Whatever Happened To the Self-Esteem Movement?

For those true believers and wanna-be school reformers enamored with the social-emotional skills that 21st century students must learn if they are to be “successful” in an information-driven economy and social-media-ridden daily life, take a brief look at the self-esteem movement launched in the 1980s.  In subsequent decades reformers stressed that students (as well as teachers) needed confident self-regard and a psychological repertoire of personal and social skills. Not only were they to have high self-esteem but they were also expected to display such attitudes and skills.



Soon enough the phrase “self-esteem” became attached to school and classroom practices of frequent praise for children and emphasis on participation in activities rather than individual academic performance. Ridicule of this reform movement in particular and the self-help industry in general came from cultural conservatives within a few years.


And cartoonists who took jabs at whether working on self-esteem would undermine academics.




This tension between boosting the student’s self-image and attaining high academic performance can be traced back to early 20th century progressives who touted the “whole child,” particularly the psychological and emotional parts. Curriculum guides and daily lessons  focused upon the psychological “needs” of individual students and their knowing how to get along with others while at the same time understanding quadratic equations and Shakespeare’s “Macbeth.” While John Dewey made clear that subject matter was important in the children learning through experience–he often referred to the intellectual development of children through activities that crossed disciplinary boundaries–that clarity got blurred for that generation of educational progressives as they pursued the “whole child” and ignored Dewey’s Child and the Curriculum (1902). Rather than Dewey’s seeking both in educating children, progressives saw it as either/or, that is, teach the subject to the child or teach the child the subject–a dichotomy that he found unhelpful.

Unresolved then, this continuing tension between the academic purpose of schooling (learning disciplinary content, thinking skills, problem solving)  and cultivating students’ skills in negotiating relationships and knowing one’s self has persisted until today.

A quick look at the self-esteem movement and its influence on schools then and now may give current advocates and critics a perspective that is missing from the current hype over the necessity that all children and youth have to learn an array of social-emotional skills to be competent in the 21st century (see here and here).

Where and When Did the Self-esteem Movement Originate?

Most observers locate the origin of the idea in the 1980s at the same time that high anxiety in the business community and among national policymakers over the failure of U.S. students to outpace international peers on tests. The high-pitched call for U.S. schools to stem the rising “tide of mediocrity” in the Nation at Risk report (1983) got many educational policymakers, practitioners, researchers, and parents to worry about the academic performance of America’s children and youth. A primary factor for poor performance on international tests, some frenetic reformers believed was the low self-regard that U.S. students had for themselves (see here and here).

The belief among some reformers, then, was that in raising children’s esteem, academic improvement social kindness, and personal success in life would occur.

The pivotal event (or laughable occurrence, according to critics) was a California legislator John Vasconcellos (Democrat) steering a bill through the legislature and securing the Republican governor’s signature to establish a California Task Force to Promote Self-Esteem and Personal and Social Responsibility or the “Self-esteem Commission” in 1986.

According to Vasconcellos, he convinced the Governor to sign the bill–he had vetoed it previously–with the following argument:

The governor and I had three very intense one-on-one conversations about this bill. The turning point came during our third meeting, when he said, “I know that self-esteem is important, but why should the government get involved in this? Why not the university or somebody else?”

I responded, “First, Governor, there’s so much at stake here that we can’t afford to have it hidden away in a university. We need to involve the entire California public. Only the government can accomplish that. Second, think of it this way: By spending a few tax dollars, we can collect the information and get it out. If that helps even a few persons appreciate and understand self-esteem and how they can live their lives and raise their kids better, we may have less welfare, crime, violence, and drugs—and that’s a very conservative use of taxpayers’ money.”

Even Garry Trudeau’s Doonesbury mocked the Commission but the concept, research supporting it, and its penetration into schools spread in the following decade.

What Problems Did Higher Self-esteem Intend To Solve?

The thinking then was that low self-esteem caused social problems including low student performance (see here and here). Solution? Raise students’ regard for themselves.

Critics, of course, pointed out that the causal arrows that policymakers believed in: raise students’ self-esteem, then academic achievement will rise as well––those arrows could just as well point the other way. That is, using direct instruction and other strategies  of helping students academically and higher test scores could result in higher self-regard. Without knowing for sure what causes what, it is futile to build programs that proclaim the virtues of students having a high regard for themselves and expect rising academic achievement.

What Does Learning Self-esteem Look Like in Practice?

For the 1980s and 1990s, I could not find lesson plans, descriptions of actual classes teaching self-esteem, teacher self-reports on their lessons that build student self-confidence, or journalist accounts of classes engaging in self-esteem exercises during the 1990s. If any readers know of such primary sources, please let me know.

James Beane, an advocate of raising individual and community self-esteem through relationships in schools, however, did sketch out in 1991 three strategies that he saw classroom teachers pursuing in these years.

  1. Personal development through sensitivity training used in the 1970s. Picture a teacher and her class sitting in a circle one afternoon a week talking for about a half-hour about how much they like themselves and their classmates. Beane found this approach minimally useful. ,
  2. Teacher goes through a prepared set of lessons (home-made or commercially produced) on what is self-esteem, how it practice in a classroom, and its worth to individual students and the entire class. In 1970, Beane points out, about 350 such programs available with about 3000 “affective exercises and techniques.” Such purchased programs suffer defects according to Beane. First, teachers using    direct instruction to students about emotions has little chance of altering students’ behavior. Second, vendors’s c;aims for such programs have little to no evidence.
  3. School practices set the climate for what teachers do in their classrooms to get students to raise their self-regard. Beane points to collaborative student-teacher planning of curriculum, thematic units that stress personal and community-wide actions, student self-evaluations, community service projects, and the like.

Obviously, these approaches are not mutually exclusive and were combined.

Does Self-esteem Teaching and Learning Work?

Do school activities and daily lessons on raising self-esteem end up building higher self-regard and confidence in children and youth while improving academic achievement? No, according to the available research done then and since (see here and here).

Surely, the difficulty of defining precisely what self-esteem is and how best to boost it have given researchers gray hair. Such blurred definitions and multiple strategies to improve children’s view of themselves and academic performance have made for suspicious research studies and great skepticism when positive results are announced.

What Has Happened to the Self-esteem Movement in Schools?

The short answer is that the phrase became so ridiculed that it dropped from sight for years until social-emotional learning (SEL) became the reform du jour in the past decade (see Ngram for SEL).

The heart of SEL is, as The Collaborative for Social Emotional Learning (CASEL) put it:

Social and emotional learning (SEL) is the process through which children and adults understand and manage emotions, set and achieve positive goals, feel and show empathy for others, establish and maintain positive relationships, and make responsible decisions.

Also see CASEL videos defining it and its effects here and here

Moreover, the prestigious Aspen Institute recently gathered scientists, practitioners, parents,and youth to create a  report   called From A Nation At Risk To A Nation of Hope (2019).

Part of our project was to convene a Council of Distinguished Scientists—leaders in the fields of education, neuroscience, and psychology—to identify areas of agreement. The consensus they define is broad and strong: Social, emotional, and academic skills are all essential to success in school, careers, and in life, and they can be effectively learned in the context of trusted ties to caring and competent adults.

Although the Aspen report includes cognitive skills as part of the mix, note that SEL still promises student outcomes similar to the earlier self-esteem reform, particularly in higher academic achievement and whole human beings. The report includes a series of videos of classroom activities that enact SEL.

Like the self-esteem movement, efforts to install social-emotional learning in daily classroom lessons has faced glitches in the covey of competing definitions of what SEL is, various strategies of how to embody it into classroom activities, and measuring its effects.

As with the earlier reform, critics have launched arrows at SEL. Conservative pundits Chester Finn and Frederick Hess made the direct comparison to the self-esteem movement and urge SEL advocates to keep that earlier reform in mind as they implement SEL in classrooms. Of their seven suggestions, I chose one they offer that echoes what happened with the self-esteem reform decades earlier:

Be Clear About What SEL Is and Is Not. One peril inherent in novelty and widespread ardor is how temptingly easy it can be to build momentum and win allies by offering an inclusive or generic definition of the cause being advanced, which allows others to piggyback their own pet projects, sometimes settling for a couple of spindly trees instead of a healthy forest. Given the raft of malarkey being peddled by consultants, vendors, education school faculty, and plenty of others in the name of SEL (and much else), it’s important to develop markers to help serious educators and curious parents know what clears the bar and what does not. Proponents need to make clear that SEL is not just feeling good about oneself and, instead, that it’s an essential complement to—not a substitute for—academic achievement, that it rests on legitimate research, and that it’s part of preparing competent adults and citizens.

Saying this once, or even repeating it every so often, is not enough. The desire to focus on rapid implementation while genially embracing a big tent approach is natural enough. Sadly, that approach won’t safeguard either the perception or the practice of SEL from those with their own agendas. The question is what bona fide advocates are prepared to do when it comes to flagging the frauds, identifying the charlatans, calling out practices that lack evidence, and otherwise helping communities separate the wheat from the chaff. Put another way, good communication is not only explaining what advocates think good SEL is but also taking pains to point out what it isn’t. Doing so entails taking the uncomfortable next step of calling out those who are pitching dubious wares under the SEL banner or deploying problematic programs in their schools.

This means that a few days of “professional development” for educators or the simple embrace of some favored “best practice” is inadequate. It will be useful, for example, for SEL proponents to envision how they might certify principals as school-level SEL leaders and teachers as bona fide SEL providers. Maybe schools themselves could get gold stars for doing it right, much as buildings get LEED certified if they’re environmentally sound. We’re absolutely not suggesting an elaborate system of new governmental regulations or education-school credentials. It would be far better for a competent private organization, backstopped by like-minded philanthropy, to create and confer these additional credentials—and do their best to make them worth earning.

Whether SEL boosters among policymakers, researchers, practitioners, and parents will heed this advice, I do not know. Given my knowledge and direct experience with the self-esteem movement in the 1980s, I hope that SEL supporters will at least be aware that academic concerns that have arisen persistently during the apex of progressive influence before World War II and during the self-esteem movement of the 1980s and 1990s, will again arise even though SEL advocates have linked such learning to academic performance. Like their predecessors, SEL boosters see the causal arrows going from SEL to high test scores, graduation rates, and college admissions. Similar claims were made a quarter-century ago that researchers have shown to be empty.




Filed under school reform policies

7 responses to “Whatever Happened To the Self-Esteem Movement?

  1. David F

    Hi Larry, this 1998 book might have some examples of what you are discussing. Thanks for this post! https://www.wiley.com/en-us/Ready+to+Use+Social+Skills+Lessons+%26+Activities+for+Grades+4+6-p-9780876284742

  2. One thing I believe, and I’m certainly no expert, is that self-esteem does not come from others, as least not as many have considered this. Let me explain. I do believe that most children garner their self-esteem from their home life, but I don’t think it comes from hearing what good children they are over and over, as many would have considered. Two parents, responsible and working hard, helping one another (The kids see this.), all members of the family working together, being a part of taking care of the home, going on camping trips, sharing…. But also, children need correction when they fall off the trail. In a sense, people need to be placed back on themselves where they can follow what they know is right in their hearts. Self esteem can come from teachers telling the students they are on the right track, but it’s not so much being told their appreciated, but when the students actually try, work hard, and improve. *Just some thoughts.

  3. mattwhite977

    Completely agree that the term self- esteem has been employed incorrectly. However, the pursuit of increasing students’ self- belief systems does have merit (not the construct of self esteem though). There is much research to date supporting the reciprocal relationship between student self belief systems and their academic engagement and performance. The two widely agreed constructs are self efficacy (task specific) and domain specific self concept (i.e., academic self concept). Global self concept or self esteem (broadly defined as a totality of ones thoughts, feelings and perceptions towards themselves) has been vague terms and almost impossible to measure. Self- efficacy (one’s perception to execute a specific task) has been found to be the best indicator of student outcomes. Teachers need to work on students perception regarding specific tasks – changing “can’t” to “I can’t do that yet”. Carol Dweck has advanced this field with her growth mindset paradigm. Self concept is only useful when we examine domain specific self concepts (e.g., I am good at mathematics, I am a good tennis player). Therefore, teachers need to be supporting students self- beliefs (e.g., academic self concept and efficacy) through good pedagogy and regular feedback.
    Social and Emotional Learning (SEL) is not intended to just elevate students self- beliefs (not here in Australia anyone). SEL is concerned with supporting students’ social capabilities, emotional resilience, social awareness and self- regulation skills. I think we have come a long way in our understandings of the affective impact on students learning but as your article rightly states it has been open to misconceptions and abuse for some time now.

  4. I also “see” that many spend way too much time in the past and finding themselves. Many remain in their problems and never really live. Yes, problems are problems, and some are very serious, so they find moving forward difficult.

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