Happy Hour

February 01, 1999 8 min read

But are these efforts working? Not really, according to a growing body of research. Kids who like themselves tend to do better academically, the research suggests, but there’s little evidence that self-esteem programs generate such good feelings. Self-esteem improves, most researchers have found, only when children feel accomplished in ways that they themselves believe are important. And many teachers heap praise on students indiscriminately, with little positive effect. “High self-esteem has to be based on real accomplishments rather than something that’s inflated artificially,” explains Kristin Moore, executive director of Child Trends Inc., a research group based in Washington, D.C.

Even if self-esteem programs do improve students’ self-image, it is unlikely that this new confidence would defuse violent behavior. The last thing aggressive people need, researchers say, is a higher opinion of themselves. “It’s very appealing [to think] that loving ourselves more will solve all our social problems,” says Roy 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.”

Baumeister and Brad Bushman, a professor of psychology at Iowa State University, have done two self-esteem studies and published their conclusions in the July issue of the American Psychological Association’s Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. In the first study, the researchers interviewed 540 Iowa State students to assess their levels of self-esteem and narcissism. The researchers defined high self-esteem as “thinking well of oneself” and narcissism as “passionately wanting to think well of oneself.”

The two then asked the students to write a short essay, which was returned to them with an evaluation, ostensibly from another participant. After that, the students were paired for a competition of reaction times. The winners of each round were told they could punish the losers with a blast of noise, the duration and intensity of which they determined. The researchers also told the students that the person they were paired with had either criticized, praised, or not read their essays.

Self-esteem improves, most researchers have found, only when children feel accomplished in ways that they themselves believe are important.

Through this exercise, Baumeister and Bushman wanted to determine the degree to which the students would act aggressively--as manifested by long, loud blasts--toward those they believed had criticized their writing. In the end, they found that the students’ level of self-esteem was irrelevant to whether they acted aggressively. This result, they write, “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 students who had been deemed narcissists, the researchers discovered, were most consistently aggressive in their responses. 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.”

The second study strengthened the link between aggressiveness and narcissism. Studying 65 violent prisoners in three states, Bushman found that their levels of narcissism were significantly higher than those of a similarly aged group of college students.

These two studies do not suggest that school self-esteem exercises are nurturing little narcissists, Bushman says. 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, he adds, schools should use their money to teach self-control rather than to boost students’ egos.

Back at Cruise Elementary, a gaggle of 5- and 6-year-olds in Lea Ann Fernino’s kindergarten rush to the corner of their classroom to fetch new “I Like Me!” books, personalized to include each child’s name within the text. Curling up on a red alphabet rug, the youngsters sit attentively as Fernino reads to them.

Passaic’s “I Like Me!” program 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 Topeka, Kansas-based nonprofit group Kindergartners Count Inc. The 12-week course already reaches a quarter of a million kindergartners around the country. The subsidized books and teachers’ guides are billed as “early intervention against many of the factors contributing to youth violence.”

The curriculum includes motivational songs about students’ aptitudes, games focusing on key words like “unique” and “citizenship,” and daily reading assignments from the “I Like Me!” book. “Our parents don’t really take the time to boost children’s esteem,” Fernino says. “They are working or have many children and no time for one-on-one.” The “I Like Me!” text, she adds, may be the only book these children have to read at home. “They are starved for attention,” she says. “Before they can learn anything academically, they have to have confidence.”

Though the program is new, preliminary reports are encouraging, says Donald DeMoulin, a professor of education at the University of Tennessee at Martin who is evaluating the curriculum. A survey conducted for Kindergartners Count last year of 160 teachers using the course found a 40 percent reduction in reprimands to students for disciplinary problems by the end of the 12-week course. “Our premise is that if we start early enough, we can minimize the possibility that children’s self-concept gets fed by negative means,” DeMoulin explains. “That comes through warm homes and warm schools surrounded by a warm community environment. If you have those things intact, you minimize the chance that children will take on violent tendencies.”

The curriculum’s focus on reading and on building other skills youngsters value is especially important, says Susan Gorin, executive director of the National Association of School Psychologists and chairwoman of the advisory board of Kindergartners Count Inc. Surveys conducted before and after kindergartners took the course last year showed a modest 7 percent improvement in children’s self-concept, Gorin says. “Giving them an academic tool and surrounding it with a caring adult, pretty pictures, and great messages is a bonus.”

A number of researchers and scholars are unconvinced. Many, in fact, think such programs are silly and a waste of time. William Damon, author of Greater Expectations: Overcoming the Culture of Indulgence in Our Homes and Schools argues that young children aren’t developmentally equipped to glean the meaning of statements like “You’re unique in the world.”

“Self-esteem,” Damon writes in his 1995 book, “is not a virtue that can be transmitted through abstract incantations.”

Susan Harter, a professor of psychology at the University of Denver who has co-written several studies on self- esteem, says teachers shouldn’t be faulted for trying to make children feel good about themselves. Exercises to elevate self-esteem can help raise the spirits of mildly depressed children, she says, but only if they’re done in specific ways. More than a decade of research, Harter explains, shows that traditional one-size-fits-all classroom approaches don’t work because they rarely address the source of a child’s despondency.

Teachers are more likely to change students’ self-concept, Harter explains, if they help them excel at individual activities that matter to them, like academics, sports, or art. Harter and other researchers have found through a series of studies over the past 20 years that children’s sense of self-worth depends on how well they do in areas that they personally consider important. It also helps when children win the approval of adults who are important in their lives.

For children in the 8- to 14-year-old range, Harter says, self-worth hinges most often on academic and athletic competence, peer acceptance, physical appearance, and conduct. By the adolescent years, close friendships, romance, and job competence also come into play.

Because children base their self-worth on such different factors, Harter urges schools to individually tailor efforts to improve esteem. If a student with little athletic ability wants to be first-string quarterback like his father, a coach can either try to improve the student’s skill or help alter his expectations, she says. If a competitive, academically oriented student is plagued by poor grades in one subject, after-school tutoring may be the answer.

Self-esteem is strengthened, she explains, when the gap between what is important to the child and what the child accomplishes is narrowed.

Barbara Wheeler, president of the National School Boards Association, agrees, stressing that individualized attention leads to more involvement in school and improved student behavior. “Specific self-esteem-raising courses have a place in education somewhere,” she says. “But it’s more about making kids feel a connection with someone, and you don’t have to do that in Self-Esteem 101.”

The problem, of course, is that few teachers have the time for such one-on-one interaction. Given this reality, some observers suggest that teachers can best boost kids’ self-esteem by helping them acquire a strong academic foundation. “There is already such a press on time in the classroom that it’s better to focus time on academics and on things that enable students to get satisfaction from knowing and doing real things,” says AFT President Sandra Feldman.

Ultimately, mental-health advocates say, the best prescription for youngsters most in need of self-esteem is personalized psychological care and caring parenting, not a stand-alone curricular unit. “I don’t think deeply injured self-esteem can be changed through a program,” says Lisa Perkins of the Search Institute, a Minneapolis-based group that focuses on children’s well-being. “The child’s life has to change.”

--Jessica Portner