Nowhere did the craze hit harder than in American schools. And once it did, it produced an endless assortment of colorful classroom interventions. One common exercise for elementary-schoolers involved a Koosh ball. A kid tosses the ball to another kid and compliments them — I like your shirt. Then they toss the ball to someone else and compliment them — You’re good at soccer. The good feelings travel with the Koosh ball across the room, back and forth and back and forth. This is somewhat similar to the “Magic Circle” exercise described in a 1990 Toronto Globe and Mail account of a Toronto classroom:
It’s 9:30 a.m., Magic Circle time in Room Six at Winchester Public School.
A dozen third-graders and their teacher, Oksaha Hohol, sit cross-legged on an old rug. Ms Hohol welcomes each child. Today’s topic, she says, is “something nice I have done for a friend.”
They think for a few minutes. Lydia puts her hands together, signalling that she wishes to speak. “Some kids were picking on one of my friends, so I gave her a big hug” she says.
Other children describe similar good deeds. They praise each other. Oksana, as the children call her, thanks each student by name and later asks what they like about “Circle.”
“I feel good when I share my feelings,” one child says.
Other schools stopped using red pens, the theory being that seeing a lot of red on a spelling test could harm a child’s self-esteem. Some installed mirrors with text like “You are now looking at one of the most special people in the whole wide world!” engraved on them. My own most vivid memory of self-esteem probably comes from sometime in elementary school, during an exercise in which self-esteem was described as a balloon that inflates and deflates throughout the day based on what happens to you. When it’s full, meaning you have high self-esteem, good stuff happens — higher grades and more friends and smarter decisions. When it’s empty, man, are you vulnerable. Your grades will suffer and you’ll find it way harder to Just Say No when you’re offered drugs. The image and underlying idea stuck with me, in part because it reduced so much complexity and so many outcomes to one simple balloon.
According to Steve Salerno, the author of Sham: How the Self-Help Movement Made America Helpless (as the title of his book suggests, he is not a fan of the self-help movement), the self-esteem movement was built on ideas that had actually been percolating since the 1960s and 1970s. “Self-esteem-based education comes straight out of the theory of victimization, which was advanced in such early books as I’m OK – You’re OK, and despite the titular message, the real point of the message was you’re not okay, you’re all broken inside and need to be fixed,” he explained.
Salerno said that these ideas totally transformed education in many parts of the country. It wasn’t just Koosh balls and cheesy mirror exercises — in many schools, prevailing assumptions about academic rigor and feedback changed too. The thinking went, “Don’t make kids feel bad about everything, because if they feel bad they’ll perform poorly,” as Salerno put it. Self-esteem also became centered in the long-running national conversation about societal inequality. “There was this sense of the inner city falling behind — specifically black kids in the inner city are not performing as well as other kids,” said Salerno. “And there was this assumption that it was because they lacked self-esteem.” If you can boost your self-esteem, you can close the achievement gap. The nice thing about this theory, Salerno noted, is it doesn’t require much of a fundamental reworking of the educational system — it’s something of an easy way out. In many cases, advocates focused on self-esteem “rather than hiring better teachers, spending more money on actual schools and instruction. It became a surrogate for the stuff that might actually have done some good.