If sources are to be trusted, there is a mental health crisis in our schools at present. I’m not sure of how accurate these claims are or if we are indeed witnessing the ‘emotionalisation’ of education. Nick Haslam, a psychologist at the University of Melbourne does suggest that psychological concepts are being expanded so that they encompass broader areas; certain behaviours are becoming ‘pathologised’: Fear of maths becomes ‘math anxiety’ and fear of taking tests becomes ‘test anxiety’, while the NUS has banned clapping in an attempt to prevent trauma (clapping anxiety?). Of course, such anxieties are real to the individual and can be reduced through support, but whether such ‘concept creep’ is desirable is yet to be seen.
There also exists the misguided notion that raising self-esteem in young people can somehow protect them from further psychological distress and raise academic attainment. But high self-esteem can have a dark side. Roy Baumeister found that the most aggressive people tend towards high levels of self-esteem, suggesting that violence becomes more likely when other people and situations contradict a persons highly favourable view of themselves. Very high levels of self-esteem might also lead to arrogance and fragile self-concept. This results in such individuals being easily threatened and more likely to use violence in order to protect their fragile and inflated sense of self-worth. People high in self-esteem often have a mistaken impression of themselves and are more likely to claim to be more likeable and attractive, to have better relationships and to make better impressions on people than those with low self-esteem. Objective measures however, appear to cast doubt on these beliefs, leading Baumeister to conclude that ‘narcissists can be charming as first, but tend to alienate others eventually’.
There are certainly benefits to having high levels of self-esteem. Self-esteem is strongly correlated with happiness, although without a clearly established causation. What this means is that there is no way to confirm that the high levels of self-esteem cause people to be happier. It could be that happy people develop higher levels of self-esteem or that other factors indirectly lead to higher levels of happiness. It is clear, however, that low self-esteem is related to depression and stress, but the direction remains unclear. High levels of self-esteem have also been shown to foster experimentation among children, leading to an increase in risky behaviours such as smoking, drinking, drug taking and underage sex. However, high self-esteem does reduce the risk of bulimia in females.
Self-esteem doesn’t impact academic performance.
While some studies have identified a link between high self-esteem and academic attainment, correlations have been modest at best. High self-esteem, therefore, appears to have little impact on academic outcomes but findings do suggest that high levels of self-esteem emerge from good school performance. Furthermore, efforts to boost the self-esteem of school pupils have not resulted in improvements in academic performance and, in some cases, have been found to be counterproductive. Similar results have been found in adults, in that job performance is sometimes related to self-esteem but such correlations vary widely and, again, direction of causality hasn’t been reliably established. Certainly, high levels of occupational success may boost self-esteem.
It would appear, therefore, that while self-esteem is related to some positive outcomes, there is little to suggest that students with high self-esteem do any better academically than those with low self-esteem. This is not to say that schools should abandon such notions, but that interventions should be directed towards well-being rather than that formal academic outcomes. Harter suggests that scholastic competence can be seen as a specific type of self-esteem that might be better placed as a means of investigating the role of self-theories on academic outcomes. A more developed concept similar to that proposed by Harter is that of ‘academic self-concept’, of which I have written previously.