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What's so silly about self-esteem?

Murray White believes a chronic lack of confidence is the root of all evil. Headteachers are said to be worried that if they respond to pupil violence with self-esteem programmes they will "invite ridicule" (TES March 8, 1996). In my view any ridicule that arises can only stem from ignorance of what self-esteem is and how crucial it is to a healthy life.

It may, of course, have got a bad name from poor practice and from instances in schools where the theory has been inappropriately applied. That is unfortunate, and not the fault of the self-esteem movement.

Self-esteem is the experience of being able to cope with the basic challenges of life and of being worthy of happiness. It has two components: self-efficacy - confidence in our ability to think, choose and make wise decisions and self-respect confidence in our right to be happy and a belief that success, friendship, respect, love and fulfilment can be ours.

The basic challenges include such fundamentals as being able to take independent care of ourselves, sustaining relationships that are mostly satisfying, having the resilience to bounce back from setbacks and perseverance.

Teachers often think that arrogance and bragging are signs of over-developed self-esteem. In fact they are a clear indication of the lack of it, often brought about by a need to overcome insecurity. Self-esteem is not conceit.

Sound approaches to self-esteem are based on realism, not inflated self-images. It is not the intention to promote groundless feelings of euphoria, but certainly to encourage an optimistic outlook. Self-esteem is concerned with children not merely feeling good about themselves, but also about becoming more positive, taking pride in themselves, and consequently developing a sense of personal competence.

If teachers examine the causes of bullying and other chronic misbehaviours the showing off, the fighting and the failure which some children have adopted they will discover that low self-esteem is at the root of it. These children behave as they do because of strong feelings of inadequacy and internal blame, a belief that they do not possess the ability or intelligence to succeed.

Low self-esteem causes untold turmoil and misery. Studies have found links with low achievement, truancy, crime, violence, alcohol and drug abuse, teenage pregnancy and suicide. Dr. Neil Smelzer, co-author of The Social Importance of Self-Esteem reviewed over 30,000 studies and concluded that low self-esteem was a root cause of many social problems. He believes that self-esteem is the central mechanism through which these problems can be mediated.

A small scale investigation by members of Manchester University's School of Education which reported last year, found that levels of self-esteem decreased in children over a four year period from when they were in Year 2 (aged around six) to Year 6 (aged 11). Significantly too, the scores of the 11-year-olds were considerably lower than those of children the same age tested 13 years previously.

If we consider the appalling rise in exclusions, the link between the increase in one and the decrease of the other is too obvious to be ignored. Self-esteem is essential to normal and healthy development.

Teachers are in a powerful position to influence a child's esteem. Where schools adopt practices and policies which promote it (among staff as well as children), discipline problems and all the associated tensions and stresses diminish considerably. The consequences can be dramatic. When self-esteem is high, the ability to be successful in learning, human relationships, and all the productive and creative areas of life is unlimited.

Given what we know about its effect, head teachers should not be deterred. Ridicule is a classic initial response to any new idea. I have seen it change, slowly to the trivial stage where hesitancy still remains. From there people will move, eventually, to acceptance when everyone understands its value and becomes champions of it.

Eight years ago there was an article in The Lancet which said that doctors' surgeries were full of depressed people, that the nation was suffering from an epidemic of low self-esteem, and appealing to educationists to help. I would be delighted if I could write with confidence that the need had now been recognised in every school, for the good of every child.

Murray White is the UK representative of the International Council for Self-Esteem

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