Paying attention to pupils' insecurities and social anxieties is very important, argues Robin Banerjee, lecturer at the University of Sussex
When we are with other people, it’s quite common to think about how we are coming across to them. And when we really want to make a good impression on others – at a job interview, or on a date, for example – this can become a real worry. We often try to control how we look, what we say, and what we do in order to make desired impressions on others.
But how does this attention to our ‘self-presentation’ first develop? Most people who work with children and young people will recognise that, as children grow older, they become increasingly aware of the impressions they make on others. In fact, some children seem to be preoccupied with the impact they make – wanting to do the ‘right’ thing in order to have the ‘right’ image and gain status within their peer group.
The importance of self-presentation has been recognised by social psychologists for many decades. But it is only fairly recently that developmental psychologists have begun to examine how children and adolescents become aware of – and concerned about – their self-presentation. Work in this area has helped us to understand the role played by self-presentational processes in young people’s behaviours and feelings.
One of the starting points in my own research on self-presentation was to find out how the early development of self-presentation was related to children’s cognitive development. After all, thinking about self-presentation is quite complex: you have to think about what someone else is thinking about you.
In fact, my studies have shown that children’s understanding of self-presentation is closely connected to their performance on ‘theory of mind’ tasks (tasks measuring children’s understanding of mental states and how they are linked to behaviour). In this research, I showed that many of the basic skills needed to think about self-presentation develop between around four and six years of age.
But just because a child is able to think about how he or she is coming across to other people doesn’t mean that he or she will think about that! In an ongoing investigation with four- to eight-year-old children, my colleagues and I are looking at the types of social experiences that encourage young children to start thinking about the impressions they are making on other people.
Two of our most recent studies show that situations where children violate social norms (ie, do things that go against conventional expectations, such as a boy playing with girls’ toys, or wearing different clothes from everyone else) seem to be the situations where they begin to think about their self-presentation. This is likely to be because these are situations where other people focus attention on you, and maybe even ridicule you. This audience reaction seems to force children to think about their ‘image’, and often provokes feelings of self-consciousness and embarrassment.
Peer group acceptance
In many recent studies of self-presentation in children, big increases in self-presentational concerns have been found in the second half of primary school. Although younger children can find themselves in embarrassing situations that make them think about their self-presentation, older children and teenagers seem to be more generally concerned about how they are coming across to others. Why might this be?
Developmental psychologists have shown that, from around eight years of age, a major goal in children’s social life is to gain acceptance into peer groups. This largely depends on fitting in with group norms, and behaving in ways that give them status. In many of my studies, it was from around this age onwards that children started to say things like ‘He doesn’t want them to think he’s a baby’, ‘She doesn’t want to look stupid’, or ‘Otherwise everyone would laugh at them’. In fact, much of my work has shown that children are much more likely to think about self-presentation when interacting with peers than when interacting with adults.
The experience of peer pressure is probably something with which we are all quite familiar. And when it comes to peer pressure regarding antisocial, unhealthy, or illegal activities, research that helps us understand what is going on becomes especially important. I believe that tracing the development of self-presentational processes is crucial for understanding how some young people become particularly vulnerable to negative peer pressures.
Research has indicated that susceptibility to anti-social peer suggestions increases between around nine and 14 years – around the same time that we see increasing attention to self-presentation.
In fact, our own research has shown that individual children as young as eight or nine years old can be identified as being especially concerned about peer pressure. For example, in one recent series of studies, we showed that children who were rejected by their classmates were especially likely to feel that they had to act in a certain way, look a certain way, like certain things, and have certain things, in order to ‘fit in’ and be liked.
These concerns about fitting in can potentially lead to all sorts of problem behaviours. In one programme of research, I found that children at the end of primary school can often start to downplay academic skills when in front of peers, in an effort to maintain what they see as a desirable peer reputation. And other research has shown that some teenagers’ concerns about self-presentation can lead to high-risk sexual behaviours, substance use and delinquency. Adding to the problem is the fact that certain dominant individuals within the peer group – who are perceived to be very popular even if they are not genuinely very well-liked – can make these kinds of negative and dangerous behaviours seem desirable or attractive.
Although all of us have experienced occasions where we have been worried about how we come across to other people, it seems clear that self-presentation might be more important to some people than to others. There is one clinical condition in particular where self-presentation is thought to play an especially big role: social anxiety disorder. Socially anxious symptoms can be reliably measured in children using self-report questionnaires from around eight years of age, and one of the core components is the fear of negative evaluation by others.
Research has shown that children and adolescents with high levels of social anxiety expect to perform worse in social encounters, and judge their performance more negatively afterwards. So when these children’s negative beliefs are combined with concerns about how they’re coming across to others, they end up with high levels of fear, nervousness, and anxiety. For some young people, these feelings can be overwhelming every time they work with others in the classroom, every time they play with others in the playground, and in just about every other peer interaction.
One of my most recent studies has focused on the profile of socially anxious children between eight and ten years of age. We found that children with high levels of social anxiety were much more likely to try and use various self-presentational strategies – agreeing with what others say so that they would be liked, giving excuses before doing something hard, etc. But these strategies often didn’t work for them – we found evidence suggesting that these children could be so preoccupied with how they come across to others that they didn’t respond effectively to the other people in the situation.
My research investigations into self-presentation over the last ten years (see the box, right, for some references) have shown that as children grow older, they become increasingly aware of the way they are seen and judged by others.
The basic cognitive skills for thinking about self-presentation seem to be present by the time children are five or six years old, but the increased focus on self-presentation later in primary school seems to be driven largely by the goal of peer group acceptance. Unfortunately, for at least some young people, these processes can contribute to chronic problems of social anxiety, or can lead them to disengage from school and participate in risky activities.
More and more work is showing that young people’s self-presentational concerns play a key role in their behaviours and their feelings. In fact, paying attention to these concerns may be a critical part of supporting pupils’ social and emotional development in school. As we all know, messages from adults at school about ‘what to do’ or ‘how to behave’ sometimes seem to fall on deaf ears, and this is likely to happen at least partly because of young people’s concerns about self-presentation within their peer group. I believe that young people need opportunities to think critically about ‘image’ and to reflect on what is really driving their behaviour.
When children and adolescents explore these issues with each other – through discussion, drama, art, writing, and a whole host of other activities – they are not only gaining more insight into their feelings and behaviours in the past, but they are also building a stronger foundation for making more informed choices in the future. What is more, these discussions and activities offer adults at school a valuable window into the complex social world of their pupils.
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