Enhancing Self-Esteem in the Classroom


Denis Lawrence

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    Dr Denis Lawrence is a chartered educational psychologist and qualified teacher with experience in primary and secondary schools as well as university departments and colleges of education. He is now in private practice as a counsellor and educational consultant. This book is based on research he has carried out over the last three decades both in Australia and in the United Kingdom.


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    For my grandchildren, Sophie, Eve, Patrick, Lula and Lochie whose joyful enthusiasm continually serves to enhance my own self-esteem


    Learning begins in pleasure and thrives on curiosity. (Baughman, 1919)

    Through the enhancement of self-esteem we can achieve this goal and also ensure effective learning.


    There would not be sufficient space to acknowledge all those people who have been influential in my writing of this book. Room must be found, however, for some.

    I remain indebted to Professor Philip Gammage for his encouragement to write the first edition. His guidance when designing the original research was invaluable.

    The many children who took part in the experiments must, of course, remain anonymous but my grateful thanks go out to them.

    Thanks must go to Marianne Lagrange whose quiet persuasion and foresight was largely responsible for me writing both the second edition and this new edition.

    Above all I am grateful to my dear wife, Anne, for her expertise and professional help on making changes to the text, for her technological guidance and for her understanding while I wrote this third edition instead of accompanying her on the tennis court.


    In the 1970s Denis Lawrence led the inquiry into the importance of self-esteem for UK educationalists – a topic already acknowledged as significant in the United States. Previously research had focused on raising achievement and then examining whether this improvement resulted in enhanced self-esteem. Lawrence took a different look at this, turning around the quest for a causal relationship between the two. He concentrated on raising self-esteem and demonstrated the resulting improvement in achievement. For the first time an emphasis was put on the importance of a sense of well-being, confidence, security and above all the value of a positive relationship between teacher and pupil.

    Amongst his special contributions to the field Lawrence offers a clear and useful definition, describing self-esteem as the degree of match between the sense of self, self-image, and the aspirational self, ideal self. The practical implications are two-fold:

    • the teacher can concentrate on improving the self image of the student
    • the student and teacher can work together towards achievable aspirations.

    Lawrence goes on to offer an extensive menu of activities and strategies to support this approach.

    In this edition the very important subject of teacher self-esteem and stress is thoroughly addressed. Teachers face increased challenge to motivate young people who are stimulated by a highly technological and consumer orientated world. They and their families are used to reading or hearing criticism of the teaching profession and publication of comparative data about school performance can undermine the confidence of both teachers and parents.

    This edition is published into a new era where self-esteem meets the flourishing popularity of emotional literacy as a significant determining influence on achievement. Those of us who have worked with challenging and underachieving young people are fully aware that poor self-image cannot be ‘cured’ by lots of praise and high self-esteem alone does not ensure pro-social behaviours, empathy or altruism. Lawrence challenges the recent research by Emler suggesting that high self-esteem is a bad thing, demonstrates that the author does not fully understand the concepts and adequately answers the criticism of self-esteem programmes.

    It is the development of positive, internalised personal qualities within the child that are the goals of self-esteem enhancement. Self-esteem refers to healthy behaviour, and just as one cannot have too much health, one cannot have too much self-esteem.

    In new sections on the development of integrity, personal responsibility, respect for individual differences, cooperative behaviour, Lawrence sets his work congruently into the context of emotional literacy.

    Teachers are significant others – we remember our teachers. We remember whether they diminished us or enabled us. As Lawrence writes,

    There is no substitute for the enthusiasm, warmth and spontaneity of the personal encounter.

    At the heart of his work is the encouragement to teachers to value the quality of the relationships they have with their students.

    It is a confirmation and celebration of the importance and originality of Lawrence's work that this edition is published three decades after his original text and we amongst many others are grateful to him for his important contribution to the British classroom.

    BarbaraMaines and GeorgeRobinson


    One of the most exciting discoveries in educational psychology in recent times has been the finding that children's levels of achievement and behaviour are influenced by how they feel about themselves. A vast body of research evidence has accumulated showing a positive correlation between these factors.

    Perhaps even more exciting has been the practical implications of this research for the classroom teacher. It is clear from the research that teachers are in a powerful position to be able to influence children's self-esteem not only through the use of systematic activities but also through the establishment of particular caring relationships with children. The work of the humanist school of psychology has focused on certain ingredients of personality that are instrumental in this. There is clear evidence that relationships between teachers and children can be either conducive to the enhancement of self-esteem or conducive towards reducing self-esteem.

    Whenever the teacher enters into a relationship with a child a process is set in motion which results either in the enhancement of self-esteem or in the reduction of self-esteem. Moreover, this process occurs whether the teacher is aware of it or not. Whilst some teachers may intuitively enhance the self-esteem of children, the evidence is that all teachers might well benefit from an awareness of the principles involved in self-esteem enhancement.

    Teaching is more effective when the teacher is able to combine an approach which focuses not only on the development of skills but also on the child's affective state, and on self-esteem in particular. The evidence points to the view that teachers do not have to make a decision whether to teach for skills or self-esteem enhancement – they can do both simultaneously. Indeed, the successful teacher has always combined the behavioural with the affective approach. After all, teaching has traditionally been mainly a process of human interaction.

    Recent developments, however, have tended to focus on the ‘non-human’ aspects of the teaching process. Developments in high technology and the introduction to schools of the computer have without doubt greatly extended the repertoire of the teacher to the benefit of many children. It is timely to remember that these technological advances were never meant to be substitutes for the teacher. Although technology has an important part to play, the personal interaction between teacher and child should not be minimized. It is through this interaction that children learn to develop interpersonal skills and are helped to develop their self-esteem. There is no substitute for the enthusiasm, warmth and spontaneity of the personal encounter.

    Gammage (1986) focuses on this issue when criticizing a then Department of Education and Science circular in Britain on teacher training. There seems to be an official view that teachers should concentrate more on the acquisition of knowledge, reminiscent of ‘back to basics’ philosophy often expressed in the 1960s, and less on the process of teaching. In the words of Gammage, ‘how teachers teach is as important an issue as what they teach’. It is all too easy to be caught up with the traditional behaviourist philosophy with its concentration on the observable behaviour to the exclusion of affective factors.

    If the message is so clear, why are so many teachers apparently unaware of the importance of teaching for self-esteem enhancement? One reason could be that the researchers have not easily communicated their findings, and have tended to confuse issues with a lack of consensus on substantive definitions. For instance, English and English (1958) identified over a thousand different combinations and uses of the terms in the self-concept area with the same terms often used to mean different things, and different terms such as self-esteem, self-concept and self-image often used to mean the same thing. It is not surprising, then, if some teachers have been confused when the researchers themselves have appeared to be unable to define their terms properly. Fortunately this has all begun to come together to the satisfaction of most workers in the self-concept area and the definitions presented in this book are now generally accepted.

    A second possible reason why teachers have given little prominence to self-esteem enhancement could be the relative absence of guidelines on how to set about the task. Admittedly most teachers are aware of the need to provide positive reinforcements and may be familiar with self-esteem enhancement activities. Those recommended in this book and those suggested by Robinson and Maines (1997), have become popular in many schools. However, teachers have often felt that they have been left with something missing. It is suggested that this missing link is their own part in the process, that is, the qualities of personality of the teacher and their communication skills.

    Burns (1979b), for instance, drew attention to the way in which the teacher's self-esteem influences the child's self-esteem. Much earlier than this, Rogers (1951) identified the skills of communication which can be learned, and which teachers need to learn to become more effective. Interestingly, the same skills recommended by Rogers are those which are related to the development of the self-concept and associated with successful counselling. These are the skills outlined in this book. The topic will be pursued further not only in connection with the teacher's personality, but also in connection with the communication skills of the teacher outlined in Chapter 6.

    The main purpose of this book, therefore, is to help teachers appreciate how they can influence the self-esteem of children in the classroom not only by the quality of their relationships with children, but also through practical activities.

    Although the ideas in this book focus mainly on self-esteem and its relationship to achievement and behaviour, the clear corollary is that self-esteem enhancement is a worthwhile teaching aim in its own right. After all, education means more than the learning of academic skills. If we can help children to understand themselves better and to feel more confident about themselves, then they are going to be in a stronger position to be able to cope with the inevitable stresses of life and ultimately to be better citizens. Teachers are in an ideal role to be able to influence this development. Self-esteem enhancement contributes positively towards academic achievement and towards personal and social development.

    In our western society, which is so highly competitive, teachers and parents easily become anxious over children's attainments. They are concerned in case the children in their care should fall behind the others. The fact that children learn best when having fun is lost amongst this kind of anxiety. We need to recognize that normal development is a process of coping with the experience of failure and, as teachers, we need to be able to relax and enjoy the child. It is not failure that should be avoided.

    Failure is an inevitable part of growing up and the first part of the process of becoming competent. It is only through trial and error that much child learning takes place. The fundamental point here is that whilst failure is an inevitable process, negative criticism need not be. It is not failure which gives concern but the way in which we adults react to failure. The ideal way to react would be to ensure that the child was not being subjected to a situation which was totally beyond his/her level of development. It would be quite useless, for instance, to expect the normal 3-year-old to be able to cope with a game of chess. Once it has been established that learning a particular task is probably within the child's level of competence, then positive steps can be taken.

    Take, for instance, the child's need to use a knife and fork properly. A first attempt is always a failure – usually with food flying in all directions. At such a time, parents are likely to become irritable, to say the least. Instead of reacting in this way, an effort should be made to come to terms with the behaviour. For example, the utensils could be rearranged so that they are within easier reach, and certainly ensuring that the child practises more and receives plenty of praise at the slightest sign of progress.

    These principles apply also in the classroom. If consistently applied, the child will develop confidence to tackle new tasks without associating them with unpleasantness, and he/she is more likely to be eager to learn. This assumes, of course, that the child has received total love and acceptance from his/her parents – a topic which lies outside this book but which has an equally important part to play in the development of self-esteem.

    This book is aimed at both primary and secondary teachers, as the principles and practices apply from the primary stage to the secondary stage.

    Chapter 1 defines the terms self-concept, self-image and ideal self and outlines the development of self-esteem. It also discusses the research evidence of a correlation between self-esteem and achievement, indicating the value of organizing self-esteem enhancement programmes in schools.

    Chapter 2 examines the role of the total self-concept in self-esteem enhancement programmes. It criticizes some research that casts doubt on the value of self-esteem enhancement programmes and shows how this conclusion is based on a misleading definition of self-esteem. Examples are given of children who may have a faulty self-image and/or a weak ideal self. The question of whether children can have too much self-esteem is raised, showing how this is not possible as self-esteem is defined in this book. The child with the narcissistic personality is contrasted with the child with high self-esteem.

    Chapter 3 focuses on individual differences in children and the affect of these differences on self-esteem development. Amongst the possible differences discussed are those of physique, ability, gender differences, ethnic differences and problems associated with children who may have special needs.

    Chapter 4 examines the significant influences in a child's life, outside the classroom, that affect their self-concept development. The influences examined are family, peers, siblings, sexual identity, race, culture, adolescence and the determining role of the media. The effects of failure experiences outside the school upon self-esteem are examined, emphasizing that it is the attitude towards failure that is the key to self-esteem and not the failure itself.

    Chapter 5 looks at the question of assessing self-esteem. It discusses different approaches to measuring self-esteem and reviews some popular methods of assessment of self-esteem. The Lawseq, a questionnaire devised by the author and used in the National Child Development Study and standardized on 150,000 children, is recommended for use by teachers. The chapter also discusses the conceptual difficulties involved in measuring self-esteem.

    Chapter 6 considers the principles of self-esteem enhancement as an underlying framework to all teaching. This is explained in terms of the need to focus on the quality of the child and teacher relationship. The qualities of acceptance, genuineness and empathy, as identified by Rogers (1975), are discussed as desirable qualities in the teacher.

    Chapter 7 outlines a programme of small group activities for children in the classroom. It provides exercises that have been used successfully to enhance self-esteem amongst children with low self-esteem. The aims and rationale of the programme are presented, with suggestions on the selection of children suitable for inclusion in small groups.

    Chapter 8 outlines a programme of whole-class and whole-school activities for the further development of self-esteem. Suggestions are made for their regular inclusion in a school's curriculum.

    Chapter 9 outlines individual programmes for self-esteem enhancement. The chapter begins with suggestions for using suitably briefed teaching assistants or non-professional personnel working under the supervision of the teacher. The principles of this approach for working one to one with a child are outlined.

    Chapter 10 considers the role of self-esteem in the management of behavioural difficulties in the classroom. Suggestions are made for the management of challenging behaviour that avoid lowering self-esteem.

    Chapter 11 introduces self-esteem enhancement as part of a programme to help improve reading attainment in failing readers. The research indicating a positive correlation between self-esteem and reading, conducted by the author, is outlined as evidence for this particular approach. A suggested staged programme for helping children who have reading difficulties is also presented.

    Chapter 12 discusses the importance of the teacher's own self-esteem and suggests ways of maintaining high self-esteem in the teacher. It also addresses the problem of stress in teaching and shows how teachers may cope with stress through a structured management programme.

    Finally, the Appendix outlines and discusses the author's research findings on which the self-esteem enhancement programmes in this book are based.

  • Appendix: Investigations into Self-Esteem Enhancement and Reading Attainment

    Project – 1970

    In 1970, four primary schools in Somerset, England, valiantly agreed to participate in a project designed to investigate the possibility of enhancing self-esteem amongst retarded readers. The four schools each submitted lists of children retarded in reading from which 12 children aged 8–9 years were matched on chronological age, sex, reading age and socio-economic group. Each was then subjected to a different treatment.

    Group 1 received remedial reading from a remedial specialist. Group 2 received remedial reading plus individual counselling to enhance self-esteem. Group 3 received counselling only, and Group 4 received ordinary class teaching. The experiment ran for 20 weeks, following which it was discovered that the ‘counselling only’ group (Group 3) had made the most progress not only in self-esteem enhancement, but also in reading. Second came Group 2, ‘remedial reading plus counselling’; third was Group 1, ‘remedial reading only’; and Group 4 was last, ‘ordinary class teaching’ (Lawrence, 1971).

    This was the first of a series of experiments by me into methods of self-esteem enhancement amongst primary-school children (Lawrence, 1971; 1972a; 1973; 1982; 1983; 1985).

    Project – 1984

    The latest experiment in the series consisted of 372 eight year old children who were retarding in reading, and they were put into four different treatment groups.

    Distar Only – Group A

    Group A received instruction in the skills of reading through the Direct Instruction in the Teaching of Arithmetic and Reading (DISTAR) technique devised by Engelmann and others (1969), published by Science Research Associates. The teachers using the method were trained for the experiment by a manager of Marketing Services (UK). She visited the teachers on four occasions before the experiment and at regular intervals during the experiment. The teaching was conducted in groups of 6–10 children, the exact number being determined by the numbers identified in each school. They received instruction three times per week for one-hour sessions. The programme continued for 20 weeks.

    Distar Plus Counselling – Group B

    Group B received treatment in exactly the same manner as the children in Group A. In addition they received counselling once a week for 20 weeks by non-professionals. The children were seen in pairs, each session lasting for 45 minutes. The counsellors were selected by the headteachers of the schools involved and numbered 35 altogether, working in eight different schools. They were met four times before the experiment during which they were given ‘handouts’ on how to structure the sessions with games and activities designed either by the author or those described by Canfield and Wells (1976). They were also briefed on self-concept theory and on the establishment of empathy as described by Rogers (1975) and ‘modelling’ as described by Bandura (1977). The essence of this treatment was the quality of the relationship which set out to be accepting and non-judgemental. An atmosphere of trust was established within which the children felt free to confide. The counsellors provided a confident, relaxed model. A combination of humanistic and learning theory principles were attempted.

    Distar Plus Drama – Group C

    The children in Group C received DISTAR remedial reading as in the two previous groups, but also received a weekly drama session designed to enhance self-esteem. There were six schools involved in this treatment and groups varied in size from 7 to 15. The sessions were taken by the County Adviser for Drama and each lasted for approximately 45 minutes. The sessions were structured to allow the children to ‘take risks’ and experience success, as well as through role-playing of ‘experts’, for example, they would be on an imaginary journey and each given a different expert role. Each member had to consult with the appropriate expert before taking action. The rule was that no criticism of the expert was allowed.

    Ordinary Class Teaching – Group D

    Group D remained in the ordinary class situation receiving help as usual from their classteacher.

    Once again statistically significant differences between groups were obtained with the groups receiving the counselling and the drama treatments showing most gains in self-esteem and in reading attainment. The results of this experiment showed a split in the self-esteem scores at the median point, thus analysing low self-esteem and higher self-esteem scores separately (for the full details of this experiment, see Lawrence, 1985).


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