Today's Lesson: Self-Esteem

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Surveys conducted before and after kindergarteners took the course showed a modest 7 percent improvement in children's self-concept.

She adds that the "I Like Me!" text may be the only book these children have to read at home. "They are starved for attention," Ms. Fernino says. "Before they can learn anything academically, they have to have confidence."

Though the program is still quite new, preliminary reports are encouraging, says Donald F. DeMoulin, a professor of education at the University of Tennessee at Martin, who is evaluating the "I Like Me" program. 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," Mr. 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, the executive director of the National Association of School Psychologists and the 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, Ms. Gorin says. "When they are young kids, giving them an academic tool and surrounding it with a caring adult, pretty pictures, and great messages is a bonus," she says.

A Focused Approach

Making children feel good isn't all bad, says Susan Harter, a professor of psychology at the University of Denver who has co-written several studies on self-esteem. Ms. Harter says elevating self-esteem can help raise the spirits of mildly depressed children, but only if it's done in a very specific way.

More than a decade of research shows that traditional one-size-fits-all classroom approaches to improving low self-esteem don't work because they rarely address the source of a child's despondency.

"There's nothing wrong with having a kid's name on the board [to make them feel good], but it's too simplistic," Ms. Harter says.

Daniel Hart, a psychology professor at Rutgers University in Camden, N.J., describes self-esteem classes as silly. "You wouldn't think you could change kids' academic achievement by passing out pins that say: 'I am a student. Go to it,' " he says.

Mr. Damon, the author of Greater Expectations, goes even further to argue that young children aren't developmentally equipped to glean the meaning of statements like "You're unique in the world."

Researchers have found that children's sense of self-worth hinges on how well or poorly they do in areas they personally consider important.

"Self-esteem is not a virtue that can be transmitted through abstract incantations," Mr. Damon writes in his book, published in 1995 by Simon & Schuster.

If schools really want to induce a sustainable mood shift in their students, Ms. Harter argues, teachers should help children excel at individualized activities--whether academic or athletic or artistic--that matter to them.

Ms. Harter and other researchers have found through a series of studies in the last 20 years that children's sense of self-worth hinges on how well or poorly they do in areas they personally consider important. When children win the approval of important adults in their lives, that can also raise their self-confidence.

For 8- to 14-year-olds, Ms. Harter says, academic competence, peer acceptance, athletic competence, conduct, and physical appearance tend to be the categories most often linked to self-worth.

By the adolescent years, job competence, close friendships, and romantic appeal also begin to profoundly affect teenagers' self- confidence, she says.

Because these "pathways to self-esteem" are different for each student, the school or community or parental interventions must be equally precise, Ms. Harter stresses.

For example, if an athletically challenged student wants to be a first-string quarterback like his father but doesn't even make the team, a coach can either raise the performance level of the student or try to help reduce 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 when the gap between what is important to the child and what the child accomplishes is narrowed, she says.

Barbara Wheeler, the president of the National School Boards Association, agrees. Individualized attention tends to lead to more involvement in school and improved student behavior, she argues.

"Specific self-esteem-raising courses have a place in education somewhere. A lot of kids out there are time bombs that have the potential to act out in schools," 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.' "

Gender Gap?

The view that concentrating on students' specific accomplishments works to build self-esteem has prompted Ms. Harter and others to reconsider the supposed self-esteem gap between boys and girls.

Carol Gilligan, the prominent Harvard University psychologist and researcher, popularized the idea through her research that girls' self-esteem sinks when they hit adolescence. Girls at that age suppress their opinions, which can affect self-esteem levels and lead to an array of psychological disorders, she argues. ("Their Own Voices," May 13, 1998.)

The best prescription for despondent youngsters is personalized psychological care, not a stand-alone unit in health class.

To remedy the perceived inequity that then results between girls and boys, some schools have made special adjustments for girls. The White House even launched a $16 million federal program last year called "Girl Power!" to fund girl-centered social and educational activities.

A new study by Ms. Harter suggests, however, that this gender "gap" is really more like a slit.

Ms. Harter and three other researchers interviewed 800 middle and high school students in a middle-class neighborhood over a four-year period. The questionnaires were designed to determine how freely students expressed their opinions or "voice," an indicator of healthy self-esteem.

The study, published in the American Psychological Association's journal Developmental Psychology, showed a slight decrease in some adolescent girls' "voice," but the drop-off was not nearly as dramatic as Ms. Gilligan's research suggests. Girls' lower self-esteem scores "may be statistically significant but psychologically trivial," Ms. Harter says.

Her finding suggests that schools ought to be looking at differences among girls and among boys rather than searching for patterns strictly along gender lines, she says.

Even then, an individual teacher seldom has the time or resources to give each student the personal attention that Ms. Harter and others say is necessary to raise his or her self-esteem.

"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 Sandra Feldman, the president of the American Federation of Teachers.

Ultimately, mental-health advocates add, the best prescription for truly despondent youngsters who need the biggest self-esteem boost is personalized psychological care or caring parenting, not a stand-alone unit in a health class.

"I don't think deeply injured self-esteem can be changed through a program," says Lisa Perkins of the Search Institute, a Minneapolis-based research and advocacy group that focuses on the general well-being of children. "The child's life has to change."

Vol. 18, Issue 15, Pages 25-28

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