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).

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.