Understanding Self-Esteem

By Leah Davies, M.Ed.

Self-esteem is based on a child's personal belief system. It is a blend of the way children feel about themselves and the way they believe others see them. Children's sense of self influences their attitudes about what they can do, how to cope with problems, and how to get along with peers. Academic success enhances self-assurance and helps a child feel capable. Failure in scholastic efforts often leads to self-doubt. If children have a low esteem, they may shy away from new tasks and challenges, or spend considerable energy on personal concerns instead of concentrating on learning.

The foundation of self-esteem is laid early in children's lives when they develop attachments with caring adults who respond affectionately to them. When children feel that the significant others in their lives love them, want them to be safe and would miss them if they were gone, they are more likely to develop a feeling of self-worth. If children are treated with respect, encouraged to do their best, given realistic feedback, provided with structure, and offered opportunities for controlling some part of their lives, their self-esteem usually thrives.

Conversely, if children feel unaccepted and unworthy of love, a poor self-concept may result. Additional factors that can contribute to feeling low self-worth are unusual appearance, poor coordination, learning problems, attention disorders, adjustment difficulties, ethnicity, poverty or discrimination.

Children do not gain self-esteem from adults telling them how wonderful they are. Instead, they develop self-confidence from being respected and by accomplishing challenging tasks. Praise is valuable when it is genuine and provides meaningful feedback. The use of flattery is not beneficial (See article, Effective Praise).

Another consideration is that children do not acquire self-esteem all at once, nor is it consistent over time. All children experience emotional ups and downs. For example, a child may feel self-assured at home but not at school or in groups. Offering a variety of social and educational experiences helps strengthen a child's self-confidence.

Since self-regard in children is profoundly influenced by the judgments of the adults in their lives, what can educators do to enhance the self-esteem of children?

  • Call the students by their name and celebrate their mastery of material or noteworthy effort by responding verbally, in writing and/or by displaying their work.

  • Be clear about your classroom structure and rules; provide an impartial, cooperative environment where children are heard, and respected. (See article, Educator's Guide to Enhancing Children's Life Skills).

  • Offer opportunities for children to have choices, make decisions, experience success and contribute to their class, school and/or community.

  • Foster perseverance by supporting a student's belief in his or her ability to cope well with setbacks. Teach children positive self-talk to use when discouraged. (See article, Encouraging Thoughts).

  • Help students build supportive relationships with peers by providing group activities that reinforce cooperation, resourcefulness and problem solving skills. Encourage character traits such as helpfulness, responsibility, and empathy. (See articles, Building Character in Students and Aggressive Girls.)

  • Recognize children's unique abilities and allow them opportunities to initiate projects related to their interests. Include self-evaluation of their work.

  • Help parents understand that children need affection, undivided attention, limits, encouragement, expectations, and some control over their lives. (See articles under "Parent Tips").

  • Model a pro-social, considerate attitude as you guide, direct and teach your students. Listen to them, thus demonstrating a genuine interest in their learning, lives and points of view.

Used by permission of the author, Leah Davies, and selected from the Kelly Bear website [www.kellybear.com]. 12/03

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