Never enough of a good thing

18th May 2012 at 01:00
There's no such thing as too much self-esteem, argues Murray White - at least not when it's defined correctly

Concern about children's self-esteem appears to be going out of fashion in schools. It has even been suggested that the drive to build up young people's self-confidence has backfired and led to a generation of narcissists ("Are you creating little monsters?", TESpro, 10 February).

But what is the common factor among young people suffering from bullying, anorexia, obesity and suicidal thoughts, or who self-harm or participate in underage sex and a range of other undesirable behaviours? It remains low self-esteem. Today, 10 per cent of children and teenagers have emotional difficulties.

In contrast, high and healthy levels of self-esteem are connected to the possession of qualities such as self-respect, resilience, perseverance, motivation and happiness.

There has been considerable debate about how self-esteem should be defined. It is not synonymous with self-centredness. The psycho-therapist Nathaniel Branden defines it as "the disposition to experience oneself as being competent to cope with the basic challenges of life and being worthy of happiness and success". Another author and psychologist, Christopher Mruk, emphasises that both worth and competence are necessary and that a balance must be preserved.

Self-esteem motivates us to achieve goals, and gives us satisfaction when they are completed. A high level of self-esteem will help us to overcome any difficult situation - or at least to cope with it more easily.

Critics of self-esteem often cite studies carried out by Roy Baumeister in 2000 and repeated in 2003. But while he claims that high self-esteem is not beneficial and encourages aggression, other studies have shown the opposite and have criticised his methodology.

A plethora of research regarding self-esteem goes back as far as 1890 when William James identified the need to feel good about oneself as human nature. Narcissism and boasting are not signs of high self-esteem. Rather, they indicate a lack of it caused by insecurity - as does being rude and lacking compassion or being fearful and withdrawn.

The idea that a child can have too much self-esteem is also a myth. It needs maintenance and can be enhanced. Like good physical health, no one can have too much of it, and what we do have needs to be looked after.

But where does self-esteem come from in the first place? It derives from our experiences. If they are positive ones, they will develop our sense of safety, identity, belonging, purpose and competence. Parents clearly have a huge part to play in developing their children's self-esteem. But while parents have the key to their children's self-esteem, teachers hold the spare.

Making schools responsible for this may sound like another case of passing a job from parents to educators. But teachers will find that the rewards are immense. In the classroom, pupils with good self-esteem will be able to communicate clearly and relate well to each other. The risks they take will be measured, their choices considered and their decisions wise. Conflict will be sorted out to everyone's satisfaction.

Teachers can help their pupils to develop these healthy high levels of self-esteem through well-run circle time sessions. If they are facilitated by trained, sensitive adults and set in a safe, non-judgemental environment, these sessions can boost emotional intelligence and oracy skills. Like building muscle, pupils' skill at these kinds of activities becomes better with practice.

Politicians may demand a fact-filled curriculum but that will not produce the responsible, reflective, balanced individuals that society needs.

Time spent on a programme of activities that incorporate the building blocks of self-esteem is an immeasurable investment. Eleven-year-olds who cannot read gain the confidence to try again; teenage disrupters realise there is a better way to get the attention they need; and drug and sex education can be a lower priority.

It is important that the kinds of strategies pupils experience in circle time are put into practice during other parts of the school day.

So, give feedback to students that will empower and encourage them (although beware unworthy praise). Do not be fazed by eccentric behaviour if it is not antisocial and have a good reason to reject ideas from your pupils. Address your pupils by name; make listening a priority.

Above all, remember that, just as oxygen is vital for our physical health, self-esteem is critical for our mental health.

Murray White is the UK representative of the International Council for Self Esteem, a former headteacher and author of Magic Circles: self-esteem for everyone in circle time (2009, Sage) and 50 Activities for Raising Self-Esteem (2001, Pearson)


Branden, N. The Six Pillars of Self-Esteem (2004). Random House.

Mruk, C. Self-Esteem: Research, Theory and Practice (1999). Free Association Books.

Gardner, H. explains his multiple intelligence theory on Edutopia. http:bit.lyKwsqqH

Ferrucci, P. The Power of Kindness: The Unexpected Benefits of Leading a Compassionate Life (2007). TarcherPenguin.

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