Teachers who think boosting the self-confidence of their most disruptive pupils will automatically improve their behaviour could be disappointed.
Dr Jeremy Swinson, an educational psychologist who specialises in children with emotional and behaviourial difficulties (EBD), said his research suggested that 70 per cent of children attending EBD special schools did not suffer from low self-esteem.
"Self-esteem occupies a much greater place in teachers' minds than is borne out by the evidence," Dr Swinson said. "It is one of the most overrated aspects of child development. Some delinquent lads think they are top of the world because they are good at nicking cars."
Dr Swinson carried out a survey of 60 boys in four EBD special schools in the North West. Surprisingly, he found that 19 had high or very high self-esteem; 18 had low or very low self-esteem; the rest were average. Dr Swinson said he found it revealing to study further surveys of the statements for EBD of 35 children in seven local authorities. All of the statements, apart from one, said that low self-esteem was an issue.
He concluded that the statements did not provide real advice for teachers and were very similar, owing more to sentences in the memory bank of word processors than anything else.
"Some bullet points were identical in the statements of four local education authorities," he said. "I was really shocked."
Dr Ted Cole, director of the Social, Emotional and Behavioural Difficulties Association, said Dr Swinson's findings were at odds with some leading specialists in the field.
"It depends on your definition of self-esteem. Many of these children have an outward shell of confidence and bravado, but behind it they are often very fragile people who do not think much of their lives."
Elizabeth Davis, deputy head of New Woodlands special school for children with EBD in Downham, south-east London, said that, despite Dr Swinson's research, she believed most of her pupils did suffer from low self-esteem.
"They are not happy with themselves," she said. "Sometimes if I offer them a reward for doing something, they will avoid being successful because they don't think they are worth it."