What can teachers do to foster a positive self-concept and promote achievement in their students?
By Zrinka Peters
Way back in 1908, Orison Swett Marden’s popular classic He Can Who Thinks He Can moved many to realize the importance of believing in themselves in order to achieve success in any field. In the century following, researchers produced study after study examining self-confidence as it relates to achievement. But recent research, published in the journal Child Development, focused specifically on middle- and high-school students (11-15 years old) to explore the question of whether a child’s self-concept of ability in math and reading could predict later math and reading achievement. The results were revealing.
The study used three data sets relating to child and youth development. Early and later achievement were measured by using standardized assessments, and self-concept of ability in math and reading were examined as predictor variables for later achievement. Self-concept was measured via a questionnaire, in which students answered questions such as “How good at math [or reading] are you?” The study also controlled for demographic variables, child characteristics, and early ability.
The results showed a consistent, positive correlation between a child’s self-concept of ability in math or reading, and his or her later achievement in those areas, from early childhood through adolescence. The positive correlation was replicated across all three data sets, and, interestingly, across all achievement levels.
As the study’s authors concluded, “The results show robust, replicated evidence that children’s beliefs about their math and reading abilities explain some of the variance in later math and reading achievement, respectively, after controlling for a strong set of demographic and child characteristics, as well as prior academic achievement. Perhaps even more striking is that a more positive view of math and reading ability showed higher levels of math and reading achievement, respectively, even for the lowest performing students….This study highlights the finding that this relation is not limited to students who perform at the top levels but extends to students with different levels of achievement in math and reading” (Susperreguy, Maria Ines et al. “Self‐Concept Predicts Academic Achievement Across Levels of the Achievement Distribution: Domain Specificity for Math and Reading.” Child Development, 10.1111/cdev.12924, 2017, p. 16.). It does seem, after all, that ‘he can who thinks he can.’
These results are significant because the effects of a child’s early academic self-concept may impact their lives well beyond the middle and high school years. A middle-school child who feels confident in his or her abilities may opt, for example, for an advanced math or English course. And that decision could in turn lead to other more challenging academic courses down the road.
As intriguing as these results are, there are some limitations to the research. Self-concept is one factor linked to later achievement, but there are also other influences to consider. “Other potential avenues not assessed in this study are the influences of teachers, parents, or peers in both the construction of beliefs about abilities as well as the role these individuals play in academic achievement over time. Indeed, children already differ in math and reading ability upon entry to school” (p. 17).
There is more to raising a math or reading score than simply trying to make children feel positive about their skills. But nurturing a child’s belief in his or her own academic abilities is nevertheless important. So what can teachers do to foster a positive self-concept and promote achievement in their students? Deborah Sieben, a 6th-grade teacher at St. Peter Catholic School in Forest Lake, MN, who is in her 39th year of teaching, offers some practical tips.
“Teachers need to ensure academic growth and I do believe that means structuring assignments and group activities that promote a student’s belief that they can do the work. I do ability grouping for Math. I ensure that I keep oral instruction to a minimum and spend most of my time checking their work and reteaching skills. This makes certain that they see good scores on their daily work. I also make adjustments that include giving them notes, using charts and calculators, setting up word problems together, highlighting key words and correcting errors for either half or full credit. I also do short quizzes on the skills from the day before to aid in retention. This combined with praise, good daily work grades, limited independent work outside of the class, and keeping them near the average group in the book, allows them to feel more positively toward Math and their ability to do math.”
There are a variety of factors that contribute to academic success. But one significant one – a child’s positive self-perception of their abilities – is within a teacher’s power to influence for the better. And that is something to feel good about.
Zrinka Peters is a writer from chilly MN, where she lives with her husband and six children. Her work can be found in a variety of print and online publications.