Development of a Sense of Self (page 2)

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

Factors Influencing Sense of Self

Simply telling students they are good or smart or popular is unlikely to make much of a dent in low self-esteem (Crocker & Knight, 2005; Damon, 1991; Marsh & Craven, 1997). Furthermore, vague, abstract statements such as “You’re special” have little meaning in the concrete realities of young children (McMillan, Singh, & Simonetta, 1994). However, at least three factors definitely do influence the kinds of self-concepts that students form: students’ previous performance, the behaviors of other individuals, and in some cases the achievements of a larger group to which students belong. Each factor offers insights into how, as teachers, we can enhance students’ sense of self.

Previous Performance  As we have seen, students’ self-concepts influence how they behave. Yet the reverse is true as well: Students’ self-assessments are influenced by how successful their actions have been in the past (Damon, 1991; Marsh & Craven, 2006). Students are more likely to believe that they have an aptitude for mathematics if they have been successful in previous math classes, that they are likable individuals if they have been able to make and keep friends, or that they are capable athletes if they have been victorious in athletic competitions.

Often students gain initial insights about their general competence in a domain from their successes and failures in particular activities. For instance, they may discover that they can easily solve—or consistently struggle with—simple addition and subtraction word problems. Or they may find that they can run faster—or more slowly—than most of their peers. Through such experiences they acquire a sense of self-efficacy about the degree to which they can do certain things well. Over time students’ specific self-efficacies for various tasks and activities contribute to their more general sense of self (Bong & Skaalvik, 2003; Schunk & Pajares, 2004).

The interplay between self-perceptions and behavior can create a vicious cycle: A poor sense of self leads to less productive behavior, which leads to fewer successes, which perpetuates the poor sense of self. To break the cycle, we must make sure that students have numerous opportunities to succeed at academic, social, and physical tasks, or at least to show significant improvement in those tasks (Damon, 1991; Leary, 1999; Marsh & Craven, 1997). For example, we can gear assignments to students’ developmental levels and cognitive capabilities, and we can make sure students have mastered the necessary prerequisite knowledge and skills before we assign new tasks. But we must remember that success in very easy activities is unlikely to have much of an impact. Instead, we should assign challenging tasks, giving students the structure and support (i.e., the scaffolding) they need to accomplish the tasks successfully (Bouchey & Harter, 2005; Dunning et al., 2004). In fact, the occasional failures that such challenges bring—provided that students eventually do achieve success—will ultimately lead to a more realistic and resilient sense of self that can take failure in stride (Bandura, 1989; Dweck, 2000).

Behaviors of Others  Other people’s behaviors influence students’ self-perceptions in at least two ways. First, how students evaluate themselves depends to some extent on how their own performance compares to that of other individuals, especially peers (Guay, Boivin, & Hodges, 1999; Marsh & Hau, 2003; Nicholls, 1984). Adolescents in particular tend to judge themselves in comparison with classmates. Those who see themselves achieving at higher levels than others are apt to develop a more positive sense of self than those who consistently find themselves falling short. To help students develop a positive sense of self, then, we probably want to minimize competition and other situations in which they might compare themselves unfavorably with others.

Second, students’ self-perceptions are affected by how others behave toward them (Dweck, 2000; Harter, 1996). Adults and peers communicate their assessments of a person through a variety of behaviors. For example, parents and teachers foster more positive self-concepts when they convey high expectations for children’s performance and offer support and encouragement for the attainment of challenging goals (Eccles, Jacobs, Harold-Goldsmith, Jayaratne, & Yee, 1989; M. J. Harris & Rosenthal, 1985). Meanwhile, peers communicate information about children’s social and athletic competence, perhaps by seeking out a child’s companionship or ridiculing a child in front of others (Caldwell et al., 2004; Harter, 1999; Rudolph, Caldwell, & Conley, 2005).

As teachers, we cannot always control how other people treat our students, but we can make sure that we respond to students in ways that will boost their sense of self. Students who make errors or misbehave will usually capture our attention more readily than those who respond appropriately, so we must make a concerted effort to catch students in the act of doing something well and praise them accordingly. And in general, we must treat students with respect—for example, by asking about their personal views and opinions about academic subject matter, seeking their input in important classroom decisions, and communicating a genuine interest in their well-being.

At the same time, students can improve in areas of weakness only if we let them know when they are doing something ineffective or inappropriate. It is inevitable, then, that we occasionally give negative feedback. The trick is to give it while also communicating respect and affection for students as human beings. For example, when students make mistakes in their academic work, we can point out that errors are a natural part of the learning process and provide valuable information about how to improve in knowledge and skills (Clifford, 1990; Dweck, 2000). And when students behave inappropriately in the classroom, we can communicate that although we like them, we disapprove of their present actions, perhaps by saying, “You’re generally a very kind person, Gail, but you hurt Jenny’s feelings just now by making fun of her new outfit.”

Group Membership and Achievements  Membership in one or more groups (e.g., being in a popular group) can also impact students’ sense of self. If you think back to your own school years, perhaps you can recall taking pride in something your entire class accomplished, feeling good about a community service project completed through an extracurricular club, or reveling in the state championship earned by one of your school’s athletic teams. In general, students are more likely to have high self-esteem if they are members of successful groups (Harter, 1999; Wigfield, Eccles, & Pintrich, 1996).

School groups are not the only important groups in students’ lives. Some cultures encourage children to take pride in the accomplishments of their families as well as, or perhaps even instead of, their own accomplishments (Olneck, 1995; Pang, 1995). In addition, many children are both aware and proud of their ethnic group and willingly adopt some of the group’s behaviors. In other words, they have a strong ethnic identity (Phinney, 1993; Sheets & Hollins, 1999; Tatum, 1997).

Occasionally students’ ethnic identities can lead them to reject mainstream Western values. For instance, in some ethnic minority groups, peers may accuse high-achieving students of “acting White,” a label that essentially means “You’re not one of us” (Cross, Strauss, & Fhagen-Smith, 1999; Graham, 1997; Ogbu, 1992). For the most part, however, students with a strong and positive ethnic identity do well in school both academically and socially (Chavous et al., 2003; Spencer, Noll, Stoltzfus, & Harpalani, 2001). Furthermore, pride in one’s ethnic heritage can serve as an emotional buffer against the insults and discrimination that children and adolescents from minority groups sometimes encounter (Allen & Aber, 2006; Caldwell, Zimmerman, Bernat, Sellers, & Notaro, 2002; DuBois, Burk-Braxton, Swenson, Tevendale, & Hardesty, 2002). Consider this statement by Eva, an African American high school student, as an example:

I’m proud to be black and everything. But, um, I’m aware of, you know, racist acts and racist things that are happening in the world, but I use that as no excuse, you know. I feel as though I can succeed. . . . I just know that I’m not gonna let [racism] stop me. . . . Being black is good. I’m proud to be black but you also gotta face reality. And what’s going on, you know, black people are not really getting anywhere in life, but I know I will and I don’t know—I just know I will. (Way, 1998, p. 257)

Obviously, then, we can enhance students’ sense of self by focusing their attention on the accomplishments of the many groups of which they are members, including those that exist outside school walls.

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