Self-esteem and academic difficulties, a vicious circle?


Research shows that we all have a strong and perennial need for self – esteem – that is, to think that we are valuable, that we are loved and approved. Students are not immune to this need. Because of the importance given by society, parents or teachers to academic success, students who face academic difficulties and failures see their self-esteem threatened.

These students are likely to think that they are not “a good person”. It will then be imperative for them to regain value and, for this, they have self-protective psychological mechanisms. The big problem is that each of these mechanisms will harm their self – determined motivation , that is to say, coming from themselves. A pupil is self-motivated when he freely chooses to accomplish a school task, finds doing this task interesting, important and rewarding.

The more self-determined his motivation, the more the student will develop and maintain the efforts essential to overcome the difficulties inherent in any learning. This motivation is in a way the essential energy to maintain the pupil’s efforts, to overcome his difficulties. The presentation of three of the self-protective psychological mechanisms will highlight their deleterious impact on students’ efforts.

Anticipate failure

The first of these self-protection mechanisms is top-down social comparison. When the student is having difficulty on a school task or has just failed it, if he has the opportunity, he will choose to compare himself to students who are doing less well or struggling more than him. Who has not announced a bad grade by citing the name of comrades who had had worse!

This downward comparison preserves self-esteem and makes you feel good. The problem is that the student regularly choosing comparison targets below him, will gradually give less interest and importance to his learning. In other words, his self-determined motivation decreases: he will feel authorized to do worse than his current performance. His self-esteem is protected but his academic difficulties will increase.

The second self-protective mechanism is behavioral auto-handicap . It occurs when the student anticipates failure. The latter will then place obstacles (procrastination, reduction of efforts, drug or alcohol abuse…) on the way to his performance. Lack of effort is thus a frequent example of an obstacle or self- handicap  : the pupil arrives at an exam without having revised anything.

If the anticipated failure does take place, the pupil can explain it by his lack of effort, his laziness (the obstacle). He thus avoids the worst explanation for his self-esteem: lack of intelligence. If he passes the exam despite the obstacle, he will perceive himself and be seen as very gifted (he will have passed without effort!). The problem is that in preferring to pass regularly for a lazy person rather than for a person who would lack intellectual capacities, the pupil accumulates gaps.

Even if he resumed making the necessary efforts to learn, it would not immediately translate into academic success, thus threatening his self-esteem again. He is therefore caught in this process preventing him (unconsciously) from developing a self-determined motivation, the source of the necessary efforts to overcome his academic difficulties.

Reconsider the mistake

The third self-protective mechanism is psychological disengagement, which consists in permanently discrediting areas that threaten self-esteem. A pupil disengaged from the school field will proclaim that school does not matter to him, that studying has never interested him. However, the pupil who psychologically disengages from school (or from a particular subject) no longer possesses any self-determined motivation: he attaches neither interest, nor value, nor importance to school tasks, and therefore has no plus that energy needed to persevere in the face of difficulties. His academic difficulties therefore only increase.

The terrible effectiveness of this disengagement mechanism is that the psychological break with school or a particular subject is often experienced as a personality trait, a natural characteristic against which one cannot fight: “I don’t like school. because I am rather manual ”; “I don’t like math because I don’t have a logical mind”.

The description of these three examples of self-protection mechanisms makes it possible to understand that the failing student, to protect his self-esteem, adopts behaviors which will only accentuate his difficulties. However, it is possible to prevent students from resorting to its self-protection mechanisms. This requires helping them to see difficulties, mistakes and failures as normal stages in all learning, so that they do not undermine their value.

Carol S. Dweck’s work has shown that it is important to help students realize that the goal in school is to learn, not to be successful above all else. To learn means to be wrong. Therefore, situations of failure are worthy of interest because the errors they contain can help to find a way to reach a solution.

If the errors are perceived by the pupils as part of the learning process, they will understand that intelligence is not a given fixed in advance and for life, but that it is a potential to be developed. In order to promote this state of mind of development, it is necessary to encourage the comparison of the pupil with himself, that is to say the temporal comparison, of oneself today with oneself in the past.

Temporal comparisons allow students to become aware of the progress (or not) in their learning by comparing what they knew how to do before with what they know how to do now, progress that the grades do not always reflect. For example, a student may have put in a lot of effort to improve their spelling and make fewer mistakes, but still have poor grades in dictation. If the student finds that he has not made progress, he will need to be guided so that he understands why his efforts or learning strategies are insufficient or ill-suited.

In conclusion, if students are convinced that their intelligence is malleable, their errors inherent in learning, they will be less afraid of failure. They will therefore have less need to resort to psychological mechanisms to protect their self-esteem, all of which are harmful to their self-determined motivation, their efforts and their perseverance.

Author Bio: Delphine Martinot is a University Professor in Social Psychology at Clermont Auvergne University (UCA)