Development of a Sense of Self

By — Pearson Allyn Bacon Prentice Hall
Updated on Jul 20, 2010

With their capacity for symbolic thinking and (eventually) abstract reasoning, human beings often draw conclusions about who they are as people. As an example, try the following exercise.

On a sheet of paper, list ten adjectives or phrases that describe the kind of person you are.

How did you describe yourself? Are you a good student? Are you physically attractive? Are you friendly? likable? moody? smart? funny? uncoordinated? open-minded? Some of your answers probably reflect certain personality traits. But all of your answers provide a window into your sense of self—your perceptions, beliefs, judgments, and feelings about who you are as a person. Many theorists distinguish between two aspects of the sense of self: self-concept—assessments of one’s own characteristics, strengths, and weaknesses—and self-esteem—judgments and feelings about one’s own value and worth. In everyday usage, however, the two terms overlap considerably and are often used interchangeably (Byrne, 2002; Harter, 1999).

Students tend to have an overall, general feeling of self-worth: They believe either that they are good, capable individuals or that they are somehow inept or unworthy. At the same time they are usually aware that they have both strengths and weaknesses—that they do some things well and other things poorly. Children in the primary grades make a general distinction between two aspects of themselves, how competent they are at day-to-day tasks and how well they are liked by family and friends. They make finer and finer distinctions as they grow older. In the upper elementary grades they realize that they may be more or less competent or “good” in their academic work, athletic activities, classroom behavior, acceptance by peers, and physical attractiveness. By adolescence they also make general self-assessments about their ability to make friends, their competence at adultlike work tasks, and their romantic appeal (Davis-Kean & Sandler, 2001; Harter, 1999).

Below is a list that summarizes the eight components that eventually emerge, each of which may have a greater or lesser influence on students’ overall sense of self. For some students academic achievement may be the overriding factor, whereas for others popularity with peers may be more important. For many young people around the world, physical attractiveness contributes heavily to overall self-esteem (Hart, 1988; Harter, 1999).

By adolescence students' sense of self has at least eight distinct components

Sense of Self

How smart am I in school subjects?

How skillful an athlete am I?

How well do I behave?

How physically attractive am I?

How much do others like me?

Do I have many good friends?

How romantically appealing am I?

How successful will I be in my career?

Children and adolescents tend to behave in ways that mirror their beliefs about themselves. In general, students who have positive self-perceptions are more likely to succeed academically, socially, and physically (Caldwell, Rudolph, Troop-Gordon, & Kim, 2004; Ma & Kishor, 1997; Marsh & Craven, 2006; Valentine, DuBois, & Cooper, 2004). For instance, if they see themselves as good students, they are more apt to pay attention, follow directions, work independently and persistently to solve difficult problems, and enroll in challenging courses. If they see themselves as friendly and socially desirable, they are more likely to seek the company of their classmates and perhaps run for student council. If they see themselves as physically competent, they will more eagerly pursue extracurricular athletics.

Students’ beliefs about themselves are, like their beliefs about the world, largely self-constructed. Accordingly, their self-assessments may or may not be accurate ones (Dunning, Heath, & Suls, 2004; Harter, 1999). When students assess themselves fairly accurately, they are in a good position to choose age-appropriate activities and work toward realistic goals (R. F. Baumeister, Campbell, Krueger, & Vohs, 2003; Harter, 1999). A slightly inflated self-assessment can be beneficial as well, because it encourages students to work toward challenging yet potentially reachable goals (Bjorklund & Green, 1992; Schunk & Pajares, 2004). However, a sense of self that is too inflated may give some students an unwarranted sense of superiority over classmates and lead them to bully or in other ways act aggressively toward peers (R. F. Baumeister et al., 2003; R. F. Baumeister, Smart, & Boden, 1996). And as you might guess, significant underestimates lead students to avoid the many challenges that are apt to enhance their cognitive and social growth (Assor & Connell, 1992; Schunk & Pajares, 2004).

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