Have you ever seen a photo of someone who has visited Pisa in Italy? If so, you may well have seen a picture of someone looking as if they were holding up the famous leaning tower. An illusion made possible by lining up the hands of someone ‘holding up the air’ with the tower set in the distance. I have never been to Pisa but I am sure that the area in front of the iconic leaning building is littered with tourists with their hands in the air and people clicking phone cameras.
It strikes me that this illusion of holding up a falling building offers a great metaphor for the true link between giving feedback and supporting wellbeing. Ten years ago, many schools enthusiastically responded to well meaning advice suggesting that fragile self-esteem needed to be raised with exuberant praise. In addition, this advice dammed the sporting arena for zapping the confidence out of all those who didn’t win the carnival cup. We were told that we could almost literally “fill our children with self-esteem” by filling them with praise and a sense that they were ‘always a winner’.
We now know that blanket praise quickly becomes meaningless to anyone on the receiving end. It can also quickly seem controlling and judgmental. Similarly, if everyone is deemed a winner in the running race, no one believes they have really won. The result is an abundance of meaningless commentary that takes attention away from the worthy details of performance. Taking light and shade out of feedback lowers the standards by which we judge ourselves and does little to enhance self-esteem.
More recently, both here in Australia, and in the UK, I have seen schools acknowledging that universal praise has indeed been unhelpful in building self-esteem. This has led many to suggest that competition and a wider array of results need to be reinstated in the school system. The alarming drop in self-esteem in young people has been accompanied by a rise in mental health issues in recent years. Many current reports suggest that adolescents today have a one in four chance of getting a serious mental health issue. Some have suggested that one of the reasons young people are so vulnerable is their lack of resiliency. Certainly, resiliency enables us to bounce back from life’s inevitable challenges more easily, and to stay happier and healthier in the process. Consequently, some schools have begun to encourage competition to give kids the chance to learn how to fail. Gone is the strategy for blanket praise and universal winning. Instead these schools are hoping that experiences of failure and receiving more varied feedback, may teach resilience and build wellbeing.
I suggest that this roller coaster approach to supporting youth mental health is akin to the mirage of holding up the building. Relying on abundant praise or, in contrast, ‘losing in a safe environment’ to bolster self-esteem, assumes that the person in the photo really is holding up the leaning tower of Pisa. Self-esteem and resiliency do not come from others views of us, good or bad. We do not feel good about ourselves because someone else says we are great. Nor do we learn to bounce back in life because someone else says we have failed and must climb back on the horse. Imagine being upset and someone telling you ‘to cheer up’ or that it is ‘all OK’…it simply does not help.
There is no easy formula for building self-esteem in others. Self-esteem has to be built from within – it cannot be handed out with a smiley sticker. Resiliency does not come from having to cope with achieving last place in the hurdles race.
In reality unhappy people find happiness when they learn to judge themselves positively, not because someone else has told them ‘everything is fine’. Resiliency comes from a strong sense of self, not from the outcome of a race or competition.
Resilient people have a strong positive identity that is not dependent on external judgments and outcomes. As such, resiliency is not about experiencing repeated wins or losses per se, but rather about how we view the relevance of these wins or losses to our identity. Resilient people have an identity that stands apart from others praise or the outcome of a competition. This does not mean that losing isn’t ever upsetting, but rather that losing or facing other life challenges does not equate to losing your sense of self.
Rather than trying to create an image of supporting the ‘leaning tower of self-esteem’ with constant praise or judgments of failure, we need to turn our attentions towards other ways of nurturing wellbeing in young people. We need to help others to help themselves by offering them support in building their own positive identity. This is most effectively done through strategies that help a student to identify and build on their strengths and to feel safe and comfortable in their social environment.
Help students create a positive social environment by focusing on strategies that enable them to form connections with others (develop friendships), feel emotionally and physically safe in the classroom and feel like a valued group member (have shared goals and ideals). Encourage empathy and tolerance. Provide as much opportunity as possible for students to collaborate and get to know each other. Ensure that students learn the rules of assertive behaviour and communicate with respect.
Support students in their development of their personal identity as a cheerleader rather than as an imparter of knowledge. Rather than tell a student that their work is great, encourage them to see the strengths in what they have achieved for themselves. Encourage self-reflection at the end of every task – self-reflection that incorporates a focus on the positive aspects of learning. Even when someone loses the race they may have enjoyed competing in some capacity. Sometimes the big picture can be daunting but joy can still be found in the details.
Support wellbeing by providing opportunity for students to develop a strong social and personal identity. Overall, I suggest that the most vital thing that any person can do is take a genuine interest in each individual as a valued member of the school community. Learning to listen and express empathy are far more powerful skills than learning a new way for giving feedback.
Dr Helen Street is an applied social psychologist with a passion for education. She presents her work in books, articles and in seminars and workshops for schools. Helen is also passionately involved in the ongoing development of The Positive Schools conferences, www.positiveschools.com.au, launching soon for 2015.