Saving our future--the importance of self-esteem building in education.
Social Skills and Self-esteem in Adolescence
The development or underdevelopment of social skills in adolescent youth is especially crucial to their overall establishment of a healthy and socially functional personality—the ultimate goal of our educational system. In order for adolescents to form a healthy identity, and therefore a healthy self-concept, they need to be exposed to opportunities where they can socialize with their peers and experiment with different roles so that they can choose the roles that best express themselves. According to Erik Erikson’s (1902-1994) theory of human development consisting of eight stages, adolescence is a period in which humans begin to:
…seek to find out who they are, what they are all about, and where they are going in life. Adolescents are confronted with new roles and statuses—vocational and romantic…If the adolescent explores such roles in a healthy manner and arrives at a positive path to follow in life, then a positive identity will be achieved (Santrock, 52).
Because adolescence then is the marking point of identity formation, and because identity formation depends on “new roles and statuses” which inherently involve relationships with peers, then when a student does not have the opportunity to socialize with his/her peers (for whatever reasons), their identity is damaged, resulting in Erikson’s terms, “identity confusion” and low self-esteem.
According to Albert Bandura (2000, 2002), higher self-esteem directly correlates to how adolescents perform in context specific tasks which they believe are important. Within each domain of their life (i.e. family, school, etc.), adolescents judge their self-worth according to their achievement of certain goals, a social cognitive concept Bandura terms self-efficacy. In other words, “the emphasis on the importance of achievement in improving self-esteem has much in common with self-efficacy, which refers to individuals’ beliefs that they can master a situation and produce positive outcomes” (Santrock, 177). Therefore, since self-esteem directly relates to how confident an adolescent feels within the majority of their domains—domains consisting of either vocational, academic, social, romantic relationships—then an adolescent who feels lonesome in most of his/her domains, risks developing a lowered sense of self-efficacy, and therefore self-esteem.
Since within each domain, adolescents perform according to certain roles (i.e. student, girlfriend, friend, son, jock, nerd, etc.), their self-understanding correlates to each role. “Researchers have found that adolescents’ portraits of themselves can differ depending on whether they describe themselves when they are with their mother, father, close friend, romantic partner, or peer. They also can differ whether they describe themselves in the role of student, athlete, or employee (Santrock, 172). If they feel they cannot achieve the desirable characteristics of each role, then their self-efficacy and therefore self-esteem are somewhat damaged. Most of these roles are usually social roles, requiring the adolescent to react within a certain relationship. This way, their ability to create a better idea of themselves rests largely on their ability to communicate with their relevant counterparts in each relationship.
Since self-esteem and self-efficacy are largely dependent on how adolescents function with other adults, peers, or family members, it is especially important then to provide an in depth examination of adolescents who show no signs of having a healthy social group surrounding them, always wandering through their high school hallways alone and quietly. In order to do so, it is best to look at one such student and analyze his/her feelings about his/her physical appearance, personality, family, school, and friends—each category representing a different domain in the student’s life.
One such isolated student is Lenny, a student I had in my English class while I was student teaching. I never saw Lenny with any friends, and he was extremely withdrawn in settings requiring him to communicate with his peers, and often expressed feelings of self-loathing and no self-confidence. In the following pages, I will analyze Lenny’s behaviors and attitudes within different domains in his life (i.e. school, home, community, etc.) and how these attitudes show his lowered sense of self-efficacy and self-esteem which concurrently affect his academic and social achievement.
Lenny is a freshman in high school, although he is sixteen years old. He was held back two grades in elementary school. He is small in stature and very thin, is of Filipino descent, and is a late maturer. Despite the fact that he is two years older than most of his classmates, he looks very young and has not yet reached his fully matured voice and has sparse facial hair growth. Another one of Lenny’s interesting characteristics is that he has a speech impediment and rolls his r’s and has heavy l’s, which often sounds like a foreign accent even though he was born and raised in the United States.
According to a recent study, “physical appearance is an especially powerful contributor to self-esteem in adolescence” (Harter, 1999). In the United States, sixty-five percent of adolescents feel that their physical appearance is a main component of their self-confidence. Because Lenny is especially small, even though he is older than most of his classmates, he isolates himself from his peers. Additionally, because of his speech impediment, he feels that the way he talks segregates him from the other students. In our conversations, Lenny often brought up how he felt he was “too scrawny” and wore “baggy clothes” so that the other kids wouldn’t make fun of him, and how he was ashamed of talking in the class because of the way he rolls his r’s and emphasizes his l’s. Therefore, since the domain of physical appearance is an especially important contributor to adolescents’ ideas of self-worth, Lenny has already depicted signs of severe low self-esteem and has therefore ceased attempting to find any sort of kindred spirits for fear of being made fun of.
Lenny’s personality is often erratic and changes from one person to another, as well as from one domain to another. When I first met Lenny and began observing him, I only noticed that he was very quiet and almost always alone, which made me think he was shy and very introverted. But then, I noticed that although Lenny didn’t have many friends who were his age, he did hang out with adults, usually teachers, administrators, and counselors at the school. I was one of those teacher with whom he spent his lunch with at times. As time passed, Lenny’s behavior with me alone and with me in the classroom became dramatically different. Although in class, he still remained very quiet and reserved and often never spoke, at lunch time he was very loud, whined a lot, and immature for his age, and despite those qualities, still quite charming because of his naivette. He never ceased to complain about his sister and some other students, often criticizing their every action. Sometimes when I was busy with work, he would aggressively try to get my attention by throwing erasers or crumpled papers on my desk. It was quite an odd phenomenon and I often wondered why his personality was so different within these two different arenas, the formal classroom and the lunch room.
What caused this dramatic change in personality? It seems that most adolescents view adults as much more understanding than their peers, and so may feel more compelled to open up to them than to their peers. Also, since teachers, administrators, or counselors are not part of the clicks of high school and aren’t prone to judge and pigeon hole certain kids into categories such as nerds, jocks, gangsters, and popular, then Lenny didn’t have to fear my influence in those social groups in the school. Harter (1990, 1999) suggests that, “The correlation between peer approval and self-worth increases during adolescence. However, support from the general peer group (classmates, peers in organizations) is more strongly related to self-worth than is support from close friends” (Santrock, 176). Therefore, because Lenny has a fear of being made fun of and of being perceived as even more different than his peers, he decides to lock himself up in his cocoon so that his peers will have no other hard evidence to pigeon-hole him into any other sequestering categories.
Lenny seemed to talk a lot about his family life and the influence his parents have on his character. He often insinuated that they make him feel inadequate and sometimes even questioned if they really do love him. In an interview I had with him, he mentioned that his parents often put him down and even put down his character traits. For instance, they would ask him why he’s always says stupid things when he is just trying to joke around with them. They are very overprotecting and overly concerned with his academic achievement. During parent-teacher night, his mother came in requesting that I e-mail her all the students’ assignments and requirements. I told her that the students had an assignment sheet where they kept track of all that information and she could just check that. She responded that her son often isn’t very focused and doesn’t trust that he would write down all his assignments. Meanwhile, Lenny kept on peeking his head into the classroom and would not come in despite the fact that my other students came in with their parents. I could sense that he was extremely afraid of his parents and of what we might be saying about him.
A recent study done by Baldwin and Hoffman (2002) found that “as family cohesiveness increased, adolescents’ self-esteem increased over time. In this study, family cohesion was based on the amount of time the family spent together, the quality of their communication, and the extent to which the adolescent was involved with decision making” (Santrock, 175). Although Lenny spends most of his time at home with his parents and his sister, the “quality of their communication,” according to Lenny, is quite lacking. In the same interview, he said he feels he can’t talk to his parents at all because they always blame him for all his problems and concerns, being academic or social. Because of their skepticism in his abilities, they constantly put him down, causing him to retreat into himself and close any line of open communication. Therefore, he also does not take part in any decision making. Lenny’s parents are also very authoritarian, something that he believes stems from his Filipino background, and do not see any point in asking their children, not even his sister who is twenty five years old, for their opinion about any family matter, so Lenny doesn’t feel he has any control over his familial situation and therefore feels not as invested in the family. Since quality communication and involvement in decision making within the family domain are significant components of creating healthy self-esteem in adolescents, then Lenny does not have the necessary ingredients to form healthy family relationships in order to build self-efficacy or self confidence.
As I mentioned before, Lenny was often very quiet in the classroom. Since English is a discussion based curriculum for the most part, Lenny was struggling in this subject. This was due to the fact that Lenny did not participate in group discussions or projects for fear of being laughed at. He would just sit there and space out. As his teacher, there were many times that I saw his eyes drifting and his mind wandering, where he would sit there daydreaming and not doing his work. I would assign journals for the class to write and he would turn in one sentence while the rest of the class turned in a page. I would hold him during lunch and ask him why he hadn’t done the work, and he would mention that he was thinking of being in a burning space ship, creating a whole Star Trek scenario in his head. I wondered why he couldn’t concentrate on the school tasks and what was contributing to his lack of interest.
Lenny had always had trouble with his scholastic achievement. His mother had mentioned that although Lenny was a very good student in elementary school, that when he reached middle school, his grades began to drop drastically and he was held back a year in sixth grade. He was also held back a year in kindergarten, but after that he started performing quite well in school until middle school. Harter (1999) also lists scholastic competence as a significant domain that adolescents measure their self esteem against. In the United States, forty eight percent of adolescents judged their self worth according to their academic achievement, this domain coming second to physical appearance. Therefore, the fact that Lenny had been held back two years in school and was two years older than his classmates, must have affected his effort in the classroom. Since Lenny was often made fun of by his peers because he was sixteen and still a freshman, he obviously felt that he was not performing efficiently in this area, his self-efficacy being quite low within this domain, contributing to his low self-esteem.
As previously mentioned, Lenny had many problems finding a social group to belong to. He had only one friend with whom he only spent part of lunch with and never called or visited. The only other people he kept company with were teachers, administrators, and counselors. He believes he doesn’t belong to any social group in the school (i.e. popular, gifted, athletic, etc.) and often walks the hallways alone. He told me in his interview he gets picked on too much by students from different grade levels and is always shunned from any group he tries to enter, and so therefore has stopped trying.
Being socially accepted is a major issue in adolescence. As previously suggested, peer approval is a major component of high self esteem (Harter, 1990). Since Lenny doesn’t feel accepted in the classroom, in the hallways, or in the lunchroom, he does not have the support from his peers to overcome his own insecurities and form adequate self-worth. He cannot form healthy social relationships with his peers and therefore feels inadequate in his peer group—isolating himself from his peers which eventually lowers his self-esteem.
Although each domain that has been analyzed (physical appearance, personality, family, classroom behavior, and friendship) may all not be directly connected to forming social relationships, they all have some link to how an individual is viewed by others. Physical appearance and personality are two domains in which we as individuals compare ourselves to others and try to configure how people view us in order to form an opinion of our self-worth within that specific domain. If others think I’m beautiful, then I am, etc. Within each domain, Lenny felt that he inadequately fulfilled the requirements of being attractive, of being socially accepted, of being a part of a family, and therefore his self-esteem was damaged. He would offer some comments that were real indicators of his lack of self-worth (i.e. “I always say stupid things.” “No one wants to hear what I have to say.” “When I see a black cave, I see myself inside. Etc.).
How can we, as teachers raise these students’ self-esteem, since we are not a part of each of their domains? We can, within the classroom, a domain we share with these kids, increase positive behavioral indicators of self esteem. Some of these positive indicators are 1. Being able to give commands, 2. Being able to express opinions, 3. Working cooperatively within a group, and 4. Maintaining eye contact and facing others when speaking or being spoken to (Santrock, 174). These are behavioral indicators that we as teachers can teach to in our classrooms.