Ditch self-esteem and focus on self-control

Maya Angelou said, “Do the best you can until you know better. Then when you know better, do better.”

Anyone growing up in the eighties (and beyond) will have grown up in the self-esteem era. In the 1980s, psychologists showed that high self-esteem equated to high grades at school and students with lower self-esteem tended to struggle in school. These same psychologists started a movement to raise self-esteem because they believed that virtually all the world’s problems traced back to low self-esteem. So began the participation ribbons, everyone gets a prize (think of the childhood party game pass the parcel) and lavish praise of insignificant achievements.

The flaw in this movement was two-fold. Firstly, self-esteem comes from within, not from what others tell or give you. Being given a ribbon for just entering fosters no real internal sense of satisfaction or confidence. Secondly, self-esteem comes from putting in the effort; trying, iterating, failing, trying again and succeeding.

Our school system reflects these flaws strongly. Children were (and still are in many places) told to go to school and learn – because ‘learning is fun.’ Learning is complex, messy, challenging, uncomfortable, and something you have to work at. If children believe it should be fun, and it’s not, then why even bother.

I see this echoed in the teens I work with whom are told to study for a test or an exam. They focus on what they already know because this makes them feel good. The internal dialogue says, “I’ve got this,” or “I’m so smart.” Going over what you know sends the feel-good chemicals into the brain. If you are a list writer – have you ever completed a task, gone to cross it off the list to find the task was not on the list? What do you do? Write the task on the list just so you can cross it off! There is no logical reasoning for this behaviour, however, there is a physiological explanation. When crossing off a completed task, endorphins such as dopamine flood the brain, making you feel good. This is why students continue to practise, rehearse and go over what they can already do. This, however, is not learning. To learn you need to learn what you don’t know. The challenge here is the internal dialogue changes to, “This is hard.” “What if they find out I’m not as smart as they tell me I am.” “What if I fail?” These phrases are challenging to any of us and can cause students to back off and go back to what they know as it feels better.

I spend much of my time in schools explaining, “Everything is hard before it is easy” and “The struggle makes you strong.”

Furthermore, most students believe the way to succeed at school is to be intelligent, smart and clever. The reality is far from this – to succeed in school (pass the tests and exams), you need to know techniques and strategies for learning, memory recall, test-taking and how your brain works.

Success is a lousy teacher. It seduces smart people into thinking they can’t lose. – Bill Gates

While the self-esteem research initially showed those with higher self-esteem received higher grades in school, subsequent research now indicates it is the other way around. Success and receiving good grades in school raises your self-esteem. The challenge for many is they don’t know what they did or how they achieved success in school – it just happened ‘by magic.’

Focus on self-control

Trophies should go to the winners. Self-esteem does not lead to success in life. Self-discipline and self-control do. – Roy Baumeister

Researchers and psychologists now suggest that having self-control is a better precursor of success. This starts at a young age. The famous marshmallow experiment conducted by Stanford University professor and psychologist Walter Mischel in 1972 studied delaying gratification. Children, aged between three and six, were taken into a room and shown one marshmallow on a plate. The children were told that if they waited while the researcher left the room for about 15 minutes, they could have two marshmallows. If they ate the marshmallow, there were no more. The study attributed the ability to wait to delay gratification to higher education and life achievements. In New Zealand, the Dunedin Multidisciplinary Health and Development Research Study, from 1972 to the current day, also reflects these findings.

The key to success for the children who waited was to divert their attention elsewhere. Continually staring or looking at the marshmallow meant that at any moment, they were more likely to have a lapse of willpower, and the marshmallow was gone. Those who could divert their attention to another task or focus were more likely to receive the second marshmallow.

The same is true for me. When I crave the chocolate, my willpower is low if I see it in the fridge, and I eat it. If, however, I can distract myself for ten or more minutes, I get absorbed in another task, and the craving goes away, and I forget! (No, I don’t get twice as much for waiting; my reward is a healthier, stronger body.) I feel better about myself, and my self-esteem, self-worth, self-love quotient goes up!

Lessons from Brazil

It is usual for children to be impulsive and not manage their self-control. At a school in Sao Paulo, Brazil, where I mentored and coached the teachers, Milena, taught three-year-olds to wait and manage themselves.

Firstly she wrapped small gifts for each child. On day one, the gifts were placed in front of each child, and they were asked to wait thirty seconds before opening the gift. This was repeated on day two and three, with wait times extended to sixty and ninety seconds. As you can imagine, this was very challenging for the children. They then discussed strategies for waiting and ways to make it easier. Three simple techniques emerged. 1. Count to ten in your head, 2. Focus on your breath as you breathe in and out, and 3. Drum your fingers on the desk while you wait.

These techniques and explicit teaching were a pre-curser to students learning to take turns, share and sit still in class and with self-control comes success and self-esteem.

In what ways might you explicitly teach students to manage their self-control in your classroom?


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Published on Sunday, May 30th, 2021, under Learning, Rewards, Success, Teacher Effectiveness

Karen Tui Boyes is a champion for Life Long Learning across nations, industries and organisations. Winner of the NZ Educator of the Year 2017 and 2014 and the NZ Speaker of the Year award in 2013 & 2019, Karen is a sought after speaker who continually gets rave reviews from audiences around the world. Her dynamic style and highly informative content—which turns the latest educational research into easy-to-implement strategies and techniques — sets her apart from others in her field.

6 Responses to “Ditch self-esteem and focus on self-control”

  1. PHILIP LLOYD says:

    Hi Karen,
    I REALLY enjoyed your article. Well done.
    “Delayed Gratification” has been an important part of my life and teaching.
    I often did “sessions” with my Y13 students covering aspects in my website about motivation.
    I hope you find time to browse over it. It contains the wisdom of many world leaders in this area.

  2. I started my teaching at a time when Peer Support programs and self-esteem were coming into their own. At a time when little attention had previously been paid to the role of self-image and how schools often reinforced negative self-esteem, it was an important first step. Yes, it may have been hijacked by the “everyone is special and should win a prize brigade” but prior to that, it was a start.

    Similarly, creativity is often overused to reflect that creativity just magically “happens”. Today resilience is the buzz word and there is a clearer understanding that learning is not linear and indeed messy and that failure is often necessary to ultimately succeed. Any achievement in life involves hard work, painful encounters and personal development. By highlighting self-control and self-discipline, they too are elements of personal growth that keep us all learning no matter our age.

  3. Grant Willetts says:

    The sooner this ‘everyone wins a prize mentality’ and there is ‘no such thing as losing, failing or being wrong, then the sooner students will excel and society can turn around and start moving forward again.
    Add to that the removal of the ‘victim’ mentality, too.

  4. I loved this article … as a child of the 80s I struggle with the weird concepts around self esteem for kids I raised who we now young adults and we’re at the start of the “everyone gets to be player of the day” concept and how it seems to have evolved into something much worse and how it seems to negatively impact on resilience and resourcefulness…

    I never sat and thought about how I learned or how my brain works until I was in my 30s but wish I had known you and your wisdom in these areas back when I was much younger to have made more sense of it all.


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