Self-concept and self-esteem: How do the different views of self

Consider the impact of self-concept development and self esteem on teaching
and learning.
Purkey (1988) argues that the theories of self-concept development started
with Rene Descartes and his idea, published in Principles of Philosophy (1644), that
if he doubted, he was thinking and if he was thinking, he must exist. A second
milestone was the work of Sigmund Freud. Although Freud did not explicitly mention
self-concept in his theories and proved to be more influential in the context of
counselling (Purkey, 1988), he provided a new understanding of internal mental
processes that informed the work of others in the field of child development (Keenan,
2002; Burns, 1982). The development of the self-concept and the enhancement of
self-esteem are now considered to be a major outcome of education (Fontana,
1995). Self-concept is seen as being a major determinant of learning and behaviour
(Burns, 1982), whilst Mosley points out that “research has constantly shown a direct
link between the enhancement of self-esteem and the rising of academic
achievement” (1993: p12).
For Burns, an understanding of self-concept
development and its relationship with self-esteem is essential for teachers “to
understand children, help some maintain and enhance positive views about
themselves, and help others to change their views” (1982: p31). Consequently, this
essay will consider the impact of self-concept development and its relationship with
self-esteem on teaching and learning. The first section will define the term ‘selfconcept’ and discuss the many diffuse theories relating to its development,
particularly those of James, Cooley, Mead, Erikson and Rogers. The second section
will look more closely at self-esteem, drawing on the author’s own experience to
discuss the effects of pupil self-concepts on learning and teaching.
Lawrence defines self-concept as “the sum total of an individual’s mental and
physical characteristics and his/her evaluation of them” (In Pollard, 2002: p102);
whilst Burns argues that self-concept is “composed of all the beliefs and evaluations
you have about yourself” (1982: p1). Lawrence (In Pollard, 2002) suggests that selfconcept can be divided into three areas of development: self-image, ideal self and
self-esteem, whilst Burns (1982) uses the terms ‘descriptive’ for self-image and
‘evaluative’ for self-esteem. Both Burns (1982) and Lawrence (ibid) agree that selfconcept not only determines who you are, but who you think you are, what you think
you are capable of becoming and what you think you can do. Most researchers
acknowledge that the development of self-concept is both social and environmental –
that it is developed through interaction with significant others and by the evaluation of
personal experiences (Burns, ibid; Keenan, 2002; Fontana, 1977). Burns (1982)
suggests that the four main theories dealing with the development of self-concept are
those of James, Cooley and Mead, Erikson and Rogers.
William James (1890) was the first psychologist to work on the development
of self-concept. Prior to that, it had mainly been a topic for philosophers (Burns,
1982; Lawrence, ibid).
James believed that newborn babies find the world a
“booming, buzzing confusion” (1890) and that in order for them to make sense of the
world around them, perceptual development was needed. James argued that the
‘self’ was made up of a subjective self and an objective self, or the ‘I’ and ‘Me’, where
‘I’ is a consciousness of existence and the ‘Me’ is the individual characteristics that
make us different from everybody else (James, 1890; Mussen et al, 1984). James
suggested that the objective self was made up four components: the spiritual self,
the material self, the social self and the bodily self (Burns, 1982).
acknowledged the criticism that it was implausible for the ‘Me’ to be separated from
the ‘I’ (Burns, 1982). As Burns points out, “while language allows us to categorize in
terms of knower and the known, they are […] discriminated aspects of the singularity
of experience” (1982: p15). In other words, we are simultaneously ‘I’ and ‘Me’. The
interaction between the ‘ideal self’ and reality is an important aspect of James’s work
(Burns, 1982). James argues that for each of our objective ‘selves’ we have an ‘ideal
self’ and that success or failure in achieving this ideal determines our level of selfesteem (Burns, 1982).
Failure to achieve our ‘ideal self’ will lead to one of three
positions: (1) a rationalization of why we didn’t achieve our ideal, (2) a lowering of
expectations or (3) taking other action (Burns, 1982). For James, our expectations
were personal and self-imposed and the achievement of our ‘ideal self’ always led to
higher self esteem (Burns, 1982), but this has been criticised for failing to take into
account the attitudes and opinions of others. As Burns suggests, “there are some
skills and jobs which society does not rate very highly, so to consider oneself as the
most competent dustman […] is unlikely to lead to high self-esteem (1982, p16).
The relationship between the individual, other people and society at large was
central to the work of G H Mead (1913) and C H Cooley, who became known as
‘symbolic integrationists’ (Pollard & Filer, 1996). Symbolic integrationists believe that
humans respond to the individual meanings that their environment has for them and
that these meanings are made through social interaction, further modified by
individual interpretation (Burns, 1982). Cooley argued that “self and society are twin
born […] and the notion of a separate and independent ego is an illusion” (1912, p5
cited in Burns, 1982: p17). In other words, an individual’s actions are modified by
society and vice-versa. Cooley’s ‘looking glass theory of self’ postulated that selfconcept is heavily influenced not only by the feedback an individual receives from
others, and particularly significant others, but by what that individual believes others
think of them (Lawrence, 2002; Burns, 1982). Mead agreed with James that the ‘self’
could be divided into ‘I’ and ‘Me’ (Fontana, 1995; Mead, 1913), but took a more
Vygotskian view about how self-concept developed (Pollard & Filer, ibid).
believed that the development of the ‘self’ was a social process in which an individual
learns the complex set of shared symbols that make up a culture (Burns, 1982;
Pollard & Filer, ibid). Through this, not only are “objects, actions and characteristics
defined, but the individual is also defined” (Burns, 1982: p18). Like Vygotsky, Mead
believed that language was an essential element in development and that it was a
precursor to self-awareness and action (Pollard & Filer, ibid). Although Mead saw
‘self’ as a simultaneous ‘Me’ and ‘I’, his definition differed from that of James in an
important way (Burns, 1982). Mead saw the ‘I’ as similar to Freud’s ‘Id’, impulsive
and undisciplined, whilst the ‘Me’ was the incorporated meanings and values of
others, similar to Freud’s ‘super-ego’ (Burns, 1982).
As Burns suggests, the “’I’
provides the propulsion; ‘Me’ provides direction” (1982, p18).
Erikson also drew upon Freud’s work and like Cooley and Mead, emphasized
the social and cultural factors of development (Keenan, 2002). Erikson, however, did
not like the terms ‘self-conceptualisation’, ‘self-image’ or ‘self-esteem’, preferring
instead to talk of ‘Identity’ (Burns, 1982; Crain, 1992). Erikson also differed to Mead
and Cooley in that he saw process of identity formation as the interaction between
three systems, the ‘somatic’ or biological process, the ‘ego’ or reasoning process and
the ‘societal’, the process of integration into society (Keenan, 2002). Erikson argued
that identity formation was a life long process that continued through old age
(Keenan, 2002), arguing, “identity is never established [and is not] static and
unchangeable” (1968: p24 cited in Burns, 1982: p19). Erikson proposed eight stages
of development that progressed in an orderly sequence.
At each stage, the
individual is faced with a unique crisis and it is how well the crisis is resolved that
determines the nature of further development (Keenan, 2002; Burns 1982; Crain,
Erikson defined his development stages and their challenges as: (1) Trust
vs. Mistrust (Birth to 1 Year) – Developing a sense of trust in caregivers, the
environment and one’s self; (2) Autonomy vs. Shame and Doubt (1 to 3 Years) –
Developing a sense of one’s autonomy and independence from the caregiver; (3)
Initiative vs. Guilt (3 to 6 Years) – Developing a sense of mastery over aspects of
one’s environment, coping with challenges and assumption of increasing
responsibility; (4) Industry vs. Inferiority (6 to Adolescence) – Mastering intellectual
and social challenges; (5) Identity vs. Identity Diffusion (Adolescence) – Developing
self identity or a knowledge of what kind of person you are; (6) Intimacy vs. Isolation
(20 to 40 Years) – Developing stable and intimate relationships with another person;
(7) Generativity vs. Stagnation (40 to 60 Years) – Creating something (e.g. children
or something more abstract) to avoid feelings of stagnation; (8) Integrity vs. Despair
(Old Age) – Evaluating one’s life by looking back (Keenan, 2002).
negotiating the challenge at a particular stage would lead to high self esteem, or what
Unsuccessfully resolving the crisis would not only lead to an unhealthy development
outcome and low self-esteem, but also have implications for the future because “at
each stage of development, the accomplishments from the previous stage serve as
resources to be applied towards mastering the present crisis” (Keenan, 2002: p22).
White (1960, in Crain, 1992) criticized Erikson for trying too hard to link aspects of
Freud’s ego development into his theories, whilst Miller described Erikson’s theory as
a “series of loosely connected ideas lacking systematic quality, rather than a
coherent theory of development” (1993, in Keenan, 2002: p23). Keenan (2002) also
points out that Erikson’s does not explain the mechanism by which an individual
moves between each stage and that it is impossible to empirically test his theories.
Despite these criticisms, Erikson’s theories continue to be important, particularly in
education psychology, where his work gives us “a relatively clear picture of what
mature individuals are like” (Fontana, 1995: p273).
Carl Rogers and George Kelly’s view of self-concept development is usually
described as ‘humanistic’ or ‘phenomenological’ (Burns, 1982), because it is
concerned with the individual’s personal, subjective, view of the world (Fontana,
1995). This contrasts with Erikson, Mead and Cooley, who attempted to understand
man “through the eyes of an observer” (Burns, 1982: p19). In other words, Rogers
and Kelly wanted to find out how individuals viewed themselves and to discover how
and why their needs, feelings, values, beliefs and perceptions make them behave in
the way they do (Burns, 1982). Rogers argues that self-concept development takes
place through the interaction between two concepts: the ‘organism’ and the ‘self’
(Fontana, 1995). The ‘organism’ is defined as the whole person and includes our
survival instinct, feelings, emotions, social needs and most importantly, our need to
be accepted and approved by others (Fontana, 1995). If the organism’s needs are
met, then the individual develops a ‘self’ in congruence with the ‘organism’. If the
organism’s needs are not met, there is an incongruence that can lead to inner
conflict, low self-esteem and feelings of rejection (Fontana, 1995). Although Rogers
emphasizes the conflict between the ‘organism’ and the ‘self’ as the source of selfconcept, he does acknowledge the concept of an ‘ideal self’ (Burns, 1982), which
Fontana describes as “the picture we carry within us of the kind of person we would
like to be” (1995: p256). Rogers accepted that a gap or conflict between our ‘ideal
self’ and reality would also cause an incongruence and inner conflict (Fontana, 1995;
Burns, 1982). Rogers’s theories have been criticised for excluding critical variables
from investigation, in particular his emphasising of ‘distortion’ over ‘denial’ as the way
individuals cope with a state of incongruity (Burns, 1982).
Rogers argues that
‘distortion’ allows experiences to be made consistent with the individual’s selfconcept, whilst ‘denial’ simply removes the experience and renders it unsymbolised
(Burns, 1982).
As Burns asks, “If denial leaves an experience completely
unsymbolised, how can a phenomenological approach ever deal with such a
process?” (1982: p22). George Kelly believed that humans are innately curious and
make sense of the world by “experimenting, constructing hypotheses about reality,
predicting the future, working out strategies and procedures” (Fontana, 1995: p258).
The result of this exploration is that we have ‘personal constructs’ about every part of
our lives, including ourselves, and that we interpret and respond to reality through
these constructs (Fontana, 1995).
Kelly’s theories are particularly important for
educationalists because they suggest that a child’s constructs about school will
influence their educational progress (Fontana, 1995; 1977). Fontana (1995) argues
that children are more likely to achieve if they enjoy the experience of school, and
that they will enjoy school only if they have created positive constructs about school.
The theories of Mead, Cooley, Erikson, Rogers and Kelly have attempted to
show how we build up knowledge about ourselves. Whilst they may disagree on the
exact nature of self-concept, the terminology or process, they all agree on “how
dependent this knowledge is upon what other people tell us about ourselves”
(Fontana, 1995: p263), both directly and indirectly. They also agree that failure to
achieve goals or overcome challenges, or a discrepancy between our ‘ideal-self’ and
reality can cause low self-esteem (Fontana, 1995; 1977; Smith & Cowie, 1991).
Lawrence defines self-esteem as “the individual’s evaluation between self-image and
ideal self” (ibid: p103), whilst Fontana describes it as “concerned with the value we
place upon ourselves; of all areas of self-concept it is one of the most important”
(1995: p262). Coopersmith (1968, cited in Fontana, 1995) and Bee (1989, cited in
Fontana, 1995) suggested that children with high self-esteem performed better
academically than children with low self-esteem. They set themselves higher goals,
were less deterred by failure and were realistic about their own abilities. They also
tended to participate in activities more, were able to express feelings and emotions
and deal with criticism. Children with low self-esteem on the other hand, tended to
play safe by setting easily achievable goals, were easily upset by criticism and were
anxious for approval (Coopersmith, 1968; Bee, 1989, ibid).
This suggests that a
knowledge of self-concept development is important for teachers, not only because it
can help them better understand the children they are teaching, but because it can
give them “some practical guidance on how they can best influence [their]
development for good” (Fontana, 1995: p265). The development of self-concept and
high self-esteem are seen as essential for learning (Huitt, 2004) and this idea is
reflected in both the National Curriculum for England (DfEE, 1999) and the Every
Child Matters agenda (DfES, 2005).
As Canfield & Wells point out, “research
literature is filled with reports indicating that cognitive learning increases when selfconcept increases” (1976: p7).
Lawrence argues, “for the child of school age […]
self-esteem continues to be affected mainly by the significant people in the life of the
student, usually parents, teachers and peers” (ibid: p104). Consequently, teachers,
like parents, need to provide a positive environment for the children in their care,
suggesting that teachers should listen to and value the children in their class,
consider them capable of doing the work set, be consistent, set realistic targets, give
encouragement and provide opportunities for them to take responsibility and be
independent (Fontana, 1995; Canfield & Wells, 1976). The relationship between the
child and teacher, however important, is not the only influence on a child’s selfesteem at school. Their home environment, including their relationship with parents,
their socio-economic background, gender, physical development, and peer
relationships are significant influences on self-esteem (Fontana, 1995; Mussen et al,
The school in which the author teaches is in a socially deprived part of
Reading. Research suggests that children from poor socio-economic backgrounds
generally have a lower self-esteem than children from environments higher on the
socio-economic scale (Fontana, 1995; Mussen et al, 1984). Fontana argues that this
is not surprising because they “have constant reminders of their supposed ‘inferiority’
in the form of dilapidated environments, limited facilities [and] older school buildings”
(1995: p266). The author’s class of 28 children has an equal split of boys and girls.
Fontana (1995) argues that girls generally have lower self-esteem than boys and
points to evidence that showed girls deliberately depressed their performances in
problem solving tasks when paired with boys. This, Fontana (1995) suggests, is due
to cultural factors such as the status of women in society. This does not seem to be
true of the author’s class where the girls are generally much more self-assured and
able to work effectively with whoever they are paired. It is the boys that often refuse
to work with the girls, try to avoid answering questions and distract others. Kindlon
and Thompson (2000) support this view, arguing that the Primary School is largely a
female environment where a boy’s more physical response to things, particularly
when their feelings outstrip their language skills, is often seen as bad behaviour.
Where the girls seem to be less assured than the boys is in their peer relationships,
which is a key area of self-concept development (Keenan, 2002; Thompson &
O’Neill, 2001). The girls’ friendship groups change regularly, with ‘in’ crowds and
interests changing almost daily. It is also noticeable how unpleasant girls can be to
each other through social exclusion and name-calling. The boys, by contrast, seem
to have a fairly set ‘group’ that is based around playground football. Arguments and
‘fallings out’ are usually short lived, although they sometimes involve physical
violence. This would seem to suggest that for girls in Primary School, friendships
have a significant effect on self-esteem. As Simmons puts it, “your friends know you
and how to hurt you. They know what your real weaknesses are. They know exactly
what to do to destroy someone’s self worth” (2002: p43).
Peer relationships within
the class and ‘social status’ also seem to be affected by physical development. This
view is supported by Thompson & O’Neill (2001) who argue that boys who mature
early are more likely to be athletes and school leaders, with associated high selfesteem whereas girls who physically mature early are more likely to be teased and
have lower self-esteem. Children, it seems, face twin challenges at primary school –
“academic competency and adequacy in social relationships” (Burns, 1982: p3) - and
this is reflected in Erikson’s 4th Stage of Development: Industry vs. Inferiority (Burns,
It is against this background that teachers try to help children form positive
concepts about school and enhance the children’s self-esteem, with the hope that it
will also improve their learning. The author tries to employ what Smith & Cowie
(1991) describe as a ‘democratic’ teaching style.
This style of teaching is
characterised by clear aims and objectives, which are discussed with the children,
the involvement of the class in decision-making, choice and a high level of
involvement in tasks. The teacher acts as a facilitator of discussion rather than the
director (Smith & Cowie, 1991). Research by Lewin et al (1939, cited in Smith &
Cowie, 1991) suggested that this style of teaching could produce high levels of
satisfaction and motivation within the class and less hostility between the children.
Although productivity was often lower than with a more authoritarian teaching style,
the quality of work was better. However, as Bennet (1976, cited in Smith & Cowie,
1991) points out, it is essential for the teacher to give direction and support because
insecure children found it harder to cope academically with the emphasis on selfdirected learning and autonomy. A ‘democratic’ teaching style, where children have
control over their environment and the work they are doing is relevant to them, can
help to give children positive experiences of school, which could also improve their
own self-concepts (Fontana, 1995). Perhaps more important than the teaching style
is the way in which the teacher interacts with children or the child-teacher
relationship. Baker-Lunn (1970, cited in Smith & Cowie, 1991) and Ferri (1972, cited
in Smith & Cowie, 1991) found a strong relationship between self-concept, teacher
judgements and low self-esteem.
The author tries to value children by knowing
something about them (e.g. their hobby), by listening to them, by being honest with
them, and by being consistent and fair, particularly when dealing with bad behaviour.
The author also tries to have a ‘can do’ attitude towards both behaviour and
academic work, believing that the children will be successful in what they are doing.
In reality, it is not always possible to act this way all the time. Time constraints, the
number of children and a long, tiring week sometimes mean that teachers do not live
up to the ideals. However, doing so can make a difference to a child’s self-esteem.
If a teacher believes in a child, they are more likely to behave like a successful pupil,
but children that are judged unfavourably are more likely to have a low opinion of
their ability and misbehave (Smith & Cowie, 1991). However, as Fontana (1995)
argues, teachers should not over exaggerate a child’s abilities or give false praise.
Nor should they avoid criticising or challenging a child. Instead, teachers should do
things in such a way that self-concept and self-esteem is protected (Fontana, 1995).
The author’s class is the most able in terms of literacy ability. Within the class
itself, the children are grouped, in line with the school’s policy, for Literacy and
Numeracy. For all other lessons, the children work in mixed ability groups, either
across the class or across the year group. Despite the author’s attempts to obscure
the ability groupings within the class with neutral names and the teaching staff not
using terms such as ‘top group’, the children quickly understood where they were,
academically, both within the year group and the class. Hargreaves (1967, cited in
Fontana, 1977) and Lacey (1970, cited in Fontana, 1977) argue that grouping makes
a difference to self-concept because being in the ‘top group’ is seen as being
accepted by the school, whereas being in the ‘bottom group’ is seen as being
rejected by it. If children are to be separated by ability, Fontana argues, it “should be
done in a way which protects the self-esteem of the less able as well as of the more
able” (1977: p42). This view is particularly important, as some of the children in the
school seem to deal with their status as ‘bottom group’ or ‘not academic’ by
developing an alternative set of values that stress aggressiveness or ‘acting up’. In
some cases more academic children are teased and called names for being
successful in school. Canfield & Wells (1976) suggest that children do this not only
to avoid failure, but also to be ‘successful’ in their own terms. In other words they
will, like Rogers suggests, distort their experiences to ensure that it is consistent with
their self-concept (Burns, 1982). It is also the group of children in the middle – those
that identify with neither group – that can suffer. As the teacher deals with the high
achievers and manages the behaviour of others, these children can often be
withdrawn and overlooked (Smith & Cowie, 1991).
Another way in which the teacher can help children build their self-concept
and enhance their self-esteem is by providing opportunities for them to experience
success (Fontana, 1995; Burns, 1982). The author does this through differentiated
and achievable tasks, questioning and by providing additional support. As Canfield &
Wells suggest, in any potential learning situation, the student is risking “error,
judgement, disapproval, censure, rejection, and […] even punishment” (1976: p7). If
they are successful they are likely to take a risk again, if they are unsuccessful, they
are likely to be reluctant to try in the future.
A good example is Numeracy. In the
author’s class, the children are encouraged to have a go at the work on whiteboards
before committing it to paper. This allows them to try things out, make mistakes and
ask for help with the knowledge that the work won’t be marked.
Through PSHE lessons, the author tries to provide opportunities for the
children to express their feelings about their work, about the class environment and
to improve social skills. There is an emphasis on positive reinforcement, where each
child’s strengths are celebrated. This is underpinned by a ‘Star of the Week’ system
where children are asked to catch one of their number doing something positive and
to record it on the board, ‘sticker’ reward systems and celebrations of children’s work
on display boards and at ‘sharing assemblies’. Children are praised publicly, but
disciplined privately. The school’s behaviour management policy calls for the teacher
to find ways for a child to ‘save face’ and to be part of the solution to any problems.
The promotion of a positive environment where we can feel good about each other
and ourselves is a key aim.
There are some criticisms to this approach, however.
Mussen et al question its academic purpose, arguing that “simply teaching [children]
to feel good about themselves might reduce some anxiety about failure […] but it is
not a very powerful way to change the academic performance” (1984: p358), whilst
Burns points out that “there is no action that a teacher can take that a child with a
negative self concept cannot interpret in a negative way” (1982: p14). Although the
author recognises that some children do seem to disbelieve anything positive said to
them, the purpose of PSHE is to help such children develop an ‘emotional
intelligence’ that would allow them to look more positively at themselves, a view
shared by Daniel Goleman (1996). And surely, creating a positive environment is
preferable to the alternative.
The development of self-concept and the building of self-esteem are
considered to be essential to academic success (Fontana, 1995). Consequently, the
understanding of self-concept development and its relationship with self-esteem is
essential for teachers “to understand children, help some maintain and enhance
positive views about themselves, and help others to change their views” (Burns,
1982: p31).
The work of James, Cooley, Mead, Erikson, Rogers and Kelly has
established that the feedback we get about ourselves directly and indirectly from
others, failure to achieve goals or overcome challenges are the key influences on
self-concept development (Fontana, 1995). Influences on self-esteem include socioeconomic background, gender, physical development and perhaps most importantly,
the relationships we have with significant others (Mussen et al, 1984). It is against
this background that teachers try to create an environment and to provide
experiences that help children build positive concepts about school, learning and
themselves; a task that Weare (2004) recognises is not an easy task.
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