THE teacher who wrote to you (TES, February 5) to say that the attitude of one of her introverted pupils changed dramatically when treated as if she were a cheerful, popular girl may not be aware of one of the most important classroom studies ever carried out. It was done in the 1960s by Rosenthal and Jacobson and their results became known as the Pygmalion Effect.
In the study, at the beginning of the school year each class teacher in a school was given a list of half a dozen names and told that in tests previously conducted these pupils had revealed a very high learning ability. In fact, these names had been chosen at random, but when tested again later all these pupils had made far greater progress than others in the class and, when questioned, the teachers were full of praise for their motivation to work and excellent behaviour compared with the rest.
These students had come to perform better and behave well because the teachers had cause to have high expectations of them. An environment had been created in which they could feel themselves to be more successful and more worthy. Teachers' attitudes are a key instrument in building their students' self-esteem.
While literacy and numeracy hours may have a place, the priority should surely be on the prevention, rather than the cure, of all the problems which arise when children and young people do not feel at ease with themselves.
Every difficulty which they have in their lives has this as a root cause. Bullying, eating disorders, teen pregnancy, physical and sexual abuse and suicide are a few examples from a very long list. If we wish our young people to live happily and harmoniously and to grow into well-adjusted, creative, productive citizens, then surely affective education - the education of the emotions - is entitled to a much larger space on what is now a school timetable heavily biased towards the intellectual.
Self-esteem is at the heart of the matter. An often misunderstood term, associated with conceit, a true, healthy level of self-esteem brings with it the confidence and ability to overcome, or at least cope, with all the challenges life may bring. If we take responsibility for helping to build the self-esteem of all children and young people in every classroom in the country, we should transform society in a generation.
Murray White, 5 Ferry Path, Cambridge