Building Self-Esteem with Adult Learners


Denis Lawrence

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    Dr Denis Lawrence has worked for many years with children and adults who have found difficulty mastering basic literacy skills. He has researched the importance played by confidence and self-esteem in the learning process and, in 1995, he shared that knowledge with tutors and students in Link into Learning, Cornwall County Council's Adult Basic Education programme.

    Adults who come to seek help with their basic skills often do so after a lifetime of avoiding situations where they might be seen to fail. They are usually very self-depreciating and nervous. They are lacking in confidence and their self-esteem is very low. This creates a barrier to learning which can be greater than any other factor.

    We are grateful to Denis for highlighting the importance of confidence and self-esteem in being able to harness students' learning abilities to improve their skills. We are now developing an Initial Learning Programme for all new students, which concentrates on improving their confidence and self-esteem by reflecting on their learning achievements in the widest sense, giving them an understanding of their own learning strengths and weaknesses. Through this programme we aim to help students to improve their own view of themselves and give them the belief in their own ability to learn which is vital to enable them to retain the skills and knowledge they gain.

    The learning opportunities we offer are based on the principle of students taking control of their own learning. Without a belief in their own learning ability and the confidence to take on situations in which there is a risk of failure, this would be impossible.

    JanetAnderson Principal Link into Learning Cornwall's Adult Education Basic Skills Service


    When I was a boy we had a plaque upon the kitchen wall in our house which had this motto printed on it in large letters – DEFEAT IS ONLY FOR THOSE WHO ACCEPT IT. This was during the Second World War and my mother used to recite it from time to time, especially when the air-raid sirens used to sound. I doubt very much whether I understood what it meant as I was only a young boy in those days, but I do remember the feeling of security and strength it gave. Life was very different in those war years. My father, like many other fathers, was away in the Armed Forces; there was no TV and usually we played outside on the streets for our entertainment. Mostly we played happily enough, although it was not unusual for our play to be interrupted by the sound of the air-raid siren. I remember well the initial feeling of apprehension as the warning siren sounded and we made our way to the air-raid shelter in the garden. Once we had made the relative safety of the shelter my mother would talk to us reassuringly and the motto on the kitchen wall often cropped up in the conversation. Many years have gone by since those troubled times, but on various occasions since I have found myself reciting this motto, usually in times of stress, and it has always provided me with the same sense of security and optimism I experienced a long time ago whenever it was recited. I commend it to all those students who may from time to time be faced with stress in their lives and may at times doubt their ability to make progress.

    The Growing Interest in Self-Esteem Enhancement

    During the winter of 19951 had occasion to visit an adult education centre in the small Cornish town of St Austell. This centre is much like many others around the country. People meet there regularly for help with their literacy skills provided for them by dedicated tutors, many of whom are volunteers. It was noticed, however, that this centre was unusual. The approach of the tutors was not the usual kind of tutoring. Students were chatting with their tutors and it became clear that the students were not only receiving help with their reading, writing and spelling but were also being valued and given opportunity to talk about themselves. It seemed to me that a more accurate description of what was taking place was not merely ‘tutoring’ but ‘self-esteem enhancement’. Self-esteem was being raised at the same time as improvements in literacy skills were taking place. After discussing this with the tutors, it also became clear that this self-esteem approach was taking place intuitively and with no theoretical base. It occurred to me that their approach could be even more effective if the tutors were given a sound theoretical base for what they were doing and perhaps a more structured programme to raise self-esteem.

    Accordingly, two workshops on the topic of Self-Esteem Enhancement were organised at which the principles outlined in this book were discussed together with practical role-playing exercises in raising self-esteem. Following the workshops the tutors agreed to assess the effects of their self-esteem tutoring and students were assessed on standardised measures of reading, spelling, self-esteem and general confidence.

    Six months later, they were reassessed on all measures and the results were truly astounding. Dramatic gains had been made on all variables. It had been anticipated that another adult literacy tutored group which had not received the self-esteem workshops would act as a control group. Although this group had agreed to be tested at the outset of the experiment, unfortunately it proved impossible to reassess them for various reasons outside my control. Critics of the method could therefore rightly conclude that without a control group it is not possible to claim that the self-esteem input was entirely responsible for the dramatic rises. However, in the light of my previous research into the effects of self-esteem enhancement with children it would not seem unreasonable to conclude that the particular self-esteem approach adopted by these tutors was indeed the main reason for the dramatic improvements. Further support for this conclusion came from discussing the results with the students themselves, who claimed in no uncertain terms that they felt so much more confident since their sessions. Research in the area of the psychological construct known as self-esteem would certainly support this view.

    The Self-Esteem Construct

    The self-esteem construct is recognised today to be a major factor in learning outcomes. Research has consistently shown a positive correlation between how people value themselves and the level of their academic attainments. Those who feel confident generally achieve more, while those who lack confidence in themselves achieve less. People tend to behave in terms of how they perceive themselves. Those who believe that they are capable of succeeding are more likely to do so, because a person's image of themselves largely determines what they do. The self-image is a motivator. Moreover, those with high self-esteem not only achieve more but tend also to lead more satisfying lives. The high self-esteem person is more spontaneous in relationships with others and impresses as being more trustworthy. Other people warm to them more quickly as a result so that they have a greater chance of finding satisfaction in their relationships.

    The development of high self-esteem, therefore, should be just as valuable a goal for educationists as the development of intellectual skills; and research supports this view.

    The research indicates that self-esteem and intellectual attainments are inextricably linked, with both affecting and influencing each other. It is not possible to separate the emotions from the intellect. The person who is over-anxious, for instance, is not able to think as clearly; and the person who has a problem thinking clearly is likely to become anxious about it. A learning programme which does not take this phenomenon into account is not going to function effectively.

    Education, of whatever skill, needs to be concerned with the whole person and not just with that part known as the intellect. Although, traditionally, education has not ignored the role of the emotions the focus has been mainly on the negative emotions – questions of control and punishment, particularily with children in schools. In today's educational climate, however, teachers usually appreciate the positive role of emotions and the need to establish rapport with their pupils. It is the emotions associated with the self-concept, however, which still appear relatively neglected. Tutors need to be aware of the need people have for self-esteem. They will become more skilled as tutors once they have appreciated this need and then learned how to organise their tutoring to cater for it.

    It is now 20 years since my research into enhancing self-esteem in the classroom, which culminated in a book of the same title, and it is pleasing to note that today many teachers in the primary and secondary sectors of education are putting into practice the results of that research and teaching for the improvement of self-esteem. In the field of further and higher education, however, it seems that the powerful role of the pupil's self-esteem in learning is not always fully appreciated, despite the evidence that self-esteem and attainments complement each other. Although most tutors recognise the importance of establishing good rapport and of maintaining the self-esteem of their students, it is rare for tutors to organise their tutoring sessions systematically so that they are designed for self-esteem enhancement. This book aims to correct that omission and to provide those interested tutors with practical methods of self-esteem enhancement to be used alongside the teaching of the basic literacy skills. If this is done successfully students will not only have improved their literacy skills but will also have become happier people.


    I wish to offer my thanks and my admiration to all those students and their tutors engaged on adult literacy courses throughout the county of Cornwall. I wish to give a special thanks to those in the Saltash Link into Learning Centre who so willingly continue to gave up their time to talk to me. A particular thanks to the tutors and students on the St Austell Link into Learning course, who agreed to participate in the experiments referred to in the book during which the self-esteem approach to tutoring was outlined.

    I am gratefully indebted to my wife, Anne, for her valuable support and encouragement to me while completing the manuscript and also for her valuable suggestions and amendments to the manuscript. Finally, thanks to Marianne Lagrange at Paul Chapman Publishing whose expert guidance and advice throughout the writing of the manuscript has been invaluable.


    The ability to read is something most of us take for granted as it is a skill we learned a long time ago when at school. For some people, however, reading was something they found difficult to learn when at school and the problem has persisted well into their adult years. The precise number of people who fall into this category is unclear but from official surveys it seems likely that as many as 25 per cent of the population of the English-speaking world have a reading problem of some kind, ranging from not being able to read at all to having a limited level of reading attainment where reading is a slow and laborious process. In addition to a reading problem many of these people have associated difficulties with spelling and writing.

    The causes of literacy difficulties have occupied educationalists for decades and from the plethora of research on the topic it is clear that there are a variety of reasons for the problem. Whatever the reasons, the emotional and social consequences of not being able to read and spell properly are distressing. The embarrassment of having to admit to not being able to fill in the simplest form can be the source of acute distress. In addition, living in a largely literate society, such people are isolated from so much that the more literate take for granted and the barriers they can encounter are numerous. Occupational choices are obviously limited, leisure opportunities are restricted, and even a simple visit to the local shop can produce severe problems for those unable to read. For some, the continual pressure of learning to cope with their literacy weakness can result in enormous stress. So what began a long time ago in school as an educational problem gradually becomes a social and emotional problem. With regular failure in a skill that society values, people eventually lose confidence in themselves generally. It should come as no surprise to discover that there is an association between literacy skills and self-esteem. People who have low attainments in literacy usually have lower self-esteem than the rest of us.

    It is interesting to note that people who have low self-esteem react to this problem in different ways according to their basic temperament. The more introverted will tend to react by withdrawing from social contacts and be nervous and timid. The more extraverted in temperament will kick back at a world they perceive as being unfair and may become either aggressive or boastful and arrogant.

    It is also interesting that the research into self-esteem shows that people tend to behave according to how they perceive themselves. So those who perceive themselves as poor readers, for example, are not so likely to pick up a book or to visit a library. This example shows how a person's self-image acts as a motivator, determining experiences. This is why it is so important for tutors to help students change their self-image and begin to see themselves more positively. Without a change in their perception of themselves, even if students learn to read they are not likely to bother to practise their new-found skills outside the tutoring session. Their habit of viewing themselves as poor readers will continue. The main aim of this book is to demonstrate to tutors how they can help students change this negative perception of themselves to more a positive one and so enhance their self-esteem.

    It is probably true that tutors working in the field of adult literacy are intuitively aware of the importance of helping students with their self-esteem. Very few tutors, however, are aware of the various strategies available that have been designed specifically to enhance self-esteem, or have a knowledge of self-esteem theory. A further aim of the book is to provide tutors with an opportunity to refine their own, often intuitive approach to self-esteem enhancement by practising these strategies (and in so doing they will enhance their own self-esteem also).

    The first chapters aim to provide tutors with an understanding of students7 psychological needs and also to give tutors guidance on developing specific teaching skills in themselves conducive to self-esteem enhancement. Chapter 1 consists of a description of self-concept theory and illustrates how this concept is related to achievement. Chapter 2 helps tutors understand the individual differences encountered among students and also the factors that contribute to the development of self-esteem. This section also illustrates the psychology of individual differences in temperament and the origins of these. Chapter 3 discusses the development of self-esteem in the student with special educational needs. Ways of maintaining motivation and also how to monitor and record the progress of students without reducing their self-esteem are discussed in Chapter 4. Chapter 5 focuses on developing skills in the tutor that contribute to the enhancement of self-esteem in their students. It draws on the relevant research illustrating how the tutor should try to develop particular qualities in themselves. A selection of exercises and activities is presented for this purpose. Chapter 6 focuses on organising the tutoring session within a self-esteem enhancing framework. It also discusses some common problems in the classroom.

    The final chapter of the book consists of the Self-Esteem Enhancement Programme with exercises and strategies for developing self-esteem in students. The Programme, which in its entirety consists of six session, is presented in individual sessions. A selection of activities on a specific theme is presented in each session. It may not always be necessary for students to follow the whole programme. Sometimes only part of the programme may be used, as for example for a student who appears to be generally well adjusted but seems to need to be more assertive. In this case only the exercises on developing assertion would be given as outlined in Session 4. Each session has independent merit and so can be used selectively in this way or in combination with other sessions as deemed necessary. The sessions should be regarded as resources to be used as and when the tutor deems necessary, with some of the activities given as ‘homework’ and for discussion at the next meeting. The final chapter in the book suggests ways of developing a positive lifestyle and should be of value to both students and tutors.

    It is hoped that Building Self-Esteem with Adult Learners will prove useful both for tutors employed in colleges of further education, teaching basic literacy courses, and also for volunteer tutors engaged in adult literacy programmes. Whether the students have only recently left school, or whether they are adults with long-standing literacy difficulties, they will all have in common the need for self-esteem enhancement.

  • Selected Bibliography

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    Branden, N. (1995) Six Pillars of Self-Esteem. London, Bantam.
    Burns, R. B. (1979) The Self-concept. London, Longman.
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    Case, F.(1993) How To Study: A Practical Guide. Basingstoke, MacMillan.
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    Jung, C. G. (1921) Psychological Types. London, Routledge & Kegan Paul.
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    Leader, D. (1990) How To Pass Exams. Cheltenham, Thorne.
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    Peelo, M. (1994) Helping Students with Study Problems. Buckingham, Open University.
    Phares, E. J. (1976) Locus of Control in Personality. New Jersey, General Learning Press.
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    Williams, E. G. (1965) Vocational Counselling. New York, McGraw-Hill.

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