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Self-esteem not always linked to achievement

 Self-esteem in children has no special impact on success in school, despite an educational emphasis on the link between the two, says Prof. Bruce Ryan, Family Studies.

His study, which examined the relationship between self-esteem, achievement, student characteristics and family relationships, found that self-esteem does not independently affect children's achievement when the full context of the child's development is considered. In fact, in study after study that looked at the effects on behaviors such as acting out, internalizing problems, peer sociability and rule compliance, self-esteem was found to be irrelevant.

Numerous previous studies have directly linked self-esteem and achievement and have led to the introduction of programs and strategies to promote healthy self-esteem in students. These studies did not, however, take into account related variables such as family roles and children's characteristics, Ryan notes.

"The most powerful factors for predicting academic success are intellectual effectiveness and academic effort," he says. "When the child and family variables were examined in combination, the significant direct relationship between self-esteem and achievement disappeared."

This suggests that programs to enhance self-esteem in schoolchildren won't lead to changes in achievement unless basic learning activities or family relationships are included, Ryan says.

The study also found that children who received the most help from parents with schoolwork got the poorest grades, even when intellectual effectiveness and academic effort were taken into account.

"Children who are trying hard and get parental help don't do as well as those who don't get parental help," says Ryan. Basically, the data collected in this study probably reflect the fact that parents tend to give help to children who are doing poorly, he says. Only a controlled experiment, which Ryan is planning, can accurately show if parental help with homework will actually boost achievement.

The findings are part of a family/school connection study he has conducted over the past three years with Prof. Gerald Adams, Family Studies, and graduate students Maria Ketsetgis, Dominique Stret, Jacqueline Maclean and Jane Corville-Smith, who recently completed her PhD.

The study involves data from 150 children in each of Grade 4 and 7 and 100 children in Grade 11, as well as from teachers and family members in the Wellington County Roman Catholic Separate School Board. The data are being analysed to determine what happens in families to help or hinder school success.

The study measures student success through report cards and teacher ratings, as well as through student and family perceptions of family competitiveness, cohesion and promotion of academic work.

The self-esteem study found that students from competitive families had lower self-esteem, whereas students from cohesive families had higher self-esteem. In cohesive families, children have less pressure from their mother; in conflicting families, more pressure is exerted by the father. Children who had pressure from fathers had lower self-esteem, but this did not affect achievement.

The study found significant differences between mothers' and fathers' influences on children's achievement. Mothers offer more support than fathers to children who are not intellectually effective, but mothers will reduce and fathers will increase pressure on children who are trying hard. When it comes to literacy, mothers and fathers also have opposing behaviors. If a child is trying hard, mothers reduce the pressure for literacy, but fathers increase it.

by Margaret Boyd

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