aptitudes that students themselves believe are important. But in many classes, teachers heap praise on students indiscriminately.

"There may be a role to get kids to love themselves, but can you do that in a course?" asks Kristin Moore, the executive director of Child Trends Inc., a research group based in Washington. "High self-esteem has to be based on real accomplishments rather than something that's inflated artificially."

And even if self-esteem programs are successful, it's questionable whether they can thwart violent behavior. The last thing aggressive people need, many researchers say, is a higher opinion of themselves.

Violent Reactions

No one formally tracks the extent to which schools try to raise students' self-esteem. But Celia Lose, a spokeswoman for the American Federation of Teachers, suggests that most elementary schools offer some type of lesson for that purpose in the earliest grades.

When little research has been conducted on specific programs used in schools, studies on self-esteem in general cast doubt on their effectiveness.

In middle and high schools, self-esteem programs are less common, and they are most often integrated into health or sex education classes or violence-prevention courses.

While little research has been conducted on specific programs used in schools, studies on self-esteem in general cast doubt on their effectiveness, especially when it comes to reducing violence.

"It's very appealing that loving ourselves more will solve all our social problems," says Roy F. Baumeister, a professor of psychology at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland. "But if it were that easy to prevent violence, all violence would have been ended centuries ago."

Mr. Baumeister and Brad J. Bushman, a professor of psychology at Iowa State University, came to that conclusion after conducting a pair of studies for a report in the July issue of the American Psychological Association's Journal of Personality and Social Psychology .

The researchers interviewed a total of 540 Iowa State students--all psychology majors--to assess their levels of self-esteem and of narcissism. High self-esteem was described as "thinking well of oneself," and narcissism as "passionately wanting to think well of oneself."

The students wrote a short essay, which was returned to them with an evaluation, ostensibly from another participant. Then each student was told that he or she would be competing against someone else in a test of their reaction times. The winner of each round could punish the loser by making the person listen to a blast of noise, the duration and intensity of which were at the discretion of the participant.

Participants were told either that their partners had criticized their essays, had praised the essays, or hadn't read the essays.

The researchers found that the students' level of self-esteem, whether high or low, was irrelevant to whether they acted aggressively. This result "contradicts the traditional view that low self-esteem causes aggression, as well as any suggestion that favorable self-views in general lead to aggression," the report says.

Aggressive responses were strongest, meanwhile, among narcissists who thought they were attacking someone who had given them a bad evaluation.

The report concludes: "It is not so much the people who regard themselves as superior beings who are the most dangerous, but rather those who have a strong desire to regard themselves as superior beings."

A separate, new study solidifies the link between aggressiveness and narcissism. Mr. Bushman, the Iowa State University professor, assessed the narcissism levels of 65 violent prisoners in three states and found that they were significantly higher than those of a similarly aged group of college students.

Mr. Bushman does not suggest that schools that teach self-esteem lessons are intentionally nurturing little narcissists. But he warns that "if kids begin to develop unrealistically optimistic opinions of themselves, and those beliefs are constantly rejected by others, their feelings of self-love could make these kids potentially dangerous to those around them."

If the goal is to reduce violence, Mr. Bushman adds, schools should use their money to teach self-control rather than to boost students' egos.

If the goal is to reduce violence, Mr. Bushman adds, schools should use their money to teach self-control rather than to boost students' egos.

A focus on mood elevation seems superfluous considering that Americans in general already seem to have a high opinion of themselves, Mr. Baumeister says. He points to a survey in the 1970s that asked people to rate their driving ability; 90 percent of the respondents rated themselves as above average.

"The degree to which we overestimate ourselves is bigger in America than in Asia, for example, where the norm is to be modest," he says. "It's a cultural pattern. People here dwell on success and ignore their failures."

Starting Early

The term "self-esteem" became part of America's pop-cultural lexicon during the 1960s.

In that era of sexual liberation and experimentation with illicit drugs, curricula that spawned a host of permissive doctrines took root in schools, says William Damon, the author of Greater Expectations: Overcoming the Culture of Indulgence in Our Homes and Schools.

As a flood of trendy self-help books crowded bookstore shelves, educational publishers churned out school curricula that dovetailed with society's increased fascination with self-betterment.

The "I Like Me!" program being used here in Passaic is one of the newest self-esteem curricula to hit the market. It was developed seven years ago by a group of educators working with the nonprofit group Kindergartners Count Inc., based in Topeka, Kan.

The 12-week course for kindergartners already reaches a quarter of a million children around the country. The subsidized books and teacher's guides are billed as "early intervention against many of the factors contributing to youth violence."

One recent morning at William B. Cruise Elementary, a gaggle of 5- and 6-year olds rush to the corner of their classroom to fetch their newly arrived "I Like Me!" books, personalized to include each child's name as part of the text. Curling up on a red rug with squares spelling out the alphabet, the kindergartners are mesmerized as Ms. Fernino reads from the books.

The "I Like Me!" curriculum includes motivational songs about students' aptitudes, definition games using words like "unique" and "citizenship," and daily reading assignments in the "I Like Me!" book.

"Our parents don't really take the time to boost children's esteem. They are working or have many children and no time for one-on-one," says Ms. Fernino, noting that more than 90 percent of the pupils in this inner-city school come from poor families and live in neighborhoods steeped in violence.

Vol. 18, Issue 15, Pages 25-28

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