Centre for Confidence and Well-being

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Potential misuse of assertiveness courses in school


The Centre is aware that good assertiveness trainers walk a tight-rope in courses.  On the one hand, they aim to help people improve their communication skills and gain control over their lives. But, at the same time, they do not hold assertiveness up as a pinnacle of ?ideal? behaviour, thereby conveying the idea that participants are in some way lacking in some vital life skill (otherwise they wouldn?t be on the course). We believe it is important that anyone exposed to assertiveness material should simply be told - these ideas and techniques may be something they may wish to try out for themselves if they feel dissatisfied with aspects of their lives or their relationships.

We also believe that this type of approach is particularly important when working with young people: becoming more assertive should be seen as a choice ? something which may help them. It should not be used as a bench-mark against which they are going to be judged. Nor should they be set ?targets? for being more assertive.


We are also aware that assertive behaviour is difficult to grasp. Most adults find they struggle with the concept in courses as it requires a delicate balancing act between the rights and needs of the self and others. We do not believe that this subtlety can be grasped easily by most primary school children and we think that many courses aimed at this age group are simply attempts to regulate children?s feelings and behaviours in a way that adults want.

Finally, we know from experience that many young people (in Scottish schools at least) do not believe that adults want them to be genuinely assertive. We must be careful that we do not preach assertiveness behaviour to young people while actually treating them like irresponsible young children.


One of the reasons the Centre is so critical of SEAL ? the English school based initiative to formally teach all young people (from 3 to 18) social and emotional skills ? is that it misuses the concept of assertiveness in the ways we set out above. For example, there are 42 learning outcomes for pre and primary school children. One of them reads ?I know how to be assertive?. These learning outcomes have to be assessed. Even though it is by formative, rather than summative means we think this is unacceptable as children will be expected to set targets for their assertiveness. This appears to us to be deliberate social engineering and an attempt to mould young people?s personalities.

The Centre?s preferred approach to the use of assertiveness materials in schools

It is used with young people of secondary school age (preferably 14+).

It is communicated in a way which suggests that this may be potentially useful to them but that they have a choice as to whether they use it.It isn?t accompanied by personal profiling ? ie there is no individual assessment of pupils? assertiveness for official purposes which is then used as a basis for them to make changes to their behaviour and is not used to shape young people's personalities.

The Centre is in favour of evidence-based practice. We think it useful for those teaching assertiveness in schools to administer questionnaires as this would allow them to get a feel for any particular issues. However, we think that any questionnaires used to measure assertiveness should either be used for the young person?s personal use or as part of a group measure. In other words, a teacher may want to give out questionnaires and then analyse the results of the class, not look at the individual pupils.



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