When we talk about children’s self-esteem, we’re generally talking about the degree to which they like and accept themselves as people. Because self-esteem is a feeling, it is expressed in their behavior.
As paradoxical as it may appear, failure is one reason for the importance of self-esteem. High self-esteem allows children to keep failure in proper perspective. Whether or not children perceive a failure as a learning experience or as a self-punishment depends on their level of self-esteem.
Children as well as adults will vary in the type of self-esteem exhibited. We all feel more confident on some days than others. Feeling low self-esteem from time to time is not a problem. However, a pattern of low self-esteem is cause for concern. Teachers can easily observe children's self-esteem by seeing what they do and how they accomplish it. For example, children with high self-esteem will often:
try to influence others’ opinions or behaviors in positive ways.
communicate feelings and emotions in a variety of situations.
approach new situations in a positive and optimistic manner.
exhibit a high level of frustration tolerance.
take on and assume responsibility.
keep situations in proper perspective.
communicate positive feelings about themselves.
try new activities without major resistance.
To help children develop a high level of self-esteem without becoming self-centered or unrealistically confident, consider the nine suggestions below. They require consistency, genuineness and discrimination on your part. Alone, a single suggestion will not have a long lasting effect; in combination, they will have greater effect.
However powerful these suggestions, keep in mind that many other factors, not within your control, influence self-esteem. These include children’s natural temperaments, peer groups, and school and community environments. Nevertheless, as teachers and parents you can have a powerful effect on children’s self-esteem, often powerful enough to offset children’s learning difficulties.
1. Be Solution Oriented. An important step in building children’s self-esteem is to teach solutions rather than assign blame. Some children are very “blame oriented". When things go wrong, they quickly "point the finger" at someone else. Such children not only become easily frustrated, but never learn how to handle obstacles. Teaching children solutions begins with simple statements like, “Who’s at fault is not important. The important question is what we can do so that it doesn't happen again.”
Being solution oriented allows children to develop a sense of control and resiliency when they confront situations that could be ego deflating and lower their self-esteem.
2. Allow Children to Make Decisions. While the statement, “No one promised them a democracy” may hold true in some situations, allowing children the opportunity to make decisions that affects their daily life usually enhances their self-esteem. Decisions about decorating lockers, seating arrangements, and free-time activities can make children feel a sense of control. Coupled with solution orientation, teachers and parents can use mistakes to create positive learning experiences. A good technique to turn failure into success is the forced-choice technique. Provide children with three options, all of which are acceptable to you and will lead to a successful resolution. Ask them to choose the one they prefer. They will have made the decision, a decision that will prove successful. Afterwards, you can discuss why their choice lead to success.
3. Offer Alternative Ways of Handling Situations. Some people know only one or two alternatives in handling situations. After these fail, frustration occurs. Conditioning children to see alternative ways of handling a situation or obstacle can go a long way to enhancing their self-esteem. Asking children what they already tried and discussing other possible solutions increases the number of “tools” in their “tool box". The more "tools" that have at their disposal, the easier life becomes. To prevent frustration, children with limited "tools" use lots of avoidance strategies, like “cutting up” in class or feigning illness.
4. Teach Children the Proper Labels when Communicating Feelings. The ability to correctly label one's feelings influences self-esteem. Children have a difficult time communicating when they lack proper labels for their feelings. When they cannot label internal feelings, the feelings become trapped, which may create behavior problems, physical symptoms, and the like. To prevent this problem, teachers and parents can offer children the correct labels. For example, you may want to say, “While the feeling you’re expressing sounds like anger, it’s really frustration and frustration is.... Now that you know this, is there anything that is causing you frustration?”
Building an emotional vocabulary allows communication to flow more easily and reduces a child's unwillingness to deal with situations.
5. Allow Children the Opportunity to Repeat Successful Experiences. A foundation of positive experiences is necessary for self-esteem. Whenever possible, allow children the chance to handle any job or responsibility in which they previously succeeded and are again likely to succeed. Since the child has mastered skills required for the job, any opportunity to repeat success can strengthen the child’s ego. Jobs like collecting homework, distributing materials, and cleaning the room are repetitive experiences that can create feeling of consistent success. The key is always to make sure that the children have the abilities—including the self-regulatory abilities—to repeat successful experiences without becoming bored or frustrated.
6. Allow Avenues for Disagreement. Children with high self-esteem usually feel they have an avenue to communicate their concerns. Even though the result may not go their way, knowing that a situation or disagreement can be discussed allows these children to feel they can influence their destiny. The importance of factor becomes obvious when one often sees that children with low self-esteem feel powerless to affect change.
7. Help Children Set Realistic Goals. This is a crucial to helping children improve their self-esteem. Some children will set unrealistically high goals, fall short, and feel like failures. Repeated over a period of time, these unrealistically high goals produce consistent failure that leads to more unrealistic goals. This circular behavior sometimes causes children to avoid risks. The more limited children become in their experiences, the less their chances for success. Avoidance, passivity, rejection of an idea or experience will only reinforce feelings of inadequacy.
You can help such children by helping them define their goal. You may ask them what they want to accomplish. After this, try to help them define the steps necessary to accomplish the task and break it down into smaller, controllable tasks they can succeed on. Each step becomes a goal in itself. Children should not see one final goal, but a series of smaller goals leading to a final point. This will help them will feel accomplishment at every step.
8. Use a Reward System to Shape Positive Behavior. Punishment tells children what not to do, while rewards tell them what to do. Rewarding and identifying positive behaviors, behaviors that require effort, increases self-esteem. Children enjoy winning the approval of teachers, parents and peers, especially when it comes to a job or task. You may want to use rewards such as notes indicating how proud they should feel about what they accomplished. Rewards can also be special time where children can choose from a list of fun activities. Be careful, however, not to reward children for what they typically enjoy and do well; it may backfire.
9. Make Sure you Communicate to Parents Not to Pave Children's Roads. Some parents make the mistake of reducing frustration for children to the point where the child develops a distorted view of the world. Children with high self-esteem get frustrated. However, they tend to be more resilient because they have previously handled frustrating situations and worked out the solutions themselves. When parents rush to the aide of their children, finish assignments for them, or make excuses, they are changing the environment to prevent them from becoming frustrated. However, they are unwittingly reinforcing children's low self-esteem and creating feelings of learned helplessness. After awhile, such children become far too dependent upon their parents to "bail them out" when frustrated. The need to master the environment and find solutions to challenges is crucial to positive self-esteem. The old saying applies: “Catch me a fish and I'll eat today; teach me to fish and I'll eat forever.”
In conclusion, improving children’s self-esteem is a process that needs to be viewed in a positive way. Altering feelings of low self-esteem offers children a more positive future.
Dr. George A. Giuliani is the Executive Director of the National Association of Special Education Teachers (NASET) and is a full-time Associate Professor and Director of the Special Education Program at Hofstra University's Graduate School in the Department of Counseling, Research, Special Education, and Rehabilitation. In addition to holding a Juris Doctor from the City University of New York School of Law, he is a New York State licensed psychologist and certified school psychologist. He has an extensive private practice focusing on children with special needs.