Self-esteem is the sum of a number of different judgements a person makes about their own worth in comparison with others. It is a perceptual judgement meaning that only a small part is based on the reality of a person's situation relative to others. Instead the judgement reflects their personality, their thinking and beliefs and is heavily influenced by early childhood experiences.
Schools rightly reward achievement in learning and those that do well academically can benefit from opportunities for positive praise, recognition of their 'cleverness' and increased life choices that examination success can bring. For students who do not 'shine' academically their sense of self-worth may receive little or no boost from their school work. Where they struggle academically this can reinforce already established negative self-esteem.
Any large society is complex and each of us tries to find our place in it by identifying with sub-groups who share similar characteristics to ourselves. These groups may have their own unique culture which places emphasis on different values and social rules to the wider society. This in turn attributes status to individuals based on how well their behaviour, attitudes and thinking aligns with these values and rules. Thus a person's sense of self worth is heavily influenced by their cultural identities. This may help shelter a person from wider societal negativity. For example, though a particular ethnic minority might be viewed poorly by wider society, a member of that group may receive positive affirmation and status with the group. Equally, a person away from the shelter of their sub-cultural group may experience a 'shock' to their sense of self-worth when initially exposed to wider society or different sub-cultural groups.
For young children, particularly those from minority groups, arriving at school for the first time can be a culture shock. Their sense of identity in the world is challenged and this leads to the need to re-evaluate their sense of self-worth. How schools respond in terms of equality education; and more importantly equality of care, provision and interaction; will determine whether each individual's self-esteem is positively or negatively affected.
As children mature, the contribution that peers make to their perceptions of self-identity, social confidence and self-worth increases significantly. During the teenage years, how you feel that you are perceived and judged by your peers is probably the most important factor contributing to self-esteem. Adolescence is a challenging and confusing time and self-esteem is bound up with how you feel you 'fit in' with your peer group. Socially shy students can be particularly vulnerable during this time even where they have other protective factors such as good academic achievement.
In western society there is a psychological bias towards the wealthy as being better and more deserving than those from poorer backgrounds. Regardless of merit it is easy to feel that you are not as worthy as those with larger homes and better cars etc. Wealth gives power and more control over life choices. Those with less wealth may feel more powerless and experience resentment and envy of those that are economically richer. This is a woefully simplistic description of economic divisions in society and in reality it is far more stratified and complex. An individual is more influenced by those around them in there everyday interactions and particularly by any social grouping they identify with than any wider divisions in society. You can be a 'king among thieves' or 'the poor relation' to the aristocracy. Thus it is the comparison of differences from their peers, in their own community, that has the most impact on an individual's self-esteem.
What is poor self-esteem?
The sum of the judgements that a person makes leads untimately to them feeling positive or negative about themselves. This is not fixed but fluctuates over time in response to the many factors that influence self-esteem. When a person views themselves negatively this is poor self-esteem. An individual, particularly children, may not be consciously aware of their poor self-esteem. They and others are more likely to perceive it as one of the following characteristics:
not fitting in
not being very good
fear of failure
lacking social skills