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Creating a Psychology of Success in the Classroom:

Enhancing Academic Achievement by Systematically

Promoting Student Self-Esteem


by John V. Shindler, Ph. D.

Department of Curriculum and Instruction

California State University, Los Angeles



            Over four decades of research has shown a clear relationship between levels of self-esteem and academic achievement (Auer, 1992; Benham, 1993; Klein & Keller, 1990; Joseph, 1992;  Rennie, 1991; Solley & Stagner, 1956).   While this relationship may be well documented, it has not been shown to have widely or systematically informed practice.  I propose that examining self-esteem through the lens of two epistemological constructs can provide the classroom teacher with a set of powerful tools to promote self-esteem in his or her students.  First, I offer an opertationalized definition of self-esteem.  Utilizing three well established behavioral correlates, locus of control, belonging, and self-efficacy, the concept of self-esteem can be treated in a very practical manner.  Second, I propose that self-esteem be examined as a manufactured construct.  By this I mean that we as teachers manufacture the self-esteem of our students to a large extent by what we say, our daily practice, and the way we assess, instruct, and manage our classes.  In other words, every one of our acts as a teacher either promotes or detracts from our students’ self-esteem.


Competing Definitions of Self-Esteem

            There are several definitions of self-esteem in the literature and being used in our schools.  They appear to be describing the same thing, but often refer to very different realities.  For example, a student who reports feeling good about him or herself is said to have high self-esteem.  But is this expression of self-pride a true indication of his of her deep-seated unconscious beliefs, or is it masking a sense of inadequacy?  Likewise, when a student seems self-critical, is this an expression of  self-doubt or of high expectations of his or her performance?  Self-esteem or the lack of it can often be manifest in similar ways.

            Many criticize the encouragement of self-esteem as an academic goal (Baumeister, 1996; Lerner, 1996).  Such critiques are concerned that when self-esteem promotion is pursued in terms of making students “feel good” about themselves, this misapplication can lead to indiscriminate praise and the assumption that one should protect his or her students from failure.  These theorists suggest that students who feel good and are satisfied with their work do not necessarily achieve or develop habits that lead to success.  These criticisms are justified.  There is little evidence that students who are indiscriminately praised and protected from failure do in fact develop genuine self-esteem.

            I would like to make a distinction here between genuine self-esteem versus narcissism or self-aggrandizement.  Katz (1993) suggests that there is a clear difference between the two.  Genuine self-esteem has little to do with the feelings reported by students.  In fact, feelings have very little to do with self-esteem at all.  Self-esteem could best be described as a set of unconscious self-beliefs, formed over a lifetime, reflecting our perceptions of our abilities, our lovability, and how we attribute causality for the events in our lives.  These unconscious self-perceptions have been burned, often deeply, into our very being and therefore can only be altered by significant and repeated new experiences that recondition our hearts and minds.


A Three Factor Definition of Self-Esteem   

            While there may be no single irrefutable way to define self-esteem, I propose a definition derived from examining the fundamental traits with which it has been found to correlate.  These traits seem to fall into three categories: first, one’s locus of control; second, one’s sense of belonging and acceptance; and third, one’s sense of competence or self-efficacy.  These traits are interrelated, but can be examined as independent factors.

            An internal locus of control can be defined as the belief that one is the author of his or her own fate.  It is in contrast to an orientation that views cause as an external factor, in which life “happens to us.”  An internal locus of control comes from having a causal understanding of behavior and effect.  It is learned from freely making choices and taking responsibility for the consequences of those choices.  Through responsible action and accountability for those actions, the young person learns to attribute the cause of success or failure internally.  Consequently, he or she feels a sense of power and responsibility and is able learn from his of her life experience.

            Research has drawn a strong relationship between levels of student self-esteem and sense of an internal locus of control (Fitch, 1970; Hagborg, 1996; Klein & Keller, 1990; Sheridan, 1991).  Moreover, studies have shown repeatedly that students with higher degrees of internal locus of control demonstrate higher levels of achievement (Auer, 1992; Bar-Tal & Bar-Zohar, 1977, Tanksley, 1993; Wang & Stiles, 1976).  In fact, having high levels of internal locus of control has been shown to be an even more significant variable than intelligence or socioeconomic status (Haborg, 1996).

            A sense of belonging and acceptance is essential to a young person’s mental health and ability to trust and take risks (Inderbitzen & Clark, 1986).  Without the experience of acceptance and a feeling of belonging, the student is unable to love and accept him or herself.  In an environment where there is emotional support and a minimum of destructive criticism, students feel empowered to take risks, express themselves, and persist in the face of difficulty (Sarokon, 1986).

            Research has shown a relationship between a sense of belonging and acceptance and self-esteem (Davis & Peck, 1992; Katz, 1993; Washiawotok, 1993).  Again, building a sense of classroom belonging and the sense of self- and peer-acceptance has been shown to promote higher achievement (Dembrowsky, 1990; Rhoades & McCabe, 1992; Washiawotok, 1993).

            A sense of self-efficacy could be defined as one’s belief in his or her competence in a given domain.  We know that when we feel competent we try harder and more readily trust ourselves in the process.  Contrary to popular opinion, self-efficacy does not come from complements or being spared failure.  Self-efficacy comes from evidence.  Bandura (1977) speaks of self-efficacy as the degree of expectancy that one will successfully perform a desired task.  When a young person obtains sensory feedback that he or she succeeded in a given task or has demonstrated a talent, he or she will be confident in applying that ability in the future.  In contrast, the braggart or the show-off displays a lack of confidence in that he needs to prove to himself and others that there is reason to view his actions as acceptable or worthy, compensating for unconscious self-doubts.  In situations where a student feels a sense of confidence, his or her unconscious has concrete images that support that student’s ability and therefore he or she has no need to show-off.

            Research shows clearly that those with high levels of self-efficacy have correspondingly high degrees of self-esteem (Bandura, 1977; Clariana, 1993; Frazier & Paulson, 1992; Klien & Keller, 1990; Rennie, 1991; Tanksley, 1993).  Moreover, self-efficacy is related to attributions of an internal locus of control (Auer, 1990; Sheridan, 1991) and positively correlated with academic achievement (Auer, 1990; Bandura, 1977; Rennie, 1991).

            Operationalizing the idea of self-esteem defined by these three factors not only provides a practical definition, but also provides a means of distinguishing authentic self-esteem from narcissism.  In this paradigm, self-esteem is best determined within the domain of  behavior.  Teachers using these criteria can readily evaluate student levels of self-esteem. Additionally, this definition provides students with a useful tool to reflect on their own personal growth.


Promoting Self-Esteem as “Good Teaching”

            Given a definition of self-esteem that is based on locus of control, belonging and self-efficacy, practical applications become more effectively directed.  Instead of focusing on making students feel good, or making them feel that everything they do is great, teachers can systematically address these three needs within the student, focusing on long-term results.

            Promoting self-esteem could in many ways be defined as “good teaching.”  Good teachers learn that students who feel empowered and in control achieve more.  Good teachers learn that a class achieves more when a certain environment is created from purposeful classroom orchestration.  Good teachers realize that they can only be considered “good teachers” insofar as they find ways to get students to perform and care about quality.  In fact, it could be said that there is really no way to be a good teacher without promoting self-esteem, and if one is promoting self-esteem, it will lead to effective teaching practices.  Yet, too often many of our practices destroy the foundations of self-esteem without our knowing it.  These practices may be “working” on some level, but in essence they are working against our ability to teach and our students’ ability to achieve long-term growth.

            For the past few years I have given this three-factor definition to my instructional methods and classroom assessment methods students.  I ask them to come up with teacher behaviors that they think would promote each of these three factors.  It takes them a little while to adjust to thinking of teaching in these terms, but once they do they develop long lists of instructional, managerial and assessment practices that would by definition promote self-esteem.  As a result of assigning this exercise, I have discovered two things.  First, the lists from class to class are very similar, and the contents of these lists are most often consistent with what the research has suggested.  Second, the items the students generate are things that they have intuitively felt were effective.  They also reported being surprised having seen teachers in the field readily using pedagogy that they felt to be undermining the self-esteem of students, when it would seem to be no more trouble to use self-esteem promoting practices.  However, as with most ineffective pedagogy, these practices have long been practiced, and “work” to some degree in the short-term. I would have to agree with those who suggest the root of this seemingly institutionalized problem is that we as teachers do not examine our teaching within the framework of student development or needs, but instead with a mind set primarily concerned with our personal convenience or curricular demands.


Promoting Self-esteem Through Practice

            Given the research and theoretical support for approaching self-esteem development within the framework of a three-factor definition, the question then follows, “How can we instruct in a manner that promotes high levels of self-esteem?”  The following section offers a brief description of a few of the instructional strategies that have been shown to promote self-esteem in each of the three areas.

Locus of Control

            Instructional behaviors that promote an internal locus of control are rooted in developing a clear understanding of cause and effect.  Students need to see that their achievement is directly related to their behavior, especially their level of effort.  A requisite to seeing this relationship is providing students with choices and expecting accountability for those choices.  The following is a list of practices that have been found to promote students’ internal locus of control.

1.       Assess the process and other student-owned behaviors.  Students do not often have control over their ability, but they do have 100% control over the degree to which they apply themselves.  When we assess the process, we manufacture a success psychology.

2.       Give students voice and ownership of classroom rules and consequences. Then when students break rules, follow through with consistently applied consequences (while avoiding punishments).

3.       Create an environment free of the need for excuses. Begin by never asking for them.

4.       Teach problem-solving skills, and cultivate an expectancy that, in your class, students take responsibility for working through problems individually or in groups.

5.       Give choices, and then expect accountability for those choices.

6.       Use behavioral contracts with students who need an education in cause and effect.


Belonging and Acceptance

            The climate of the classroom can, on the one hand, create a sense of hostility and fear, or, on the other hand, a sense of comfort and support. “Gravity” leads students toward what could be characterized as a “Lord of the Flies” set of interaction patterns, characterized by the strong oppressing the weak and the popular oppressing the unpopular.  The climate we create is no accident.  It is a product of the behaviors that we accept and model, how we assess and manage, and our attitudes and values that inevitably creates the “socially constructed reality” in our classes.  The following is a list of practices that have been found to promote a sense of acceptance and belonging within a class.

1.       Use cooperative structures where interdependence and inter-reliance are unavoidable.

2.       Use assigned roles, assigned grouping, and rotation of grouping in your cooperative work.  Students need to work with and rely on each member of the class, not just their friends.

3.       Do not accept “put downs” in any form, especially negative self-talk.

4.       Demand and model positive interactions and human respect 100% of the time.

5.       Competition is great for games, but never force students to compete for “real” rewards (i.e., your love, grades, status, privileges, or any tangible rewards).

6.       Appreciate differences and recognize the unique gifts of each of your student.

7.       Be real, approachable, caring and a validator of feelings.

Sense of Self-Efficacy:

            A sense of self-efficacy comes from evidence that confirms that we have done something well.  We cannot fool our students’ senses. No matter how much praise or how many speeches telling them “they can do it,” their unconscious will believe only one source of information -- their experience.  The following is a list of some practices that promote a sense of competence and self-efficacy in students.

1.       Use a clear system of feedback providing “knowledge of their results.” Students need to know specifically what it is that they did well when they succeed and what they did incorrectly when they are struggling to succeed.

2.        Assess what is most important.  What you assess on a daily basis defines your classroom concept of “success.”  Complete the following sentence, “If I could only assess _________ , I would have a better class.”

3.       Assess using a clear criterion referenced system.  Give students clear targets (i.e., purposeful outcomes) to shoot for that stand still (i.e., rubrics) and relate to their progress.

4.       Have high expectations for your students and catch them being good.  Do not accept low self-estimations, especially in the areas of effort and process.  All students are capable of total effort, and total effort in the process leads to excellent product outcomes.

5.       Find ways to make the students the teacher (i.e., peer tutoring, writing partners, leadership of daily activities, jigsaw instruction, etc.).



            We create a “socially constructed reality” in our classes by what we do and say and what we instruct our students to do and say.  That reality has a profound influence on our students.  In the short-term, the fruits of creating a psychology of success in students are often difficult to see, but over time, practices that promote self- esteem will produce more successful, hard working, risk taking, ambitious, respectful, and self-directed students.  Whether our goal is educating mentally healthy and functional students or students who perform well academically, we cannot afford not to make self-esteem development a primary focus.  Talented people will not always succeed in life, but people with genuinely high self-esteems will find ways to.



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