Taking the Chips off Children’s Shoulders: Low Self-Esteem

Low self-esteem underlies many of children’s problems. Your children’s self-esteem is what you make it. If you find more wrong than right in your children, they will think the same. No child can think more of himself than what he learns from the important people in his life. If you think self-esteem develops mostly after children start school, you’re wrong! Your child already knows a lot about himself at age five. Once formed, these thoughts are hard to change.

Self-esteem is the greatest gift in the world you can give your children. It is the key that opens your children’s world, frees them to try new activities, take on challenges, feel confident enough to do whatever they set their minds to, and be happy. Children feel good about themselves when they achieve goals, receive praise, and feel like they are needed and belong to a group. If children don’t get these positive strokes they may feel inferior, overreact to criticism, or take on a there’s-no-point-in-trying attitude, because whatever they do won’t be good enough anyway. Children’s anticipation of failure almost guarantees its occurrence, and further confirms their notion that they are failures. They carry this weight around with them wherever they go and to whatever they do.

When low self-esteem children do have success, they tend to think of it as a lucky break or undeserving of credit. For instance, a child may say, “I guess it was my lucky day today–I passed my math exam,” rather than, “All that hard work paid off, I passed my exam!” He may also make illogical assumptions when things don’t go his way. For instance, “The teacher didn’t pick me to take the permission slips to the office because she doesn’t like me, or she thinks I’m too stupid to do it right.”

Where does low self-esteem come from? Five out of six times it stems not from children but from their parents:
(a) parents may overprotect their children, not letting them make mistakes or figure out their own problems
(b) some parents never find the time to spend with their children
(c) other parents expect too much from their children, frequently criticizing, punishing, and blaming them when they don’t meet their standards
(d) and then there are parents who rule over their children, showing little respect for them or their decisions
(e) some parents lack self-esteem themselves, treating their child the same way they were treated as children
(f) some children are born with handicaps, which make them feel inferior to everybody else. These narrow children’s perceptions of what they can do, have done in the past, and will do in the future.

o Encourage independent, realistic thinking in your students. Discourage generalized illogical thinking patterns like, “I failed the last time, so I’ll probably fail again,” or “She got mad at me, so I must be a rotten kid.” Ask questions like “Do you think if one person thinks you’re bad, that everybody thinks you’re bad?” or “Do you think that same person will think you’re bad the next time you see him?” or “Should one person’s view of you be more important than what you think of yourself?” Questions like these help children realize they need to look inside to figure out how good they are. Relying on other people’s opinions stifles children’s development because it doesn’t let them be who they want to be.

o Emphasize the art of trying, rather than the end result of being the best or winning. It’s nice to win, and after all, we play to win; but in any competition there can be only one winner, and if you’re not a winner, are you necessarily a loser? At least when you try your best, you can lose the game, but still be a winner.

You can help children understand this point by asking them questions like (a) “If Cathy gets the highest mark in the class, does that mean she tried the hardest?”; (b) “If Jill fails, does that mean she didn’t try at all?”; (c) “If you tried your best to pass a test and you failed, would you still feel bad?”; and (d) “If you get the top mark in the class, does that make you a better person than anyone else in the class?”

o Discuss with children how each of them has different abilities they are good at and can take pride in. Some children, who are not as good in schoolwork, find they have talents, better than most, in other areas such as playing a violin, swimming, baking a cake, or drawing a picture. These talents are just as important as being smart at school.

o Expose your students to a number of hobbies, sports, and arts, so they’ll be more likely to find an activity they like and are good at. Ask children to make a class presentation on what they enjoy doing the most, or take the most pride in. Encourage children to do whatever they want: bring in their family photo album, demonstrate how to play a sport, bake cookies.

o Help children realize that how well they do in school now does not necessarily reflect how well they will do later on at university, a job, in making friends, or being happy with their lives. Many children who get off to a slow start in school turn into late-bloomers and become doctors, start up their own successful businesses, or win Olympic medals. Mention prominent people like Sir Winston Churchill, Albert Einstein, Babe Ruth, and Leonardo da Vinci who got off to a shaky start in school, but later became exceptional individuals.

o Foster children’s acceptance of themselves. Assure them there is nothing wrong with being average, or even less–if that’s the best they can do. Nobody is perfect. In fact, perfection is a dangerous goal to strive for, because those who do, seldom are satisfied with what they accomplish. It is better for children to accept themselves, along with their shortcomings, and pursue the talents they have. Their chances for happiness and satisfaction will be much greater.

o Nurture children’s independence by
(a) letting them work out their own problems–controlling your natural impulse to rescue them
(b) leaving decisions up to them, and not telling them what to do
(c) encouraging children to set and accomplish goals by helping them think realistically, anticipate problems, and cope with failure
(d) teaching children daily living skills like cooking, riding the bus, mapping out their neighborhood, and trying out money-making ventures
(e) focusing in on what they do right, rather than what they do wrong
(f) praising children at every turn of their journey, not just when they finish the race.

o Teach children the Sammy Davis Jr. song “I’ve Gotta Be Me,” or Barbara Streisand’s song “I Will Never Give Up.” Even if they only remember the theme line, it will empower them to think about and reach for the goals they value, and to prize their own ideas and ways of doing things. Another idea is to make a banner with Emile Coue’s saying, “Every day, in every way, I am getting better and better.”

o Organize a Speedy Muffler Club in your classroom. As your slogan have, “You’re a Somebody when you belong to the Speedy Muffler Club.”

o Give children the feeling you accept who they are, the way they are, and you like and prize their personalities. Don’t give them any reason to doubt that you are on their side, and will be there to support and help them achieve their best.

Make an effort to listen to children in the same way you would listen to your own children, parents, or friends. Accept and respect their feelings: let them say what they want to say, and show a caring, understanding attitude.

Frequently make specific positive comments about their attributes, your feelings about them, your confidence in their abilities, and their specialness to you. Don’t wait for the major event, the 100 per cent, but reward small steps. Especially praise those behaviors which strengthen children’s individuality, independent thinking, kindness, and truthfulness. Be careful, on the other hand, not to make a big deal about nothing. Children are quick to pick up on phony comments and exaggerations. They know when they do and do not deserve a standing ovation.

o Orient your discipline towards rewarding positive behavior, rather than punishing negative behavior. This does not mean turning your back on what children do wrong; it means placing less emphasis on their misbehaviours, and ignoring it if possible. When children learn that you’re more tuned-in to what they do right, they’ll work harder at getting your attention the right way, and their negative behaviors will get pushed into the background.

o Have an honor roll in your class with special sections for most improved students, up-and-coming students, most sportsmanlike students, and Mr./Miss Congeniality.

o Assign your students duties like greeting visitors, carrying messages, taking care of pets or plants, cleaning blackboards, giving out snacks, displaying artwork, tidying cloakroom, emptying wastebaskets, dusting, roll call, closing windows and pulling blinds, emptying pencil sharpeners, and making classroom announcements on the school public address system. Giving children opportunities to contribute in their classroom helps them feel their participation is important to everyone.

o Make buttons with slogans like, “I am proud of _____,” or “I am doing my best.” You can give these out at the end of the day, or at the beginning of the next day so winners can wear their buttons for a day. Another idea is to give out, at the beginning of each day, buttons with positive affirmations like, “I’m going to have a good day,” or “I’m going to try my best today.” These inspire children to start their day off on the right foot.

o At all times display at least one piece of work by each child. This lets your class know that in some way you think each child is important.

o Help children understand the positive aspects of failing. Failure is part of life, a learning experience which everyone goes through before they can master a challenge. Never having failed is more a sign of weakness than of strength, because it shows that people are afraid to try something they aren’t sure of being good at.

o Hand out a list of class names to each child, and ask them to put one positive comment beside each name. Make a profile of each child based on the comments made by the class, and post the profiles where everyone can see.

o Ask students to compile autobiographies entitled About Me. They can put whatever they want in it: Assignments they enjoyed doing or feel proud of, poems they like, pictures of their favorite movie stars, belongings they couldn’t live without, important people in their lives, what they like and don’t like about themselves, what they want to be when they grow up. Another idea is a Me Collage, made up of pictures and words saying something about Me.

o Give children ways of making up for poor grades. For instance, if Ryan fails his math test, let him write another one, do a make-up assignment, or make his corrections count for extra points. Having a second chance dilutes some of the tension exam-writing typically creates, and may even help children get better marks.

o Remember to say “Happy Birthday,” or sing the birthday song on the day of each child’s birthday. This tells children you are thinking of them.

o Keep in mind that your own self-concept will rub off on your students. Teachers with higher self-esteem tend to have students who rate themselves higher in self-esteem. They also evaluate their students more positively than teachers with low self-esteem.

o Have Very Important Person Days. Make one child the centre of attention for an hour. Let her select her favorite refreshments and activities for the celebration.

o Videotape children playing a sport or working on a task. I’ve never met a kid who didn’t get a kick out of looking at themselves on the silver screen.

o Have children start out their day by listening to a tape with positive self-affirmations on it.

o Occasionally give yourself a break from challenging children by trading classes with another teacher.

o Every morning make a point of greeting low self-esteem children with a compliment.

o Invite a child to have lunch with you in your classroom. This is a nice way of saying you enjoy his company.

o Arrange for children to make appearances as guest lecturers in another classroom. They can make presentations on special projects, hobbies, books they read, or skills they have which fit in with what the other class is studying.

o Encourage children’s parents to take a course on effective parenting.

o Stay away from making comparisons between children. Saying “You’re not as smart as most kids” tells a child he’s dumb, and implies further that you like the other children better. Even positive comparisons like “You’re smarter than most kids” are not recommended because they encourage children to think they’re over and above everybody else.

o Stop yourself from saying phrases like “You can do better than that,” or “Why haven’t you finished this yet?” These emphasize what children are doing wrong, raises their defences, and discourages them from trying harder. It is better to say, “Remember how hard you tried on your assignment yesterday? I’d like you to try just as hard today”; or “This must be an especially difficult question for you–keep trying–I know you’ll get it.” These encourage students to feel competent and motivate them to try harder.