Sunday, May 23, 2010

An Educational Perspective On Self-Esteem

I'm found this and was reminded of an old project a few of us undertook:

An Educational Perspective On Self-Esteem by Voon Shi Jing

Central to most definitions of self-esteem is a person’s positive or negative evaluation of himself or herself. It is a die-hard habit of mine to focus on the negative. Contrary to what some might think, I did not have an unhappy childhood. Fortunately, I was gifted with an extremely effective self-esteem therapist. Not just one, but in fact a host of them for eleven years. Growing up, my therapists were the children my mother teaches at her kindergarten. Teaching them has taught me a lot about how one should look at life. Whenever I wake up on the wrong side of bed or have an argument with my boyfriend, going to the kindergarten never fails to cheer me up and put me back on the right track. Their happy faces and pure thoughts humble me.

As an early childhood education major, my studies at university are proving true in relation to the experiences I have had with the children and myself. Academically, self-esteem covers five domains: scholastic competence, social acceptance, athletic competence, physical appearance, and behavioural conduct. At the ripe old age of 21, I still experience the need to evaluate myself from these angles.

In 1922, social scientist Charles Cooley wrote that

Each to each a looking glass
Reflects the other that doth pass.


His explanation: “As we see our face, figure, and dress in the glass [or mirror], and are interested in them because they are ours… so in imagination we perceive in another’s mind some thought of our appearance, manners, aims, deeds, character, friends and so on and are variously affected by it” (p. 184). Cooley assumed that other people are the mirrors in which we see ourselves. Our thoughts about ourselves are affected by how others react to us. When I was younger, I evaluated myself as I thought other people evaluated me. As the looking-glass metaphor implies, I perceived my social acceptance was related to my popularity. I slowly learnt that it was not entirely true. Being a new kid on the block was a ‘cool’ thing. People want to know you more and hence you would have more friends. I was popular in primary school and I thought it was because of that that I had lots of friends. I assumed that my high scores and good rapport with the teachers had a lot to do with my popularity. I later found out that I was popular for other reasons – not so good reasons. Unknown to myself, I was a show-off, and a really big one at that. And living in Seri Kembangan (which made me notoriously famous in both primary and high school for being late for classes) pushed me even further up the ‘popularity’ ladder. I was considered an outcast as everyone else lived in high-class Taman Desa while I was from a village outside Kuala Lumpur.

The looking-glass metaphor suggests that our opinions of ourselves are influenced by the opinions of those around. From a teacher’s perspective, feedback students receive regarding academic achievement should directly affect their self-evaluations, and vice versa. This I have found to be true. Not only through my own experience but also from what I have observed in the children I have shared my life with throughout the years. Positive remarks and words or encouragement motivate children to improve performance. Good performance in turn, lifts the spirits. We have all experienced the adrenaline rush after acing an exam, or winning a competition.

A close parent-child relationship shapes how parents interact with their children and well, parent. This influences the overall well-being of the children. Attachment theorists have proposed that the security of young children’s attachments to their parents affects their general self-esteem. This implies that young children do form some idea of their overall worth. Children who are more securely attached to their parents have higher self-esteem. In other words, children who had learnt to trust in their parents’ acceptance and responsiveness had also learnt to value themselves.

Parents’ behaviour is likely to have strong effects on children’s general self-esteem. Parents of children with higher self-esteem are more affectionate and more involved with their children. These parents make decisions democratically, thus showing their respect for their children’s views. They tend to avoid physical punishment and to rely on reasoning with their children. By doing so, parents show how much they value their children and respect their judgment. The parents of children with high self-esteem are also strict. They set rules for their children’s behaviour and enforce them consistently. Such strictness probably helps develop self-control. In addition, these children will probably learn socially accepted behaviour. By contrast, children with permissive parents probably show “out-of-control” behaviour that is disapproved of, leading to low self-esteem.

When parents provide such a “looking glass” for their children, the children have high self-esteem. In a looking glass, children can see their vices as clearly as their virtues. They learn to look at things from different perspectives, which explains why children with an advanced theory of mind would have high self-esteem. They are able to see the goodness and badness in themselves and are willing to overcome their weaknesses. With this ability, they are able to understand how other people feel and think in different situations hence explaining why children with high self-esteem would have more friends and are able to cope under stressed environments.

Generally, self-esteem shows a significant degree of continuity between childhood and adolescence. Children with low self-esteem would most likely continue to be an adolescent with low self-esteem. The same would be for children with high self-esteem. However, self-esteem can change dramatically over a period of two or three years. This is contrary to the widespread assumption that self-esteem develops gradually. I did not realize this until very much later on. Self-esteem develops quickly during elementary school, as it is the time when children are developing their own personality in accordance to their peers’. I had very high self-esteem in elementary school despite my wrongly acquired popularity. My report card would explain why. I was the top student in school, standing at first, second or third every year for 6 years. I was a school prefect and I was every teacher’s pet. However, as rapidly as I gained my good sense of self, I lost it just as easily if not quicker. This is a normal progression from elementary to middle or high school. I had a very low sense of self-worth in Forms 1 through to 3 as I was not performing as well academically and I felt threatened by people from other schools. Yes, all it took for me to switch from high to low self- esteem was the thought of me not being able to be ‘popular’. It sounds naïve and self-engrossed but there are many teenagers around the world who suffer the same fate. If it were not for my childhood friends, I would have drowned in the sea of self-pity and depression. My parents were my pillars of strength, especially my father who until today is my best friend.

Parents play a vital role in facilitating the growth of positive self-esteem. It is never too early to start teaching a child that he or she matters, or how to socialize with others in a way that is comfortable. The ability of a child to interact well with others is taught from the home. The very self-esteem of the man or woman the child will be depends on it.

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