Bullies, Mean Girls, Self-Esteem, and School Success

Avoid empty praise and move toward prescriptive encouragement.

Image by PIRO4D from Pixabay

Before you read further, choose from the four options below. What’s the relationship between self-esteem and school success? I define self-esteem as a person’s overall sense of personal value, self-worth.

Option 1: The correlation is positive. When one increases, so does the other. If Dawn feels better about herself, her school success climbs. Or, if her school success improves, her self-esteem rises.

Option 2: The correlation is negative. As one increases, the other decreases. If Dawn’s school success improves, she values herself less, and vice versa.

Option 3: No correlation exists. One has no relationship to the other.

Next, pick an adjective to modify the option you chose. If you think a correlation exists, is it weak, moderate, or strong?

Food for thought: If you chose option one, how do you account for so many contradictions? We all know students who like themselves a lot while earning low grades in school. They excel in sports, popularity, or other activities that lead to soaring self-praise despite grim school success. Bullies and budding criminals fall into this category. What about the mean girls? Some strut about with towering self-esteem while yielding low grades. On the other end of the spectrum, we also know those who feel unhappy with themselves, low self-esteem, but do well in school? They assess low self-worth because of poverty, perceived unattractiveness, ridicule, or victimization from bullying.

Option 2 seems nonexistent, although a corollary makes for good reading in literature. The stories that describe a student’s internal conflict with doing well in school. When working hard makes everyone else look bad, provoking attacks at recess.

I like Option 3. If there is a correlation; I believe it’s weak. If we rephrase the question by changing one word, the link becomes strong and positive. Self-efficacy, the belief in your ability to succeed, and school success match up well.

High self-efficacy prompts greater effort, which increases school success. The converse is not always true: school success doesn’t necessarily lead to increased self-efficacy. If you start with low efficacy, you may dismiss success as luck, claim the work was too easy, or offer other disqualifying criteria.

Self-efficacy and self-esteem correlate well. This explains why so many teachers mistakenly believe that self-esteem and school success show a strong relationship.

The nuances between esteem and efficacy lead to significant practical applications. We should avoid praise. “Good job.” Also, shun teacher approval as the criteria for success. “I like the way you did that so quickly.”

Instead, give prescriptive encouragement. “Your attention to detail helps you find interesting solutions.”

Describe what you see and what value it creates for the student. When you say, “I like the way you attend to details,” it encourages the student to please the teacher. Pleasing the teacher is an external reward. The prescriptive encouragement “attending to details helps you find interesting solutions triggers intrinsic motivation. That lasts forever. It empowers by making the student’s action resourceful.

Avoid empty praise and move toward prescriptive encouragement.

Michael Rousell PhD is the author of The Power of Surprise: How Your Brain Secretly Changes Your Beliefs. He studies life-changing events.




The Teachers on Fire Magazine features articles written by agents of growth and transformative change in K-12 education today. If you write about education, reach out to @TeachersOnFire to become a writer for this publication. Writers keep full ownership of content.

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Michael Rousell, PhD

Michael Rousell, PhD

Michael Rousell PhD is the author of The Power of Surprise: How Your Brain Secretly Changes Your Beliefs. He studies life-changing events.

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