Self-Esteem and Home Schooling Socialization Research: A Work in Progress

David J. Francis, Psy.D., and Timothy Z. Keith, Ph.D.
Division of School Psychology
Alfred University
Saxon Drive
Alfred, New York 14802

Keywords: Homeschooling, home schooling, home education, socialization, research

American public school systems have been the primary medium within which children have been acculturated into mainstream American society during recent history. These institutions have been supported by the conventional wisdom of a nation, and enforced by early attendance laws (Noll, 1991). A growing number of families across the nation, however, have chosen to challenge conventional wisdom by educating their children at home, and have done so due to a variety of reasons (Gray, 1993; Knowles, 1988; Lines, 1994). Previous studies have indicated that home educators are a diverse group that share various educational, philosophical, and religious backgrounds (Mayberry, 1989; Ray, 1989). Moreover, they often share concerns regarding the lack of religious teachings in public schools and the negative influences of their children’s peer culture, while questioning the quality of the education received in conventional school settings (Dahm, 1996; Mayberry, 1989; Murray, 1996). Home school families note the positive socialization aspects of home schooling such as increased family support, respect, and feelings of self-worth (Lines, 1994; Mayberry, 1989). Critics of home educating families, however, question the resulting social skills of children denied the traditional exposure to the social interaction provided in conventional schools (Kantrowitz & Wingert, 1998; Murray, 1996). While there has been an attempt to address this debate, the research examining the socialization of home schooled children is in its infancy.
A review of this research suggests that more empirically valid studies are needed, as the majority of these studies have utilized the constructs of self-esteem and self-concept when examining this domain. These constructs are insufficient indicators of social behavior for all persons, whether home or conventionally educated.
The purposes of this article are to:
(1) challenge current thinking about the influence of self-esteem in home and conventional schools,
(2) present problems with self-esteem as a measure of appropriate socialization by examining the history of this construct, reviewing empirical research on the subject, and noting the methodological concerns that accompany the use of this construct in research, and
(3) review the use of self-esteem within the home schooling literature; this literature review will (a) note the interpretive weakness of this construct in relation to social behavior, (b) explore the limitations of measuring self-esteem within the home school socialization literature, and (c) suggest an increased emphasis on higher quality methodology for future research within the home school socialization domain.
As defined in the Webster’s New World Dictionary (1972) self-esteem is believing in one’s self, having self-respect, or undue pride in one’s self. The similar construct of self-concept is defined as an individual’s conception of himself and his identity, abilities, and worth (Guralnik, 1972). Although both constructs include one’s idea of self, self-esteem appears to be related to how one feels about one’s self-worth, whereas self-concept is more synonymous with how one thinks or evaluates one’s self. For the purposes of this paper, the term self-esteem (how one feels about self) will be used to mean both self-esteem and self-concept, as both constructs are synonymous with the notion that a person’s inner beliefs about himself will influence his decisions and actions in some manner.
The Overemphasis of Self-Esteem in Research on
Home and Conventional Education

The influence of home schooling on the social aspects of children’s lives has been researched by a variety of different approaches. For example, social adjustment, social maturity (Delahooke, 1986; Shyers, 1992; Smedley, 1992), and leadership skills (Montgomery, 1989) have been examined, as well as family interaction patterns (Carson, 1990) and social opportunities available to home schooled children (Chatham-Carpenter, 1994; Wartes, 1987). However, the bulk of these socialization studies have examined the self-esteem differences of conventional (i.e. public and private) and home educated students, and have used this concept as an indicator of appropriate socialization (Hedin, 1991; Kelley, 1991; Kitchen, 1991; Stough, 1992; Taylor, 1986; Tillman, 1995). Home school families often report that higher self-esteem is an additional benefit of their children being educated at home (Hedin, 1991; Wartes, 1987). Results indicate home schooled children have equivalent to above-average self-esteem in relation to national norms. The reasons for the higher levels of self-esteem in home educated children is unknown, and has led researchers to speculate other causes such as quality of family relationships and parenting (Kelly, 1991). However, exploring the reasons why average to high self-esteem has been found in home schooled children may not be as important as asking what this construct actually measures.
The notion that our self-esteem in some manner influences our behavior is not new. In fact, the construct of self-esteem is very embedded in American conventional educational and social philosophy (Scheirer & Kraut, 1979). The term self-esteem is often heard in discussions by educators and parents when searching for reasons for various problems such as lower school performance, violence, crime, and sexual activity. Debates have erupted over the role self-esteem plays, if any, in the development of social and academic skills (Holly, 1987). These debates are often based on how high self-esteem is acquired and the possible influence self-esteem has on academic or social performance. Based on the assumption that high self-esteem causes higher academic achievement and social development, many schools have made the enhancement of student self-esteem a top priority (Finn, 1989; Holly, 1987). These educators often arm themselves with the assumption that children with higher self-esteem are “well adjusted and inclined to be socially competent” (Moore, 1979, p.58 as cited in Hedin, 1991; Kelley, 1991;) while those with low self-esteem will fall behind (Learner, 1985). As a result, many programs have been endorsed to increase the self-esteem of children regardless of what the research suggests. The problems with self-esteem are numerous, and will be discussed below via an exploration of this construct’s historical beginnings, research implications, methodological concerns, and problems experienced with using this construct in the home school literature.

Self-Esteem: Varying Historical Perspectives

Holly (1987) compiled a bulletin of empirical research for the purpose of clarifying some of the central issues in the self-esteem debate, such as the definitional variation of this construct, its weak relation to academic achievement, and the unnecessary prioritizing of this concept in public schools. The term self-esteem has no standard definition across research studies. Its meaning varies depending on the context and theoretical orientation of each researcher’s perspective (Holly, 1987). A brief discussion taken from this bulletin is provided below to demonstrate past and current theoretical variation that has accompanied this construct from the beginning.
The shortcomings of the construct self-esteem were noted by its creator William James in 1890. William James believed that self-esteem was more than self-enhancement (Holly, 1987). Specifically, higher self-esteem resulted from experiencing failure and social comparison to others that ultimately would bring about renewed effort to achieve. However, as early as 1890 he also noted a significant problem with measuring this concept, as he described the tendency of the concept to “rise and fall like a barometer” (Wade & Tavris, 1990, p. 408).
Alfred Adler and Abraham Maslow (Holly, 1987) at first shared views similar to James by supporting the importance of failing prior to achieving as a necessity for further striving and increasing self-esteem (Holly, 1987, p. 4). Adler and Maslow also emphasized the importance of striving for superiority over others as a drive that would lead to higher self-esteem. Eventually, Adler believed that the drive of humans for improvement is the quest for perfection. Maslow also altered his notions of self-improvement by de-emphasizing the need for power and superiority over others. Specifically, Maslow placed less emphasis on the self and argued that personal development was a life long process one must endure when striving toward self-actualization (Holly, 1987). The best way to attain high self-esteem, according to Maslow, was to eliminate self-esteem as a goal in itself, and to instead concentrate on doing things that are worthwhile in themselves (Holly, 1987).
Karen Horney and Carl Rogers had slightly different views on self-esteem and its importance to human development (Holly, 1987). Specifically, they believed that the key to greater self-realization, self-actualization, and overall psychological well-being was the process of acquiring an accurate self-concept and healthy level of self-esteem. The importance of personal acceptance was the necessary ingredient for the development of adequate self-esteem. An individual was therefore more likely to succeed when he accurately perceived what he wanted, and knew his own abilities and limitations. An individual’s awareness therefore evolved from facing one’s own personal shortcomings and was “esteemed for striving to learn and grow both personally, and academically” (Holly, 1987, p. 6).
In sum, the above theoretical orientations do not provide a consensus of what the construct self-esteem is or how this construct is achieved. More importantly, none of the above theoretical orientations explain how high self-esteem causes a person to experience greater achievement or social enlightenment. The emphasis appears to be on the experience of failure which later drives motivation to improve, and that improvement is a lifelong endeavor. Hence, the emphasis on measuring self-esteem is a difficult task given the definitional variation and fluctuating nature of this construct. The failure to provide an operational definition of what self-esteem actually is, and how it affects human behavior, are only some of many methodological concerns that continue to accompany the usage of this construct today (Holly, 1987).
Recent research suggests that we can often be misled by our conventional wisdom when attributing self-esteem to either positive or negative social outcomes. Specifically, research examining the effects of self-esteem on a variety of issues such as delinquency, academic achievement, and social competence, has not supported the merit of this variable.
Research on Self-Esteem and its Implications

Scheirer and Kraut (1979) reviewed a large number of studies that examined self-esteem enhancement programs in relation to achievement. All studies reviewed incorporated standard criteria for experimental designs. Of particular interest is a study that examined a fifteen-year program to reduce delinquency through raising self-esteem. The final results demonstrated that self-esteem, achievement, and delinquency rates were unchanged by the program. However, of particular interest was that both the instructors and subjects overwhelmingly favored the program and thought is was a success regardless of the objective data. The lesson here is that participants’ enthusiasm for a program is not a reliable measure of a program’s effectiveness (Holly, 1987). Support for such programs, however, continues to be heard from many educators.
Recent studies strongly challenge the popular beliefs held by the public and educators. High self-esteem does not cause higher academic achievement (Bachman & O’Malley, 1986; Covington, 1984; Pottebaum, Keith, & Ehly, 1986; Scheirer & Kraut, 1979; Holly, 1987), and is too general a concept to be useful in understanding the large range of normal differences in children’s social behavior (Eder, 1997). “Self-esteem is not the cause of competence, rather it is the result of being competent to effectively accomplish valued goals” (Ford, 1998, as cited in Tobin, 1998, p. 74). This statement assumes that those who learn through experience that they can handle the tasks of life at home, school, community, and relationships, will possess true confidence in themselves that leads to the development of higher self-esteem (Tobin, 1998). In other words, higher self-esteem is an effect of successful experiences rather than the cause of such experiences (Scheirer & Kraut, 1979). Causal inference of self-esteem toward social behavior is, however, often suggested in the home schooling literature. This inference is not supported adequately by the research. Relating self-esteem to social behavior is especially difficult, primarily due to the many methodological and theoretical problems that accompany this construct. These methodological problems continue to plague the usage of this construct within the literature, and weaken the value of self-esteem as an adequate measure of social behavior.

Methodological Problems

First, the emphasis of self-esteem as an indicator of human behavior is unclear due to the lack of a standard definition across research studies (Holly, 1987; Juhasz, 1985). “Several different instruments have been used to measure self-esteem, with little information available about reliability or construct validity. Different investigators use different or inadequate definitions of what they think they are measuring, and of what are the dependent and independent variables and what are mere correlates. This makes meaningful comparison of findings difficult if not impossible” (Holly, 1987).
Often the instruments for measuring self-esteem are based on the researchers’ assumptions related to academic, family, or peer factors (Juhasz, 1985). These assumptions are based on the “normal” individual and fail to consider unique factors of an individual including developmental, cultural, religious, or situational differences (Rosenberg, 1979, as cited in Juhasz, 1985).
Second, construct validity concerns abound with the measurement of this construct. Specifically, subjects may feel differently about themselves privately (experienced self-esteem) than how they behave or relate to others (presented self-esteem) (Demo, 1985). For example, an individual may brag about his performance after a football game (presented self-esteem), while secretly he may feel that he blew his chances at being recognized by a college recruiter (experienced self-esteem). Tapping into the “self” is therefore not an easy task as one may be measuring overt behaviors, (presented self-esteem) or covert feelings (experienced self-esteem). Both of these sub-categories of esteem are measured via self-report measures that create a third methodological problem when relating self-esteem to social behavior.
Third, based on a review of issues and methods for the assessment and classification of children’s social skills by Gresham and Elliott (1984) the use of self-report measures to assess children’s social skills is not the most appropriate method. “In short, children’s self-report measures have not been found useful in predicting peer acceptance, peer popularity, teacher ratings of social skills, role play performance, or social behavior in naturalistic settings” (1993, p. 297).
Fourth, it is unclear whether self-esteem is a global or specific trait. The majority of self-esteem researchers have utilized a single measurement approach by capturing an individual’s overall or global self-esteem with one measurement (Demo, 1985). These researchers define self-esteem as a global and stable personality trait and therefore measure it at one moment in time (Demo, 1985). The global approach, however, fails to measure the fluctuating nature of the construct due to situational variation between people and daily events that William James noted affect self-attitude. People will naturally feel better or worse about themselves depending on daily experiences.
The widely used Piers-Harris Children’s Self-Concept Scale (PHCSCS) provides a useful example of both definitional problems in addition to the limiting assumptions of measuring global self-esteem. This measure assumes that self-concept is a relatively constant (stable) construct, yet is also potentially mutable by experience (Piers, 1985, p. 43). The defining philosophical assumptions of this measure are quite ambiguous. For example, how is the researcher to know when to measure the construct; should it be measured multiple times or only once? Another primary limitation of this measure relates to the sample in which this scale was normed. The norming data are based on a single Pennsylvania school district in 1966, (Piers, 1984) and therefore obviously limit the measures’ ability to generalize findings to other samples.
More recent research has examined self-esteem as a fluctuating self-attitude, and is deemed a more appropriate method in measuring such an ambiguous and fluctuating construct (Beane, 1983; Demo, 1985; Juhasz, 1985). These researchers have attempted to take a snapshot of a person’s self-esteem in different periods. These researchers believe self-esteem can change with time, situation, developmental period (Beane, 1983; Juhasz, 1985) roles, expectations, performances, and responses from others. This approach to measuring self-esteem would naturally be more sensible when measuring an unstable construct, yet fewer studies have controlled for the potential situational variations that affect self-esteem (Demo, 1985). Regardless, both research approaches may be amiss in their attempts to measure the intricacies of human behavior via self-esteem.
Global self-esteem measures have yielded little conclusive information, and specific measures usually tied to academic achievement, family, socialization, and physical appearance have not been much better. Both miss the self or unique components of the person and, in effect, force self-evaluation on nonrelevant dimensions which may tell very little about self-esteem. (Juhasz, 1985, p. 879)
The methodological limitations of the self-esteem construct can be illustrated very clearly within studies that have attempted to explore the social competency of home schooled children. Researchers within this domain have struggled to define, utilize, and measure the socialization variable of this very unique population.

Self-Esteem and Home School Research

A significant portion of socialization studies have examined the self-esteem differences of home schooled children and have used this concept inappropriately as an indicator of appropriate socialization (Hedin, 1991; Kelley, 1991; Kitchen, 1991; Stough, 1992; Taylor, 1986; Tillman, 1995). Moreover, the interpretations from many of these studies fluctuate depending on whether home schooled children were compared to other groups of children or standardized test norms.
Interpretive limitations of home schooling studies were first evident in Taylor’s 1986 study of the self-concept levels of 224 home schooled students using the Piers-Harris Children’s Self-Concept Scale (PHCSCS). Taylor provided a rationale for linking the importance of higher self-concept to a variety of positive domains such as effective learning, values, social competence, self-evaluation, and academic achievement. The home schooled population was derived from two nationwide home school mailing lists, and was compared to the standardization norms of both the global and subscale measures of the PHCSCS.
Taylor’s results appeared impressive: out of the overall sample, one-half of the respondents scored at or above the 91st percentile on the global score, whereas 70 percent or more of the respondents also scored above the 50th percentile across the six subscales of the PHCSCS. These significant findings between the homeschoolers and the norms of the PHCSCS could however only be narrowly interpreted in relation to the main construct of socialization. According to Taylor, “Insofar as self-concept is a reflector of socialization … the findings of this study would suggest that few home schooling children are socially deprived” (p. 160-161). From Taylor’s interpretation, it appears that using the indirect measure of self-concept to assess the socialization of home schooled children limited his ability to interpret these findings in terms of children’s socialization.
A number of similar studies have been conducted since Taylor’s initial socialization study and have found seemingly impressive findings. These studies have tried to replicate his findings and have attempted to address methodological problems with his pioneering study.
For example, Kelley (1991) also found seemingly impressive results when examining the self-concepts of 67 home schooled children in grades two through ten in suburban Los Angeles in relation to the norms of the PHCSCS. Findings revealed that the home schooled children in grades four through ten scored higher than the standardization norm group on the global score. Additionally, the results indicated that more than one half of the home schooled children were at or above the 80th percentile on five of the six subscales. Scores on the popularity subscale were equal with the standardization norm group, however. Results also indicated that children who had never been to conventional schools, and who had been home schooled for a minimum of two years, also scored significantly higher on the global measure.
Tillman (1995) also explored the socialization of home schooled children, but utilized a Socialization Opportunities Questionnaire, a Self-Esteem Index (SEI), and a semi-structured interview format with 259 families residing in the Delaware Valley region. Both the questionnaire and the SEI were mailed out to subjects, while data was from interviews conducted with five families. The SEI in this study was only related to the test norms and again found seemingly impressive findings. Overall, the home school sample had a significantly high level of self-esteem in relation to test norms.
At first glance, these studies present rather impressive findings under the assumption that higher self-esteem is synonymous with appropriate social behavior. It is important to note, however, that most children in general score average to above average on self-esteem measures, and children with average to high self-esteem often have behavioral problems (Eder, 1997).
The relatively small percentage of children whose self-esteem scores are low feel different from the perceived norm. For example, African-American children in a predominantly white class, children with learning disabilities and children with depression tend to score lower than average on self-esteem measures. When the factors that cause children to feel different are addressed successfully, children’s self-esteem increases. (Eder, 1997, p. 1)
Interestingly, less impressive results have been found in home school socialization studies that have compared self-esteem results to comparison groups rather than test norms. These studies also utilized self-esteem as a socialization measure, yet generated similar comparison groups of children to relate their data. For example, Hedin (1991) found different results in a subsequent study that also utilized the PHCSCS but in which results were not related to the test standardization norms. Self-concept was used as an indicator of social skills based on the assumption that children’s self-concepts are stable throughout life, and that children with positive self-concepts are inclined to be socially competent. Self-concepts scores were compared to the scores of home, private, and public educated children in grades four through six. No significant differences were found between the groups across school type, grade, or gender. Hedin interpreted the findings in relation to school type and stated that, “claims regarding superiority of either setting over another in terms of self-concept development or socialization in general may be unfounded” (Hedin, 1991, p. 3).
Kitchen (1991) addressed the measurement of social differences of home schooled children by comparing a home schooling sample to a conventional school group (instead of test norms). The Self-Esteem Index assessed the social adaptation of home schooled children. Although no significant differences were found on the overall Self-Esteem Quotient, home schooled children scored significantly higher on the subtest of Academic Competence than did the conventionally schooled group.
Although these researchers have argued that higher self-concept leads to appropriate social behavior, the direct connection between this assumption has not been well supported. There has been a move from the indirect assessment approaches utilized in past studies to more direct assessment methods in recent home schooling studies. This move has been an attempt to gain a more accurate picture of the social abilities of home schooled children. These studies are few and have resulted in inconsistent findings depending on the methods chosen to evaluate the socialization construct.
For example, Shyers (1992) examined social adjustment of home schooled and traditionally schooled students with a mixture of direct and indirect methods. Shyers defined social adjustment as including the three areas of social knowledge, social comfort, and observed behavior. Social knowledge was assessed by the Children’s Assertive Behavior Scale (CABS). Social comfort was assessed with the PHCSCS, and a structured observation of the comparison groups of children was conducted using the Direct Observation Form (DOF) of the Child Behavior Checklist.
High self-concept was not found to be an indicator of appropriate social behavior. Both the home schooling group and the traditionally educated group obtained self-concept scores above the national average indicated by the norming sample of the PHCSCS. Moreover, both groups appeared to have similar social knowledge. No differences were found between the groups on the total assertive score of the CABS. Both groups chose slightly passive responses to social situations. Interestingly, the only differences noted between the groups resulted from direct observation of social interactions between the home educated and traditionally educated subjects during free play and group interactions. During these observations, the traditionally schooled group demonstrated above average problem behaviors and was considerably “more aggressive, loud, and competitive, than were the home schooled children of the same age” (p. 6). However, “none of the observers felt the behaviors they observed were atypical for the age and gender of the subjects” (p. 5). Shyers interpreted these findings to indicate that the home schooled children displayed more adult-like behavior because they tended to be exposed to parent role models more often than the traditionally schooled group.
Incidentally, neither the self-concept nor the low assertiveness scores addressed the negative social behaviors that became apparent during direct observation. Once again, self-concept did not appear to be the most appropriate measure of socialization for home schoolers or traditionally schooled children. This study was exceptional, however, in that it utilized a varied approach when measuring the social behavior of home and public educated children.
Socialization is a varied construct and has brought with it a variety of methodological concerns into the home education literature. Home education researchers within this domain share common difficulties in designing studies that will provide valid evidence about the social influence of home schooling on children’s lives.

Home School Socialization Research and Methodological Concerns

Some areas of common difficulty and variability shared across home school socialization research appear to be in generating appropriate comparison sample groups and selecting adequate measures of socialization. Exploring the social behavior of home schoolers is both difficult and at times impractical, in that these families often can be suspicious of researchers (Ray, 1997). The difficulty in acquiring adequate samples has resulted in varied approaches both in selecting non-intrusive measures and gaining access to families who home school. The various methods utilized, however, most likely have added the interpretive weakness and variation found in many of the studies exploring the social domain. For example, the seemingly impressive findings, as discussed above, when measuring self-esteem levels of home schooled children disappeared when comparison groups were utilized rather than test standardization norms.
Additionally, the appropriateness of measures (i.e., self-esteem and self-concept) must be carefully weighed when embarking on research within the socialization domain of home education. Past studies have only begun to more appropriately measure the socialization of home schooled children. Variation in findings continues to be seen.
For example, variation in findings is evident even when researchers have attempted to more directly measure the socialization construct by using the same measure. In two studies the Vineland Adaptive Behavior Scales (VABS) was used to evaluate the social maturity of matched groups of public and home schooled children. Stough (1992) found no significant differences between the public and home schooled groups on measures of the VABS and the PHCSCS. In a similar study by Smedley (1992) that also used the VABS, however, it was concluded that “children kept home are more mature and better socialized than those who are sent to school” (Smedley, 1992, p. 12). The interpretive variation of these studies may have been due to the variation in methodology applied when researching these children. Stough acquired the comparison public schooling sample through the referrals of home schooling families, whereas Smedley generated his comparison group from the same kind of Protestant churches that the home school students attended. Therefore, although both studies used the same measure to evaluate their subjects, different interpretations appear to be the result of the different methods utilized when generating comparison groups.
Currently, there exists a large variation across studies when generating comparison samples to home educated children. Some studies have matched based on demographic surveys (Shyers, 1992; Smedley, 1992) or through the referrals of home schooled families (Chatham-Carpenter, 1994; Stough, 1992), while others have selected groups primarily based on their school type enrollment (Delahooke, 1986; Hedin, 1991; Kitchen, 1991; Montgomery, 1989). Home school families decide to educate their children at home for a variety of reasons and can be a diverse group (Ray, 1992b). Therefore, the amount of variation between home schooling family to home schooling family may be great in any specific sample and can make the task of acquiring a comparison family or subject that is similar in every manner except for schooling type quite difficult. The importance of limiting this variation between families and their children is therefore crucial to strengthen the interpretive results drawn from studies within the social domain. More research within the social domain is needed that employs high quality methodology to limit differences between each subject and family compared, while soundly assessing the social differences between the comparison groups.
Higher methodology could be achieved, however, by avoiding the use of self-report measures in this area of study (Gresham & Elliott, 1984), while increasing the use of measures that are better normed, standardized, designed, and theoretically appropriate for use in both home and school settings. Moreover, effort should be increased to conduct studies that emphasize suitable comparison groups rather than studies that only compare subjects to test standardization norms. Carefully generated comparison groups would better control for the unique characteristics of each home schooled child and family. Ultimately, an increased emphasis toward higher quality methodology would strengthen the interpretations generated from current and future studies within this domain by providing an empirically sound body of research from which to draw conclusions.
The current variation in theoretical orientation, methodology, and resulting interpretations indicate that the research examining the socialization of home schooled children is a work in progress. Researchers continue to struggle to measure a very difficult construct within a very unique population. In spite of the varied incongruities discussed within this research, it does appear home schooled students are socially active. In particular, home schoolers regularly participate in youth programs, sports, and volunteer activities, and are heavily involved within their local church organizations (Klicka, 1993; Montgomery, 1989; Tillman, 1995; Wartes, 1987). The research in this area, however, continues to be inconclusive (Aiex, 1994). More high quality research is needed to clearly indicate what the specific strengths or weaknesses are of home schooled children, in relation to their conventional school counterparts.


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