PORTLAND, ORE. — Melissa McKenzie well remembers the anger she brought to her self-esteem class in primary school. Her mother worked two jobs, and her father was absent. She had little guidance.
Now a high school sophomore who aspires to be an attorney, Melissa says the self-esteem classes she took at Portland's Kelly Elementary School made her more self-reliant. She credits her counselor, Laurie Fenk, with giving her needed support.
"Laurie was there for me," she says. "She made a lot of kids stronger."
Self-esteem programs have been around for nearly 25 years. They have gained ground in the past decade as public schools from Pennsylvania to California have embraced the concept to improve academic achievement and deal with the emotional needs of students from families rent by drug use, divorce, and economic upheaval.
But their move into the mainstream has brought an outcry from those concerned that the programs may teach students to feel good about themselves regardless of achievement.
Critics charge that may leave students ill-prepared for a demanding and competitive workplace.
America's educators offer a range of self-esteem training. Some host group sessions to get students to talk about themselves. Others set rigid academic and social goals, with built-in reward systems. A few, such as Kelly Elementary, offer classes that bolster kids' self-images.
Advocates such as Kelly principal Mary Van Cleave say self-esteem is merely a byproduct of well-cared-for children. "If they feel listened to, if they feel seen, if they have high expectations, you have self-esteem."
Skeptics denounce such programs as voodoo education, imagining children chanting daily affirmations like the Saturday Night Live character Stuart Smalley: "I'm good enough. I'm smart enough. And doggone it, people like me."
"I think there's a great deal of confusion about self-esteem," says Robert Reasoner, president of the International Council for Self Esteem in Port Ludlow, Wash. "It's more than having kids feel good about themselves."
It isn't about unwarranted praise or "warm fuzzies," Mr. Reasoner adds. He helped pioneer self-esteem education a decade ago when, as superintendent, he developed a program for the Moreland School District in San Jose, Calif. The effort focused on five elements: security, identity, belonging, purpose, and personal competence.
Teachers at Moreland's Latimer Elementary School encourage third-, fourth-, and fifth-graders to set monthly goals to enhance their self esteem - anything from keeping their desks clean to earning perfect scores on spelling tests. Students who meet their goals are given certificates at assemblies that their parents can attend.
Five years after Moreland's program began, achievement scores jumped 10 to 15 percent. High school dropout rates declined. And the number of students entering college increased from 65 percent to 89 percent, Reasoner says.
There is nothing radical about teaching self-esteem, Reasoner adds. Thomas Jefferson believed that developing self-confidence should be one of the four goals of education. It's common sense, Reasoner says, to treat students with respect and hold them accountable for their actions.
Lessons in valuing oneself
Kelly Elementary sits in a predominantly white, lower-income neighborhood in southeast Portland, home to the highest percentage of ex-convicts living in the city, says Ms. Van Cleave, the school principal.
One afternoon here, a group of fifth-grade girls sits at a round table and struggles to come up with eight qualities they like about themselves. They must write them down on paper petals to form a flower. The goal is to improve their self-esteem.
In an ideal world, children would learn values and social skills at home. But that is rarely the case at Kelly, Van Cleave says. Without those fundamental skills, she adds, students can't learn.
The girls take turns having their pictures taken with an instant camera. The photos will go in the middle of their flowers.
At first, none of the girls is pleased with her picture. Marilyn, 10, stares at the paper petals, unsure of what she likes about herself. Then she writes, "My eyes are like crystals."
The other qualities come more easily. "I feel special I have two parents that care for me." "My hair always looks nice." "My clothes always look nice because they are clean."
"Most kids here," Marilyn says, "wear the same clothes for a week."
Students like Marilyn can sign up for the classes or be referred by their parents. Younger students are referred by parents or teachers.
Every child must have parental permission before participating in the groups, which meet once a week and last anywhere from a semester to most of the school year.
Kinder, gentler learning
Ms. Fenk, the child-development specialist who teaches social skills to every class at the school, says it is impossible at this point to measure the success of the self-esteem program in numbers. But she says many students who were having trouble have gone on to do well in middle and high school.
Some parents have trouble accepting this kinder, gentler approach to education. They tend to believe, based on their own experiences, that education has to be difficult to be good, Van Cleave says. "I believe, basically, schools have been pretty abusive environments for children," she says.
But some observers complain that teachers and counselors aren't trained psychologists. Teachers might probe too deeply for causes of low self-esteem or unwittingly overlook the needs of well-adjusted children, they say.
"Once you marry psychology and education with behavior modification, you have established a state indoctrination and behavior modification system," says psychologist Steven Kossor, who writes the Kossor Education Newsletter from his home in Coatesville, Pa.
Kossor cringes when he hears educators talk about developing the "whole child," and says such lessons are almost Orwellian. He believes the most important role of education is to teach children right from wrong, and that there is a God.
Turning off parents?
Promotion of self-esteem programs is also turning off many parents who say they drive a wedge between them and their children, says Peg Luksik, chairwoman of the 60,000-member National Parents Commission in Johnstown, Pa.
What concerns Luksik is that the programs tell students to make their own decisions at an age when they lack the wisdom to do so. She likens some programs to giving dessert to a kid who needs a good hot meal. "Well, dessert tastes good," she says, "but the calories are empty."
Critics of self-esteem instruction in public schools also point to a recent study published in the journal of the American Psychological Association that draws a link between high self-esteem and criminal behavior.
The study asserts that "certain forms of high self-esteem seem to increase one's proneness to violence" and questions whether "the societal pursuit of high self-esteem for everyone may literally end up doing considerable harm."
The report points to potential damage posed by self-esteem classes. But one of its authors, Laura Smart, a researcher at the University of Virgina in Charlottesville, says she isn't ready to condemn or support self-esteem teaching based on the report, citing the need for further research.
The problem with the study, according to Reasoner, is that it doesn't distinguish between self-esteem and egotism.
Instead of promoting an inflated view of oneself, he says, self-esteem has more to do with a realistic, positive view of oneself.
Moreland principal Berg, who is firm in her support for well-executed self-esteem programs, shares that assessment.
"We're not trying to form a cult with children," she says. "We're not trying to brainwash them. We're trying to help them learn and lead productive lives."