What is Self-Esteem and Self-Efficacy

MCDS in Action is a blog by Head of School Ben Hebebrand. All blog entries will offer commentary and insight on classroom and community practices at MCDS.

IMG_2456_300pxLast week, I stopped by the first Parent Guild meeting of the year on Wednesday, September 14. This was a great MCDS moment in action. The focus was on fostering our children’s independence. Following a time period of about 40 years of the so-called “Self-Esteem Movement” that spawned phenomenons such as helicopter parents (hovering over their kids to ensure their self-esteem remains intact) or bulldozer parents (removing any hindrances or unpleasantries for their kids), I believe that over the past five to ten years we have seen more and more attention and scholarly research given to a) the ill effects of well-intentioned protection of a child’s self-esteem; and b) an increasingly active shift to abandon self-esteem in favor of self-efficacy.

What is Self-Esteem and Self-Efficacy

Self-esteem became a buzzword of increasing magnitude beginning in 1969 when Nathaniel Brandon wrote a book entitled The Psychology of Self-Esteem. “There is no value-judgment more important to man—no factor more decisive in his psychological development and motivation—than the estimate he passes on himself,” Brandon wrote. “The nature of his self-evaluation has profound effects on a man’s thinking process, emotions, desires, values, and goals. It is the single most significant key to his behavior.” In short, self-esteem, as Wikipedia defines it, “reflects a person’s overall subjective emotional evaluation of his or her own worth.”

Following the publication of this book, many well-intentioned parents and educators set out to bestow confidence upon children. Losing and failing were not included in this endeavor. As a result, games were invented with no winners and losers (they were called “new games”) or every child was awarded a trophy.

Self-efficacy, on the other hand, refers to the “extent or strength of one’s belief in one’s own ability to complete tasks and reach goals,” as Wikipedia defines it. All of us will recognize self-efficacy in our pursuit of goals such as a diet or workout regimen.

While both terms certainly offer similarities, the key difference is that self-esteem was thought to be an attribute that could be given or “gifted” to kids, while self-efficacy is actively achieved by kids. It is not “gifted,” but rather “self-made.” Neither a workout regimen nor a diet can be credited to anyone but the person engaging in that particular pursuit.

What to Do, According to MCDS Faculty?

As discussed in the Parent Guild meeting, fostering a sense of independence in our kids is important. Our kids need to learn to do things by themselves. In a survey of MCDS teachers administered by Parent Guild President Gwen Bosben, all lower school teachers cited children “walking themselves to class” as a goal. “Packing one’s own bag” showed up in second grade; “Being responsible for filling out one’s own assignment notebook without a teacher checking it,” came up in third grade. “Taking responsibility for not completing assignments or having tests signed (without blaming the parents)” was a fourth-grade suggestion. Middle school suggestions included, “Getting ready for the day without verbal cues from parents,” while “setting and sticking to schedules” emerged at the high school level. These are recommendations by MCDS faculty as to how to empower your kids to be independent and get out of their way in terms of building their self-efficacy.

Self-efficacy is based on a process and not a result

In addition to preventing failure and difficulties for the sake of preserving a kid’s self esteem, it is my opinion that an increasingly competitive landscape in school and family settings has added this layer of “must have perfection” or “must have straight A’s” or “must be on a soccer championship team” to a child’s experience. Unfortunately, this high-stakes “must get into a very selective college” syndrome has also led some parents to “hover,” signaling to their children that only results that matter.

With that in mind, I cannot recommend enough that as parents and educators we agree that the process of learning (how well am I paying attention in class, what kind of notes am I taking, how much effort do I invest in homework, how organized I am in preparing for a test) is as important as the result. I would make the case that the process is where the learning occurs, and as such matters more than the result. Avoid saying “I am so proud of you for scoring that goal or getting that A+”, but transform that praise into “You must be so proud of yourself for having worked so hard to achieve that result.”

Most importantly, it is in the process where and when kids construct self-efficacy. The process most often is not a perfect linear experience; the ups and downs, the trials and errors are incredibly important to becoming a healthy adult who will have the confidence, independence, and strength to lead a productive and meaningful life.

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