‘Healthy’ and ‘False’ Self-esteem in the Classroom

  • by Dr. Tim Mullen - Sat, 04/28/2018 - 23:18

The following is an excerpt from Dr. Mullen’s book.

To purchase the book, go to https://itunes.apple.com/us/book/stop-blaming-and-start-talking/id1298178115?mt=11

In the classroom, teachers generally see evidence of two forms of self-esteem: 1) healthy self-esteem, which positively influences self-motivation and achievement, and 2) abnormally deflated or inflated self-esteem.
Children with healthy self-esteem begin to differentiate between their importance and acceptability as people and their unique strengths and weaknesses. They do not feel diminished when they don’t know something and don’t overestimate their value when they do and others don’t. “Success” and “failure” in school are circumstances that signal that they have achieved mastery of a subject or haven’t quite yet. They work with parents and teachers to develop strategies for learning the things they don’t yet know— more review, previewing, fewer activities, whatever it takes.

Learned helplessness
Back in the late 1960s, as a psychology graduate student, Martin Seligman did an experiment in which dogs were placed in one side of two sided cages where they experienced a series of light shocks. In one cage, the door between the “shock” side and the “no-shock” sides was open. In the other, the door was closed.

Dogs in both “door open” and “door closed” cages initially scrambled around, looking for ways out of the condition, and eventually, the dogs in the “door open” situation learned to jump through to the other side to avoid the shock. Dogs in the “door closed” situation, however, eventually gave up trying and just lay down.

But that wasn’t the most shocking result. It was when Seligman opened the doors of the cages of the dogs previously denied access to the “no-shock” side of the cage before.
What happened? Absolutely nothing. They had “learned” that they were “helpless,” that they had no power to change what had happened to them. Although the solution to the problem was right there in front of them, the dogs no longer sought a way out.

When faced with a repeated label of failure, children with low self-esteem often give up trying in school. For them, they have not failed. They are failures, and the difference in impact to achievement is devastating. Without the experience of early academic success, which is the best motivator for learning and achievement, they’re forced to “defend” against the idea that they are not as smart as other students. To avoid the feeling, when they are confused or don’t understand something, they check out. It’s less painful to make an “F” for not turning in homework than to let into consciousness the albeit incorrect conclusion that they’re not liked or considered as important or valuable as other kids who know the answers.

Another form of entitlement
On the other end of that spectrum, the children with artificially inflated self-esteem are equally handicapped, because their self-esteem is tied to the fact that they’re “smart” or “talented” and the belief that it’s a fixed and immutable fact. These children don’t make the connection between effort and academic achievement. They often develop a sense of entitlement and depend on extrinsic rewards for motivation.

These are the children who grew up receiving praise and trophies for participating, no matter the quality of their participation. Many of these students expect teachers to give them good grades, study guides to memorize for the tests, and some reward for doing anything above or beyond minimal expectations in the class. I have actually been asked by some students what I was going to “give” them in order for them to do additional work on a research paper or simply asked them to help clean up after an activity. They are the students that argue, pout, or believe they deserve a better grade when they do not earn an “A” on a project or assignment.

About the time they get to me, in middle school, they begin to confront the reality that the reason they’re in school at all is that there is something they don’t know that we can teach them. Kids who have never faced dealing with the inevitable failures in life suffer blows to self-esteem that result in declining performance at school.