Veronica Birkett on how to help young children develop high self-esteem. Why is it that some children arrive in school on their first day with high self-esteem, while others walk through the gates already believing themselves to be failures?
A number of factors need to be considered, but the crucial time for a child's self-esteem occurs during the first seven years when his or her self-image is established and, I believe, the pattern of life. Remember the Jesuit saying - "Give me the child till he's seven, and I will show you the man".CHECK This theory - that is, the significance of early life experience - is common to most schools of psychology, but the model presented by Transactional Analysis (TA) is particularly useful. TA offers many valuable theories for educationists, but it is appropriate here to look at the concept of life-scripts.
These explain how our present life patterns originated in childhood, and how we carry on with these learned patterns, even though they produce self-defeating and painful results. Eric Berne, the "father" of TA, defines the script as "a life plan, made in childhood, reinforced by parents, justified by subsequent events, and culminating in a chosen ultimative". In other words, if children hear often enough "you'll end up in prison, if you don't behave", or "you'll never be any good", they will form losing scripts and act them out. They'll end up in prison, they'll behave badly, they'll never get anything right. Children who choose losing scripts will seek out other "losers", and will act out their scripts together, by finding as many ways as they can to fail, or they may simply withdraw.
The child with high self-esteem will have had different messages, such as "you are lovable and deserve love" or "you will succeed", or simply, unconditionally "you're OK just as you are." These children will develop "winning" scripts, and will be loved, successful, happy and fulfilled - because they expect to be.
The particular script (or life plan) is decided by the child, and the major influence for this script decision lies with the attitude of the parents and other significant people in the child's life. Teachers are significant, and if you accept the script theory you'll understand that the role of teachers in the early years is particularly important.
I would like to see much more emphasis placed on the significance of the theory of life scripts, and for those in positions of power, initiating programmes to assist children in the formation of winning scripts. What a national curriculum that would be!
Unfortunately, the structure of our present education system encourages categorisation, giving vulnerable children even more proof that they are failures - it reinforces their "losing" scripts. Their need to act out their "loser" label may be observed in the frightening escalation in crime, and the growth of alcohol, drugs and other self abuse.So why don't we follow pro-active strategies, instead of devising expensive reactive ones? Is it because the idea is so simple, it couldn't possibly work? We have nothing to lose by trying it.
All that is needed is some in-service training for teachers, and the curriculum for trainee teachers to be adjusted to include programmes in developing self-esteem.
Veronica Birkett is an advisory teacher with Walsall learning support services in the West Midlands and is currently in her fourth year of clinical training as a TA therapist.