The Effects of an Experimental Program on the Self-Esteem of Second-Grade Children as Measured by the Piers-Harris Children’s Self-Concept Scale

by Martha L. Rawls, B.S., M.Ed.
A Thesis Presented to the Faculty of the Graduate School of Northeast Louisiana University
in Partial Fulfillment of the Requirements for the Degree of Education Specialist

For Free The Horses: A Self-Esteem Adventure
A video-based program by Active Parenting Publishers


The purpose of this chapter was to determine the effectiveness of the program Free the Horses: A Self-Esteem Adventure (Popkin & Greathead, 1991) in strengthening the levels of self-esteem of second-grade children.

The self-esteem sessions were conducted for 10 weeks at Crowville Elementary School in Crowville, Louisiana, during the Fall Semester of 1993. As a gauge to determine the effectiveness of these sessions, the Piers-Harris Children’s Self-Concept Scale (Piers & Harris, 1969) was administered three times: once as a pre-test, once as a post-test immediately following the sessions, and once as a second post-test two months following the sessions.

The design for the study included a non-treatment group, Group 1, and a treatment group, Group 2. Both groups participated in the pre-test, post-test, and second post-test, but the treatment group was the only group to receive the instructional lessons through the use of the Free the Horses instrument.

Results of the three tests were analyzed for both groups using t-tests for paired samples. Mean values, mean differences, t-values, and one-tailed probability was evaluated comparing the pre-test to the first post-test, the pre-test to the second post-test, and finally the first post-test to the second post-test.

As a result of this study, the researcher was asked to implement Free the Horses: A Self-Esteem Adventure in 10 different public school locations in Franklin and Ouachita Parishes in the northeast Louisiana area. In addition to the Free the Horses sessions, the researcher was asked to work with the Northeast Louisiana University Family Resource Center to develop a self-esteem poster and video that would be distributed to numerous schools and community services. At the completion of this study, the researcher plans to develop self-esteem lessons for second graders that could be used by juniors and seniors in local high schools who then receive in-service training in teaching the self-esteem materials to second graders.

Effectiveness of the Treatment

Free the Horses: A Self-Esteem Adventure (Popkin & Greathead, 1991) was found to be a very effective self-esteem building program by second-grade teachers, parents of students, and participants in the treatment sessions. Although the testing instrument evaluations showed only two significant increases in the mean values of cluster scores, many positive outcomes were reported.

Both second-grade teachers who teach the treatment group reported noticeable increases in the positive outlook of the children. They observed gradual changes in the entire group’s willingness to participate and to “keep trying” when difficult tasks were assigned. In fact one teacher reported an occasion in which a child said, “I can’t do this!” According to the teacher, the entire class immediately recited the following poem taught in Free the Horses (Popkin & Greathead, 1991):

You can do it.
It may be hard
And it may take time.
But stick with it
And you’ll be fine (p. 9).

In addition to more determination exhibited by students, both teachers reported the students as more caring toward each other and more willing to share as well as help a classmate. One teacher recalled an incident in which a student accidentally stepped on another child’s hand. To the surprise of the teacher, the child who stepped on the other child’s hand started to cry. When asked what was wrong, the child said, “I hurt her, and you are not supposed to hurt other people.” This act of compassion came immediately after a session concerning friends and belonging.

Toward the end of the Free the Horses sessions, both teachers reported several students beginning to participate more in class discussions. These children seemed to be more willing to offer information both freely and when called upon by the teacher. Both teachers attribute this to the class interaction and discussion included in the self-esteem sessions.

Both of the second-grade teachers at Crowville Elementary School strongly recommend the implementation of Free the Horses: A Self-Esteem Adventure for all lower elementary children. Arrangements have already been made by those teachers to have the program become a permanent part of their curriculum.

In addition to the teachers, many parents also reported positive outcomes from the self-esteem sessions. Like the teachers, the parents observed a more positive attitude. They observed that their children seemed to work harder and to be less likely to quit when things were hard. Several parents reported incidents concerning an increase in determination. One parent shared an occasion in which her child had a difficult homework assignment to complete. After many efforts and failures, the mother heard her child reciting the “You Can Do It” poem. The mother noticed that remembering the poem seemed to give her child an extra burst of energy and determination.

Refusing to say “I can’t” was an important lesson taught in Free the Horses. Instead of saying “I can’t,” students were taught to say “I will try” or “I don’t know how, yet, but I will learn.” It was this lesson that one parent saw as very helpful to her daughter. The child had been asked to sing a solo in church, but the child was nervous. After telling her mother that she just could not do it, her mother reminded her of her promise to stop saying “I can’t.” At this point the child thought for a minute, then said, “I guess I need to try.” The mother also indicated that her daughter did a beautiful job singing the next Sunday.

In addition to the classroom sessions with the students, information sheets were given to both teachers and parents. These included an overview of the activities covered each week as well as suggestions for follow-up self-esteem activities. Both teachers and parents stated that this information was helpful not only to keep abreast of the happenings in the classroom but also to have ideas useful to reinforce the major concepts covered each week. In fact several parents stated that they used the information sheets to initiate discussions concerning the concepts and activities covered in class.

During the treatment sessions, several of the students shared times that they had remembered some of the concepts covered in Free the Horses. Almost all of the children shared an incident in which they had to use their courage and determination to keep going. Most of the students recalled the “You Can Do It” poem when problems arose. One child shared an incident in which her brother was calling her names and attempting to make her feel inferior. She stated that she simply looked straight at him and recited another poem from Free the Horses (Popkin & Greathead, 1991):

Think clear. Think bright.
Feel the sun in my heart just right.
Your words can’t hurt,
No matter what you say.
Because in my own mind,
I know that I’m okay! (p. 47).

With the use of the puppet, Yes-Yes, the treatment participants were able to freely interact with the video used in the Free the Horses program. During each session, the adventure story would require interaction from the children. The students were asked to determine how the actors in the video should handle various problems that arose during the self-esteem adventure. Through this interaction medium, the classroom children were required to form plans and make decisions. With the help of the puppet, the children were able to become actively involved without fear of criticism or failure. Regardless of their comment, Yes-Yes, the “positive attitude” puppet, was thrilled to have their ideas and comments. This interaction proved to not only build confidence in the children but to also be an educational process for decision-making as well as for choices and consequences.

Research Conclusions

Based on the analysis of the research data and the researcher’s knowledge of the school setting and the students, the following conclusions were made.

According to the pre-test cluster and total self-esteem scores as measured the Piers-Harris Children’s Self-Concept Scale (Piers & Harris, 1969), Group 1, the non-treatment class, had significantly higher scores than Group 2, the treatment class. The classes were equal in ability levels as shown by GPA and were also balanced as to equal numbers of males and females in each class. Despite efforts to balance the classes, the pre-test data showed that the groups were not similar in their perceptions of self and the attributes and attitudes possessed. As expected from the pre-test scores, the non-treatment group maintained higher self-esteem scores on the first and second post-tests. Explanation for this occurrence came in a casual remark from one of the second-grade teachers. In discussing the lesson with the researcher, the teacher made the comment, “You should have chosen the other class to teach—you have the ‘bad’ class!” The teacher went on to explain how the treatment group was constantly a discipline problem. If the teachers perceived the children as “bad,” it was very likely that the students perceived themselves as “bad.” The related literature fully explained how personal perceptions of interactions with others taught the children to value or devalue themselves according to how they believed significant others viewed them. The appraisal of significant others, the second-grade teachers, appeared to have some impact on the self-esteem scores of both the treatment and non-treatment group.

The “bad” class, the treatment group, made a significant increase in their behavior cluster scores from the first post-test to the second post-test. According to the classroom teachers, the entire class showed a definite behavior improvement after the self-esteem lessons were completed and fully processed by the children. The children were reported as more cooperative and considerate, as well as more aware of others’ feelings.

A significant increase was also observed in the happiness and satisfaction cluster level of the treatment class as reported by both the teachers and the Piers-Harris Children’s Self-Concept Scale. This increase occurred from the time of the first post-test until the second post-test was administered. This significant increase came immediately after a significant decrease, which occurred between the pre-test and the first post-test happiness and satisfaction cluster scores. It appears that the children might have been dissatisfied with themselves following the treatment sessions, but after fully understanding the self-esteem information and attempting to incorporate the lessons into their lives, their self-concept scores increased in the area of happiness and satisfaction.

The self-esteem cluster, physical appearance and attributes, showed a decrease from the pre-test to the first post-test and also from the first post-test to the second post-test. The significant levels (0.08 and 0.07) were slightly above the significant level of 0.05. A possible explanation for the consistent decrease might be the lack of emphasis of the children on their outward appearance and beauty and more emphasis on inner strengths. The self-esteem treatment sessions focused more on the inner qualities of belonging, learning, contributing, courage, responsibility, and cooperation.

In addition to the significant gains made by the treatment group, the non-treatment group also showed an increase in self-esteem from the pre-test to the second post-test in all six cluster areas and in the total self-esteem scores. Many factors could account for the change in the non-treatment class. The high attrition rate of the treatment class resulted in four students being dropped from the final analysis. This resulted in a difference in class sizes and possibly in the overall self-esteem scores as well as the individual cluster scores.

Another factor which could have influenced the results was the timing of the testing periods. The pre-test was in early September, the first post-test was immediately prior to Thanksgiving holidays, and the second post-test was the week after Christmas break. Having the testing near holiday times could have caused unusual changes in the overall results either positively or negatively.

Contamination could have been a factor which influenced the increase in scores of the non-treatment class. Due to the fact that both groups were at the same school location, it was very likely that the non-treatment group received some positive outcomes from the program. One example of this was seen in the actual classroom used for the treatment. Self-esteem posters were displayed as a reinforcement of the lessons. Both groups were exposed to the posters due to the alternating daily teaching schedule of the second grade teachers.

Excitement and fun filled the air when the puppet Yes-Yes, the interactive video, and class activities were used. In fact, several children in the treatment class commented, “We are so lucky—we get to see Yes-Yes (puppet), and the other class doesn’t!” It is very likely that comments and stories about the lessons were told to the non-treatment class at recess time. This could have resulted in the contamination of the program, thus causing the non-treatment scores to increase.


Free the Horses: A Self-Esteem Adventure (Popkin & Greathead, 1991) was shown to be an effective program in producing the feelings of competence and self-worth in an effort to develop more positive self-esteem in the treatment group at Crowville Elementary School in Crowville, Louisiana. Further research is needed to evaluate the program using children in the first and third grades. Expanded research, perhaps using students from several schools, is also a possible direction for further study. A larger group of subjects would increase the power of the test and the likelihood of receiving higher levels of significance in the six self-esteem clusters.

Recommendations of directions for future research were detailed in the following paragraphs.

  1. As indicated in this research, simply dividing the classes according to an equal number of males and females and balanced GPA is not enough. The researcher recommends that the groups be randomly selected to insure a better balance between the treatment and non-treatment classes.
  2. If two established groups must be used for the research, recommendations are that the groups be from different schools to prevent the likelihood of contamination of the study.
  3. The researcher recommends that further investigations be conducted for longer time periods and with lengthened sessions. According to the literature, changing a person’s self-esteem is both very difficult and an extremely slow process. Therefore, the treatment sessions need to be a year-long process if possible.
  4. In addition to the Free the Horses sessions, the classroom teacher might use the Free the Horses storybook and cassette of songs for additional reinforcement of important concepts.
  5. An additional recommendation is that an emphasis on self-esteem be a required part of the school curriculum for all students in order to fully develop the sense of self-worth and competence.


This limited research showed the importance of self-esteem curriculum being added to the normal classroom. Since this program was found to be successful, the researcher believes that this type of self-esteem emphasis would be effective in every phase of the school curriculum. The researcher identified the following implications based on the results of the study.

  1. Training is needed for all teachers, school personnel, and parents as to the importance of developing positive self-esteem in children and adolescents. This training should include suggestions as to how to implement the basic components of self-esteem into everyday activities. In order to make a lasting effect on a child’s self-esteem, both teachers and parents must model good self-esteem and also reinforce the child’s sense of self-worth and competence.
  2. Reinforcement of positive attitudes and behaviors should be incorporated into daily routines. Words of encouragement, positive attitudes, and even visual reinforcement—such as posters and bulletin boards—could help to accomplish this goal.
  3. There are implications that an overlapping effect occurs with children who are receiving the self-esteem sessions and those who are not receiving the treatment. Because of the enthusiasm and positive results of the sessions, the students receiving the self-esteem program tend to aid in the enhancement of the self-esteem of the children receiving no treatment sessions. Therefore, posters and displays as well as word of mouth should be used to build and reinforce a sense of positive well-being.

The program Free the Horses: A Self-Esteem Adventure (Popkin & Greathead, 1991) was found to be successful in building the feelings of competence and self-worth in the second-grade treatment group at Crowville Elementary School. The researcher felt that the goals of the program were achieved. The 10 weeks of self-esteem sessions had a positive effect on the attitudes and behaviors of the treatment group as indicated by the testing instrument, the second grade teachers, the parents, and the individual participants.