Improving Self Esteem

How to Help Your Students Build Confidence

Preschool students dancing
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Teachers have long known that when students feel good about themselves, they are able to achieve more in the classroom. Think about yourself: the more confident you are, the more capable you feel, no matter the task. When a child feels capable and sure of themselves, they are easier to motivate and more likely to reach their potential.

Fostering can-do attitudes and building confidence by setting students up for success and providing frequent positive feedback are essential roles of both teachers and parents. Learn how to build and maintain positive self-esteem in your students here.

Why Self-Esteem Is Important

Children must have good self-esteem for a number of reasons as it affects nearly every aspect of their lives. Not only does good self-esteem improve academic performance, but it also strengthens social skills and the ability to cultivate supportive and lasting relationships.

Relationships with peers and teachers are most beneficial when children have adequate self-esteem. Children with high self-esteem are also better equipped to cope with mistakes, disappointment, and failure as well as more likely to complete challenging tasks and set their own goals. Self-esteem is a lifelong necessity that can be easily enhanced—but just as easily damaged—by teachers and parents.

Self-Esteem and the Growth Mindset

The feedback children receive plays a primary role in developing their self-esteem, especially when that feedback comes from their mentors. Unproductive, overly-critical feedback can be quite hurtful to students and lead to low self-esteem. Positive and productive feedback can have the opposite effect. What children hear about themselves and their abilities influences their mindset about their worth.

Carol Dweck, champion of the growth mindset, argues that feedback to children should be goal-oriented rather than person-oriented. She claims that this type of praise is more effective and ultimately more likely to instill in students a growth mindset or the belief that people can grow, improve, and develop with effort (in contrast with a fixed mindset or the belief that people are born with fixed traits and abilities that cannot grow or change).

Phrasing Feedback

Avoid assigning value to students with your feedback. Statements like "I'm proud of you" and "You're really good at math" are not only unhelpful, but they can also lead children to develop self-concepts based on praise alone. Instead, praise accomplishments and call attention to particular efforts and strategies applied to tasks. That way, students perceive feedback as useful and motivating.

Except to tell students what you notice, try to leave both yourself and the student out of your feedback and comment only on their work, especially improvements. Here are a few examples.

  • "I notice you used paragraphs to organize your writing, that's a great strategy."
  • "I can tell you are making fewer computational errors when you take your time."
  • "You've really improved your handwriting, I know you've been working really hard on that."
  • "I noticed you didn't give up when you made a mistake and instead went back and fixed it. That's what good writers/mathematicians/scientists/etc. do."

When using goal-oriented feedback, you positively influence self-esteem and support a child's motivational level for achieving academic goals.

Tips for Building Self-Esteem

There is more you can do to build your students up than just providing them with meaningful feedback. It's important for students to have healthy self-esteems both in and out of the classroom, but many children need help cultivating positive self-theories. This is where their mentors come in. Here is what teachers and parents can do to support high self-esteem in students:

  • Focus on the positive
  • Only give constructive criticism
  • Encourage students to find things they like about themselves
  • Set realistic expectations
  • Teach students to learn from their mistakes

Focusing on the Positive

Do you ever notice that both adults and children with low self-esteem tend to focus on the negative? You'll hear these people tell you what they can't do, talk about their weaknesses, and dwell on their mistakes. People like this need to be encouraged not be so hard on themselves.

Lead your students by example and demonstrate what it looks like to forgive yourself for mistakes and appreciate your strengths. They will see that self-worth should be determined by good traits rather than shortcomings. Focusing on the positive doesn't mean you can't ever give negative feedback, it just means that you should praise most often and give negative feedback sparingly.

Giving Constructive Criticism

Those suffering from low self-esteem are usually unable to tolerate criticism, even when it is meant to help them. Be sensitive to this. Always remember that self-esteem is about how much children feel valued, appreciated, accepted, and loved. You should work to preserve a student's self-image and help them to see themselves as you see them.

Understand that as parents and teachers, you play the biggest role in a child's development of self. You can easily make or break a student's self-esteem, so always criticize as constructively as possible when you must criticize and use your influence to have the strongest positive impact possible.

Identifying Positive Traits

Some students need to be prompted to state things they can do well and things they feel good about. You will be surprised at how many children with low self-esteem have difficulty with this task—for some, you'll need to provide prompts. This is a great beginning-of-the-year activity for all students and an exercise that anyone can benefit from practicing.

Setting Realistic Expectations

Setting realistic expectations for your students or children goes a long way in setting them up for success. Differentiated instruction is key to ensuring that your students are receiving the support they need, but you can't differentiate your instruction without knowing your students' strengths and abilities.

Once you've found out what a student can and can't do without support, get to work designing tasks and activities for them that are not so challenging they can't be done but challenging enough that they feel a sense of accomplishment upon completing.

Learning From Mistakes

Turn mistakes into something positive by helping children focus on what is gained through error rather than what is lost. Learning from mistakes is another great opportunity to lead your students by example. Remind them that everyone makes mistakes, then let them see you doing this. When they see you slipping up and handling your mistakes with patience and optimism, they will begin to see errors as learning opportunities too.

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