Getting Down on Self-Esteem

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When the Teen Outreach Program (TOP) in Oklahoma City held a career day a couple of years ago, one 17-year-old girl stood out. Asked what careers interested her, she could think of only one line of work: “drug dealer.”

As youth workers got to know her, they saw that she’d need lots of attention to avoid the one job she thought she was cut out for. Twenty years ago, that attention probably would have included lessons to build her self-esteem, pumping her up with messages that she was a good person, that she had talents and that people loved her.

This girl didn’t get self-esteem lessons. Instead, TOP got her involved in planning and carrying out community service. It sent accomplished people from the community to speak with her and her fellow TOP members about their paths to success. It connected her with mentors who helped her develop a sense of effectiveness at various tasks.

Today she’s in her second semester at a community college.

She benefited from a fundamental change in youth programs, which have shifted from straight-on efforts to build youths’ self-esteem to something more complicated and, according to the research, more effective.

“Twenty years ago, we thought we could just go build somebody’s self-esteem,” says Sharon Rodine, youth initiative director at the Oklahoma Institute for Child Advocacy, which coordinates TOP in Oklahoma City. The former director of 4-H and YWCA programs recalls that many people working with youth thought that if they got those youth “involved in a lot of [positive] activities, their self-esteem would rise.”

Today, programs like TOP focus on teaching social emotional life skills, changing how youth think about themselves so that they can reach their potential. The programs do this not only through lessons, but by creating opportunities for youth to participate in activities, such as community service, that challenge them to develop skills and give them a sense of being valued for their work.

Sure, the youths’ gain self-esteem, but what the programs really instill is self-efficacy. The difference is subtle, but important.

Feeling Good

The evolution from programs that made young people feel good about themselves to programs focused on helping them feel good about their accomplishments happened over more than two decades.

The self-esteem movement was the mother of various “feel good” efforts that began sprouting in the 1970s. The focus on self-esteem was fueled by researchers who insisted that low self-esteem was the root of social problems. Although the research showed only a weak link between low self-esteem and youth problems, the self-esteem movement grew in popularity.

It isn’t clear why. Maybe self-esteem was embraced because it seemed to be the opposite approach to the earlier, punitive methods that had been found to be ineffective. By the 1980s, California had established a task force to increase the self-esteem of Californians, with the expectation that it would improve well-being. Around the country, many adults believed that boosting children’s self-esteem would make them better students, better citizens and better children.

Also by the 1980s, youth-serving programs routinely included components aimed at boosting self-confidence or self-esteem. This took many forms, including programs aimed at convincing young people that they were capable of anything, and the practice of giving awards to everyone at a team banquet.

“We often had feel-good, one-time programs – inspirational, motivational programs,” Rodine recalls. “Those are great, but … we now know it takes a lot more.”

Some people did wonder whether it was a good idea to make young people feel good about themselves, no matter how well they were doing. “It seemed rather empty,” says researcher and author Joy Dryfoos. “Unless they were teaching people something more than feeling good about themselves, it seemed like they weren’t going to change much.”

When researchers have looked more closely, the results have been surprising.

A comprehensive analysis of the existing research on self-esteem, published last year by Roy Baumeister of Florida State University (“Does High Self Esteem Cause Better Performance, Interpersonal Success, Happiness, or Healthier Lifestyles?”), posed and answered the following questions: Does high self-esteem cause better performance? No. Interpersonal success? No. Happiness? Probably. Healthier lifestyles? Sporadically.

Baumeister and his colleagues examined the links between self-esteem and numerous behaviors and outcomes. Here is some of what they found:

• Aggression, violence, delinquency and anti-social behavior: There is little evidence that bullies and juvenile delinquents suffer from low self-esteem. Some studies find that bullies and delinquents have high self-esteem.

• Interpersonal relations: People with higher self-esteem say they are more popular, but their classmates disagree. However, those with higher self-esteem may be more willing to speak up in work settings and to initiate conversations, which are good interpersonal skills.

• Happiness and depression: Individuals who have higher self-esteem report greater happiness and less depression.

• Academic and job performance: There is little convincing evidence that having high self-esteem or boosting self-esteem promotes better academic or job performance.

• Health: There is little evidence that self-esteem influences a variety of health-related behaviors, such as smoking, alcohol and other drug use, or early sexual activity or teen pregnancy.

“Learning is most effective when one receives both praise and criticism, contingent on current performance,” the researchers concluded. They pointed out that “praise-only” approaches are no more effective than the “criticism-only regimen” of the previous era –“although praise-only may feel much more pleasant for all concerned.”

The problem with preaching self-esteem to youth is that “self-esteem is not caught, it’s taught,” says Michael Carrera, director of the adolescent sexuality and pregnancy prevention program at New York’s Children’s Aid Society. “It’s not derived from the effective use of a curriculum. It’s not something you inject in a program like you do arts and sports and tutoring.”

More effective, Baumeister says, is “a focus on improvement,” which “allows people to compare themselves against themselves.”

Doing Well

The new lingo is “social emotional learning” (SEL), which shifts to a broad view of a youth’s social and emotional competence. Social emotional competencies include self-control, stress management, social problem-solving and communication skills.

According to the Collaborative for Academic, Social and Emotional Learning at the University of Illinois, which promotes improvements in school practice and program design to advance the field of SEL, “Research has shown that SEL can help children and youth develop a greater sense of self-worth and greater concern for others, feel more competent in handling daily responsibilities and challenges, and establish more positive and meaningful relationships … and can improve academic achievement and reduce the likelihood students will engage in various high-risk behaviors.”

For example: The National Cross-Site Evaluation of High-Risk Youth Demonstration Grant Programs, funded by the U.S. Center for Substance Abuse Prevention, found that prevention programs that emphasized changing youths’ attitudes and helping them develop life skills were more effective in reducing substance use than those that emphasized boosting self-esteem or knowledge. The national study, completed in 2002, involved 6,031 high-risk youth who participated in programs, and 4,579 at-risk youth who did not.

So what should youth programs do to promote social and emotional development?

In a landmark review of youth programs (“Community Programs to Promote Youth Development,” 2001), the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) highlighted self-efficacy, a characteristic that is related to but different from self-esteem. Self-efficacy involves feeling capable of achieving goals. A person with high self-esteem may think, “I am a good person,” while a person with high self-efficacy may think, “I can achieve my goal of . . .”

This is not the same as feeling good about yourself because someone tells you that you are special. The focus on behavior makes all the difference, because many youth know when they’re receiving compliments they don’t deserve.

Programs aimed at increasing self-efficacy give youth opportunities to participate in activities that challenge them to develop new skills or a sense of value in an organization or program. According to the NAS, these programs use empowerment practices to support youths’ autonomy, give them chances to make differences in their communities, grant them responsibilities and meaningful challenges, and focus on improving skills.

Taking Many Forms

So what does this mean in terms of everyday practice? When he spoke to more than 400 public health officials in Modesto, Calif., in 1999, Carrera explained how he changed his approach to teen pregnancy prevention after finding little success using standard methods. As a local newspaper, the Turlock Journal, described it at the time, “Carrera abandoned the theories of structured self-esteem building classes. … Program workers helped the teens open bank accounts, find jobs, apply to colleges.”
The kids also participated in performing arts and sports.

If this sounds like a lot of what many programs do without calling it “self-efficacy,” that’s because the concept blends perfectly with many of the contemporary approaches to positive youth development. And there’s no such thing as a self-efficacy class. It’s something that grows through various processes.

Consider community resource mapping, which among other things can help youth feel more competent in accessing goods and services in their communities, and can spur them to take action. It’s one of the activities conducted by youth in Oklahoma City through TOP, a curriculum distributed by Cornerstone Consulting Group, based in Houston and New York. The Oklahoma City program – initially established as a replication project, with funding from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention – serves about 100 at-risk youth in three high schools, through a collaboration that includes nonschool groups such as the Junior League.

At one school, says Heather Horton, special projects coordinator at the Institute for Child Advocacy, the youths “had taken a look around to see not only what was the need in their neighborhood, but what were the needs in their schools. They didn’t have the most aesthetically pleasing cafeteria. They chose to paint the cafeteria.”

The kids felt good about themselves, not because someone told they were good, but because they showed what they could do.

Other examples include having kids plan as well as carry out community service projects. Carrera at Children’s Aid cites helping kids improve grades and “helping them earn money and open bank accounts.” Quantum Opportunity Programs often expose kids to new experiences, such as dining in upscale restaurants and visiting college campuses, which the young participants often cite as giving them the confidence that they could fit into such places. Project Alert, a curriculum that is often carried out in schools, improves self-efficacy by teaching refusal and resistance skills. The Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts have always given out badges for specific accomplishments.

Backed By Research

The early research on self-efficacy differs markedly from the research on self-esteem efforts. A 1998 review called “Positive Youth Development Programs in the United States,” by Richard Catalano and his colleagues at the University of Washington, notes that every effective program they examined included a component to increase self-efficacy. The NAS also points out that there is impressive research evidence linking self-efficacy to a variety of positive outcomes for youth.

Youth programs aimed at promoting self-efficacy typically promote skill-building, responsibility, supportive relationships and belonging. That may make it difficult to evaluate the specific impact of self-efficacy, but it is notable that so many of these programs have been found to be effective.

Some of these effective programs, such as LifeSkills Training, do measure self-esteem to help judge the impact of their work. Boosting self-esteem is still a crucial part of helping many troubled youth – but research has demonstrated its limits, and the value of raising self-esteem by giving youth an opportunity to earn it.

Nevertheless, a trophy has value. Many sports programs, such as Little League, still give out the same awards to all participants, focusing on participation rather than achievement. And in Oklahoma City, the Junior League puts on an awards banquet each year at which each TOP youth gets a certificate and a gift, such as a watch.

“This may be the only time in their lives that they’re going to walk across a stage to get an award,” Rodine explains. It makes them feel good – and sometimes, that’s all the justification that a youth worker needs.

Madeleine Levin, M.P.H., and Diana Zuckerman, Ph.D., can be reached at the National Center for Policy Research for Women & Families at


Sharon Rodine, Director
Youth Initiatives
Oklahoma Institute for Child Advocacy
420 NW 13th
Oklahoma City, OK 73103
(405) 236-5437

Michael Carrera, Director
Adolescent Sexuality and Pregnancy Prevention Program
Children’s Aid Society
105 E. 22nd St.
New York, NY 10010
(212) 876-9716

“Positive Youth Development in The United States: Research Findings on Evaluations of Positive Youth Development Programs”
By Richard Catalano, et al

“Does High Self-Esteem Cause Better Performance, Interpersonal Success, Happiness, or Healthier Lifestyles?”
By R.F. Baumeister, et al
Journal of the American Psychological Society, May 2003

“National Cross-Site Evaluation of High-Risk Youth Demonstration Grant Programs”
U.S. Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration

Effective Programs

Effective youth development programs that included components to increase self-efficacy, as identified by Richard Catalano and colleagues at the University of Washington:

• LifeSkills Training – includes decision making, refusal and resistance, anxiety management, communication and assertiveness.

• Providing Alternative Think-ing Strategies (PATHS) – includes strategies for self-control, coping, management of feelings, and interpersonal problem solving.

• Project Alert – uses refusal and resistance skills to prevent drug use.

• Social Competence Promotion Program for Young Adolescents – uses highly structured and scripted 45-minute lesson
plans to promote competence and prevent substance abuse.

• Teen Outreach Program – involves teens in community volunteer activities, and includes skills training in coping, decision making, self-management, and life skills.

• Across Ages – uses intergenerational mentoring for at-risk children for drug use preven-tion and health promotion.