Personal Growth

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 operationalized 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 studentsí 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.

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 studentsí 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 studentsí 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 peop le with genuinely high self-esteems will find ways to.

Reference: Internet Auer 1992. Then Title: Instruction for self-esteem or - 57k -


For more information about research on self-esteem or the programs of the International Council for Self-Esteem, contact Bob Reasoner at


New Sourcebook on Self-Esteem Research

Self-Esteem: Issues and Answers--A Sourcebook of Current Perspectives

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The most comprehensive and authoritative book yet written as it includes the contributions of 81 different researchers in the field of self-esteem in an effort to provide a comprehensive picture of the current state of knowledge regarding the nature of self-esteem and its role in individual and interpersonal functioning. It should be required reading for anyone who wishes to become an authority on the subject. I'm sure it will be used in any college course on self-esteem

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