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The development of a strong sense of self-esteem during childhood is important since children are to withstand the family stresses, school pressures, and temptations in societies. It is also a general belief of many professionals, including researchers, educations and parents, high self-esteem in children is linked to better academic achievement and more success in life (Leary, Schreindorfer, & Haupt, 1995), conversely, low self-esteem is linked to poor school performance and deviant social behaviours (Daane, 2003). This paper is to discuss whether schools should put resources for boosting self-esteem of their students so as to improve students' school performance/achievements.
Self Esteem and School Performance
Self-esteem is a complex concept. Burns, Dunn, Brady, Starr, and Blosser (2000) explained this term as the basic developmental milestone of all children which is paramount in basic personality development. The simple definition for self-esteem is how much value that people place on themselves. Self-esteem is difficult to have an accurate or exact definition. Thus various explanations/definitions of self-esteem are listed in the figure below cited by Malbi and Reasoner (2000).
Figure 1: Some Definitions of Self-Esteem Cited (Malbi & Reasoner, 2000)
The interpretation of self-esteem can be generalised as the extent to which an individual believes himself or herself to be competent and worthy of living.
Humphrey (2004) identified the three constructs of 'sense of self' which are self-concept, ideal-self, and self-esteem. He explained that self-esteem is an evaluation of personal worth based on the difference between one's ideal-self and one's self-concept. Lawrence (2000) mentioned that self-esteem construct is recognised today to be a major factor in learning outcomes.
With reference to the various definitions of self-esteem, people with high self-esteem possess the characteristics of having higher aspiration and better global evaluation of oneself. They should be more willing to persist in dealing with initial failure and to have no sense of hopeless when recognising of their initial incapability. Furthermore they should have confidence when facing problems and get satisfaction easily from progress and success. According to Baumeister, Campbell, Krueger, and Vohs (2003), however, self-esteem can refer to "an inflated, arrogant, grandiose, unwarranted sense of conceited superiority over others."
Low self-esteem refers as an unfavourable or relatively unfavourable definition of self when using some common self-esteem scores. Therefore, low self-esteem can be further defined as either an accurate and well-founded understanding of a person's shortcomings or a distorted, pathological sense of insecurity and inferiority (Baumeister et al., 2003).
Learning refers to acquire information and skills that one does not initially have. Effective learning can be revealed by proper measurement of school performance of students such as commonly use of GPA and achievement scores/grades. Researches have consistently shown positive correlations between how people value themselves (self-esteem), and the level of their academic achievements (school performance). Those who have higher self-esteem with confidence, generally achieve more in schools, while those who lack confidence with lower self-esteem achieve academically less. No one would argue that the majority of students in band 3 schools of Hong Kong are likely to have relatively low self-esteem as a result of feeling inadequate over not being able to read, write or spell like most others studying in the schools at the upper bands although their relatively low self-esteem may be a result of other experiences beginning in childhood (Lawrence, 2000) or problematic distribution of self-esteem scores.
Furthermore, many educators and administrators believe that one of possible sources of self-esteem may be academic achievement. Good academic results could enhance a student's sense of worthiness and competence (Naderi, Abdullah, Aizan, Sharir, & Kumar, 2009). It is found in a research that self-esteem and academic achievement seem to be most highly related between the years of about seven to fifteen (Malbi & Reasoner, 2000). However, the enthusiastic claims of the self-esteem movement are not sustainable in view of some selected researches to be discussed in the following section. In fact the effects of self-esteem on academic achievement are small, limited, and not all good.
A Myth of Self-Esteem
In 1986, the Californian government funded a task force annually with the huge amount of money to boost the self esteem of her citizens aiming at the reduction of some social problems, such as unwanted pregnancy and school failure, as well as subsequently the contribution of the taxpayers. Disappointingly, the literature review done by this task force shown low associations between self-esteem and its presumed consequences (Smelser, 1989). Albert Ellis, a reputable clinical psychologist, claimed that self-esteem was the greatest know to man or woman because it was conditional so that people would be in more favourable conditions if they stopped trying to force themselves to believe they are worthy. Self-esteem movements are a distinctive feature of individualist cultures in western countries like the US but the same concerns are rare in collective cultures like Japan. That indicates that self-esteem is not a universal human motive but rather an artefact. The effect of self-esteem on a child's school performance can be examined in two aspects: the correlation and the causal relationship between self-esteem and school performance.
Positive but Weak Correlation
Many researchers investigated the correlation between self-esteem and academic achievement in recent years. However, only some of them, like Maruyama, Rubin, and Kingsbury (1981), found that high self-esteem facilitates academic achievement. Self-esteem is multidimensional, which can refer as either academic self-esteem, physical appearance self-esteem or global self-esteem. Many researches in which showed positive correlation were generally used global self-esteem instead of academic self-esteem for their measurements that reduced the confidence of their outcomes and results.
Pullmann and Allik (2008) found that only a limited correlation between self-esteem and academic achievement. Indeed they identified in their studies that low general self-esteem did not necessarily signal a poor academic achievement. By contrast, their research results showed that low, but not high as the general belief, self-esteem is a significant predictor of good school performance. In addition, Naderi et al. (2009) found in their studies done in Iran that self-esteem is not significantly related to academic achievement and they concluded that self-esteem and academic achievement might be confounders to each other.
According to the research findings from Marsh and O'Mara (2008), prior self-esteem has only small positive effect on subsequent academic achievement. From the studies of Hansford & Hattie (1982) with more than 200,000 participants also showed that a significant positive but weak correlation with average r between +.21 and +.26. In addition, r ranged from .10 to .03 of which reflected very weak correlation was found in the research on standard achievement tests done by Davies and Brember (1999). Similarly, research of students' most recent semester grades in Math's and English by Bowles (1999) showed very weak correlation of r=.29. Kugle, Clements, and Powell (1983) conducted a similar research using scores on a reading achievement test as school performance which gave the result of r=.18 indicating very weak correlation. Another research by Simon and Simon (1975) proved the correlation between self-esteem and scores on achievement tests/IQ test scores was weak with r=.33 although it was significant. Zimmerman, Copeland, Shope, and Dielman (1997) asked students for general ratings of their grades in the studies. They concluded that high self-esteem could lead to better school grade but the correlation was very weak. Rubin, Dorle, & Sandidge (1977) concluded for their research on measuring achievement and teachers' rating of students' behaviour and performance that practical significance between self-esteem and academic achievement is negligible.
All in all, a number of researches support that self-esteem and school performance shows positive correlation but the relationship is weak and ambiguous. High-esteem and good school performance go together in many circumstances but there is no indication of causal conclusion whether self-esteem is a cause or a result of school performance.
Positive but Bi-directional Causal Relationship
It is interested to understand on whether self-esteem causes educational success or the other way round. In addition many researchers investigated the effectiveness of using self-esteem intervention program in schools on escalating the self-esteem of students so as to improve their academic performance. Could there be other variables responsible for the correlation between self-esteem and school performance as proved in many researches?
Bachman and O'Malley (1977) found that no significant causal influence between self-esteem and achievement in the high school context with the examination of longitudinal data by utilizing a priori model relating self-esteem and academic achievement of young males. Another study by Maruyama et al. (1981) also showed no significant relationship existed between self-esteem and school achievement. They revealed that self-esteem and academic achievement were not 'causally' related to each other. In the study of about 1,900 boys who were at 10th-grade and 12th-grade (Rosenberg, Schooler, & Schoenbach, 1989), the researchers only found modest causal relationship leading from school grades to self-esteem and, not surprisingly, extremely weak causal relationship leading from self-esteem to educational attainments. Thus they concluded that there was no solid evidence to support that self-esteem affected school results, instead self-esteem seemed to be the result of good school performance. Further in the study conducted in Norway by Skaalvik and Hagtvet (1990), they found that doing well in school on year led to higher self-esteem the next year for the 600 samples of Norwegian students in two cohorts. They concluded that the self-concept of ability mediated the relation between global self-esteem and school performance. In addition they identified that there was no strong causal relation between self-esteem and school performance.
Bachman and O'Malley (1986) conducted a longitudinal study on more than 1,600 students at 10th-grade with the conclusion that there was no obvious causal relation between self-esteem and educational attainment. They also found that self-esteem was a result from good school performance, rather than a cause and the global self-esteem had a negligible relationship to eventual educational attainment. In addition they found that third variables like family background or ability were responsible for the relationship between self-esteem and school performance, though it was a very weak correlation.
Regarding the effect of self-esteem intervention program on school performance, the research by Scheirer and Kraut (1979), in which it aimed at boosting self-esteem and hence improving study skills, revealed that no association between self-concept change and educational attainment. This view is also supported by Forsyth and Kerr (1999) in their field experiment of self-esteem intervention for college students. They found that boosting self-esteem could have negative impact on students' academic achievement. Thus the findings of this experiment support that high self-esteem leads to low academic performance.
Based on the above evidences, positive causal relationship between self-esteem and school performance exists but it seems to be a bi-directional one. It is also important to note that other varaibles, such as family, ability and socioeconomic status, are also responsible for the correlations between self-esteem and academic achievements.
According to the findings of Dalgas-Pelish (2006), it might be beneficial to offer self-esteem enhancement education, which could be incorporated into curriculum in schools, to children to improve their feelings about themselves. Then a child who is exposed to self-esteem enhancement programs may be better equipped to face decisions that are usually made in schools and homes. However the risk is that boosting self-esteem may lead to inflated self-esteem, i.e. students may overestimate themselves. Inflated self-esteem may also increase the risk of violence and self-defeating behaviours in schools.
In accordance with most of the researches, it is certain that there are some benefits of high self-esteem on school performance but this is only minimal and most of the time the effects are difficult to notice. Even in some researches indicate that children's academic achievements could be worse off due to their high self-esteem. It is evident that self-esteem makes little difference in school performance and it is not wise and not justify for putting a lot of scarce educational resources, in particular in Hong Kong, by boosting self-esteem of children in schools and then looking for unrealistic hope for having significant improvements in students' academic achievements.
However, this does not mean that educators do not need to put effort on boosting their students' self-esteem since this is important for them to bounce back after failure, in particular academic failure, and try again. In general, high self-esteem can make students feel good so that their school performance could be reinforced by other third variables, such as self-control, which are responsible for the correlation between self-esteem and academic achievement.