Emphasis on building kids' self-esteem through excessive praise hasn't been shown to improve school achievement over the past several decades.

U.S. college freshmen have been rating themselves in comparison to their peers via the American Freshman Survey since 1966, and they have never looked better — in their own eyes, that is. About nine million young people have taken the survey since it began. The results over time reveal a growing disconnect between students' high opinions of themselves and their actual ability, said a story in the Daily Mail, an English newspaper.

"While students are much more likely to call themselves gifted in writing abilities, objective test scores actually show that their writing abilities are far less than those of their 1960s counterparts," the Daily Mail said. The survey also reveals a sharp rise in the number of students who say they have a drive to succeed. Meanwhile, the time spent studying has declined. "A little more than a third of students say they study for six or more hours a week, compared to almost half of all students claiming the same in the late 1980s," the Daily Mail said.

Over the past four decades, the number of students who describe themselves as "above average" in academic ability, drive to achieve, mathematical ability and self-confidence has risen dramatically, but academic achievement has not.

A 2003 report from a consortium of U.S. universities indicates that decades of emphasis on unearned self-esteem might have backfired. The report's summary said teachers, parents, therapists and otherts have focused on boosting self-esteem on the assumption that high self-esteem will produce postive outcomes and benefits.

However, the study showed that the "modest correlations between self-esteem and school performance do not indicate that high self-esteem leads to good performance. Instead, high self-esteem is partly the result of good school performance." In other words, self-esteem can't be given; it must be earned.

"We have not found evidence that boosting self-esteem (by therapeutic interventions or school programs) causes benefits," the study summary said. "Our findings do not support continued widespread efforts to boost self- esteem in the hope that it will by itself foster improved outcomes."

A 2006 study led by John Reynolds of Florida State University combined results of numerous previous studies, and found that students have become increasingly unrealistic in their expectations for their academic futures — a phenomenon Reynolds calls "ambition inflation." Dreams of landing high-paying jobs in the future can be based on unrealistic self-appraisals, inaccurate information and scanty knowledge of job requirements, he wrote.

"Left unchecked, teenagers’ increasingly unrealistic plans for the future may depreciate the value of their expectations for future achievements by undermining motivation in secondary school, resulting in a lack of academic preparation and frustration down the road," the study said. "Unrealized plans and occupational mismatches may lead to other problems as well, such as lower lifetime earnings, risk of substance abuse, or other psychological disorders."

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Research during the last three decades shows that empty praise doesn't lead to achievement, said a story in the Washington Post. So, armed with results of recent brain research, educators are shifting their focus toward a vocabulary for praise that encourages children to work through mistakes and take on challenges. The new buzzwords are "persistence," "risk-taking" and "resilience."

"Children praised for trying hard or taking risks tend to enjoy challenges and find greater success," the Washington Post story said. "Children also perform better in the long term when they believe that their intellect is not a birthright but something that grows and develops as they learn new things."