Groundbreaking Research on Self-Esteem
Dweck's studies clearly show that when children are told they're brilliant, they often start thinking of effort as a sign of stupidity. Then as soon as they hit challenging schoolwork, they panic, and many of them quit because working hard is too threatening. "What's really effective is praising the process that the child is engaging in," Dweck explains. "Effort, strategy, perseverance, improvement—these things tell them what to do next time." In one recent experiment, junior high students took a workshop in study skills, but only one group got two 25-minute lessons about how intelligence can be developed, learning that the brain grows new neurons when challenged. In a single semester, that group improved their grades, motivation, and study habits compared with the other. "You get an owner's manual when you buy an iPod or a VCR," says Dweck, "but nobody gives you one for your brain, and it's the most important appliance you'll have."
The shift in thinking by researchers like Dweck and Baumeister dovetails with a revolutionary educational philosophy called social and emotional learning, or SEL, which takes the eminently sensible position that if students are going to be intellectual risk takers, they need to feel safe, and teaches a wide range of skills to help them navigate the world. Psychologist and science writer Daniel Goleman's best-selling 1995 book, Emotional Intelligence, made popular the idea that children, not to mention adults, can and should be instructed about empathy, self-awareness, self-discipline, establishing positive relationships, making responsible decisions, and handling challenging situations constructively. At the time, IQ was the unquestioned gauge for getting ahead in life, but Goleman argued that these other abilities are of equal consequence, key to both enhancing learning and preventing pervasive problems such as violence. Self-esteem is a part of SEL, but only a narrow slice, according to Goleman. "Self-esteem or self-efficacy has to do with a realistic assessment of your strengths and weaknesses," he says, "but SEL includes other things: how you manage stress and mobilize paralyzing emotions. Self-esteem is much better reframed as self-mastery."
Goleman tells a story about three 12-year-olds heading for gym class on the soccer field. Two of the boys, obviously athletic, are snickering behind the third, a chubby classmate. "So, you're going to try to play soccer," says one of the athletes, his voice dripping with contempt. It's a moment that can easily escalate into a fight. Instead, the chubby boy closes his eyes, takes a deep breath, and answers, "I'm going to try. But I'm not very good at it. I'm great at art—show me anything, and I can draw it. Now you," he adds, pointing to his antagonist, "you're fantastic at soccer. I'd like to be that good. Maybe if I practiced…" The athlete, now flattered and disarmed, even offers some help. In defusing the situation, the aspiring artist has performed what Goleman calls neural jujitsu, transforming the boys' shared emotional chemistry from hostile to friendly.