Grades and Self-Esteem in School-Aged Children

Available for Interviews: Dr. Pete Loper

Dr. Pete Loper, MD, MSEd, FAAP, is a triple board-certified physician in pediatrics, psychiatry, and child psychiatry. He is also a professor and executive coach and is dedicated to mental health and wellness advocacy.

What Dr. Loper could say on
Grades and Self-Esteem:

Consistent with Carol Dweck’s research on “growth mindset,” struggle is a normal part of development. According to John Bowlby’s Attachment Theory, struggle in the context of the approach and exploration of new experiences is the rate-limiting step to healthy human development. Further, both Bowlby and his successor in Attachment research, Mary Ainsworth, identified the relationship between a child and their “experienced others” (parents, teachers) as the fundamental ingredient required to support continued approach and exploration in the context of struggle. Put simply, outcomes such as grades are a manifestation of the process, and your child’s willingness and motivation to engage in the process, i.e. to try, try again (growth mindset) is informed by a child’s interactions with parents and teachers. 

The impact of grades on your
child’s self-esteem

    • We live in an outcome-oriented society, and consequently, value is often conferred based on measurables like grades. That said, none of us would ever minimize the value of our children to a letter grade in school. However, when we overemphasize outcomes like grades and reward our children for good grades and punish them for bad, we are reinforcing this socially prescribed construct that their value is contingent upon outcome. Instead, consistent with Carol Dweck’s research, when we praise the process, i.e. the effort and struggle, we minimize the impact of grades on our child’s self-esteem. By praising the process, grades can become a powerful frame for formative development that ultimately manifests as healthy self-esteem regardless of the letters on the report card.  
    • School-aged children work to develop a sense of competence and belonging, and most of this work is done in school. School-aged children are in the stage of psychosocial development defined by Erik Erikson as “industry vs. inferiority.” By overemphasizing outcomes, like grades, you are setting them up to feel inferior and incompetent. No child can be perfect. Instead, by praising the process, you set the foundation for them to continue to engage in the struggle so that when failure inevitably occurs, whether in elementary school or beyond, they have the sense of competence and the self-esteem to continue to try-try again.  
    • From the time we are born to the time that we die, human beings are in a perpetual state of development. Whether referencing Dweck, Bowlby, Ainsworth, or Dan Goleman’s research on emotional intelligence, with the best data we have, we know that healthy development and success, are contingent upon an individual’s capacity to navigate the struggle and motivate to try-try again.
    • When adults in children’s environments overemphasize outcomes like grades, they indoctrinate children into the “fixed mindset” that inhibits their motivation, development, and thereby self-esteem. Supporting your child in praising their process allows them to develop the “power of yet,” and to establish the growth mindset to overcome challenges regardless of the grades on their report cards.


Interview: Dr. Pete Loper

Dr. Pete Loper began his undergraduate studies in English at Kenyon College prior to completing his premedical coursework and Bachelor of Arts at the University of South Carolina (U of SC).  He earned his Doctor of Medicine from the University of South Carolina School of Medicine, and his Master of Science in Education from the University of Pennsylvania.  Following medical school, Dr. Loper completed a residency in pediatrics. He then worked as a pediatrician in a private practice setting while completing a second residency in psychiatry and a fellowship in child and adolescent psychiatry.  He has also completed the American Psychoanalytic Association’s Psychoanalytic Fellowship Program and the Teleos Leadership Institute’s Coach Development Program.

Dr. Loper has been featured in numerous academic publications and media outlets and it is through these channels that he can dedicate his time to being an advocate for mental health and wellness.

Jo Allison
Managing Editor
Director of Public Relations
Success In Media, Inc.

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