“I’m no good at this!” 

How Children’s Self-Concept Relates to Their Academic Performance

Have you ever heard your child say something like, “I’m horrible at math!” or “I’m so dumb?” It probably hurts your heart a little to hear them say these things. You may be wondering if these feelings really impact how children learn and perform in their academic work. In other words, does a child’s feelings about their abilities (i.e., self-concept) actually impact their learning and performance?

From a parent’s perspective, it seems clear that children’s feelings about their abilities would matter. From a research perspective, however, it’s helpful to understand if this process really happens and how. It’s a question that researchers have been examining in various ways for years. Recently, several researchers have found compelling evidence to suggest that the relationship between self-concept and academic performance is strong and consistent.

Most recently, research from the University of Michigan showed that children’s self-concept of their math and reading ability predicted their future performance in these subjects. Interestingly, this finding held true after considering many other factors and across all achievement levels. That is, it didn’t matter whether the children were high-performers or struggling, their self-concept influenced their performance. Children who had more positive beliefs about their abilities in math and reading performed better in these areas. 

This clearly shows the power of self-concept. How children feel about themselves and their abilities really matters for their academic performance. 

While this research is compelling, it also raises more questions. How and when is self-concept formed? Are there things parents can do to help children develop positive self-concept?

Luckily, research can help us answer these questions as well. Much research suggests that children begin to compare their abilities to others around the age of 8. Then, over the next several years, a more fully developed idea of self-concept about academic abilities emerges. This is especially important for parents to understand so that they can start monitoring their child’s self-concept and intervene if necessary.

Although children’s development of self-concept is probably multi-faceted, one clear influence is parents and how they communicate with their children. One study found that parents’ quality (but not quantity) of communication with their children was linked to their academic performance, but not only directly. The key factor that mediated this association was self-concept. That’s right, parents’ communication patterns influenced the development of children’s self-concept. As previously stated, children’s self-concept influences their academic performance.

What does all this mean for parents? How can parents communicate with children in ways that foster a positive self-concept? The research points to a few features of communication that help children develop a positive self-concept:

  • Trust ⏤ parents who express trust in their children. This helps children feel that they are trustworthy. 
  • Understanding ⏤ parents who try to understand their children’s perspectives. This encourages children to feel as though their thoughts matter.
  • Collaboration ⏤ parents who invite collaboration with children in decision-making and discussion. This type of interaction helps children feel that their opinions are taken into consideration.
  • Encouraging and supporting children in their academic work. These actions support children’s positive feelings about their academic work.

These ways of communicating help foster positive self-concept through helping children feel confident in themselves and their abilities. This style of communication helps foster a bit of autonomy in children while still remaining emotionally connected with their parents. Similarly, parents’ encouragement and support of their children’s academic endeavors contributes to their positive assessment of their abilities.

Although your child’s occasional expression of “I’m no good at math” might not doom their academic performance, it’s worth noting that how children feel about their abilities can really influence their performance. By encouraging healthy communication with them and offering encouragement, parents can help support the development of children’s positive self-concept. While positive self-concept takes years of everyday interaction to build, it is a powerful factor in supporting children’s academic achievement.

The information provided on this site is NOT medical advice and is for informational purposes only. It is not intended to diagnose, provide medical or behavioral advice, treat, prevent, or cure any disease, condition, or behavior. You should consult with a qualified healthcare professional regarding your child’s development, to make a medical diagnosis, determine a treatment for a medical condition, or obtain other related advice.

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