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What Teachers can do about Low Self-Esteem

Low Self-esteem

How a person views and values herself can have a significant impact on almost everything a person does – the way he relates to others, the way he approaches activities, the way he copes with adversity. This also has a marked effect on his academic performance, notably his motivation to learn, ability to focus and willingness to take risks. Thus, healthy self-esteem provides a firm foundation for learning.
My thesis will take a tour through the house of self-esteem; how it interacts with the successes of a student and the effective ways a teacher can promote it. First, let’s understand the significance of self-esteem.

Self-esteem is one of the key building blocks of school success. Also referred to as self-worth, self-esteem is not a measure of a person’s capabilities, but rather her evaluation of those capabilities. It reflects her feelings of being accepted and valued by others, her perception of how she measures up to others and her confidence in her ability to cope with challenges. In short, it represents her satisfaction with herself as a person.

High self-esteem empowers individuals to take on life’s challenges. A student with healthy self-esteem is comfortable with who she is and confident in her abilities. Optimistic about the future, she believes she can overcome most obstacles. She may have short comings, but she is not consumed by them and doesn’t let them define her. She may experience disappointments, but she is forgiving of herself when she doesn’t meet her goals. She may get frustrated but she has an inner strength that keeps her from giving up. In this sense, self-esteem helps to inoculate the student against the despair-and even depression-that can accompany low self-esteem.
Low self-esteem is the result of a gap between the way a person would like to be-her ideal self-and the way she perceives she is-her perceived self. The student with low self-esteem feels that she cannot do anything right. Her perceptions, however, are often distortions of the truth. Frequently putting negative spin on her accomplishments, she may discount as unimportant what she does well and give undue weight to what she does poorly. She may misinterpret comments of others as negative or critical. Mistakes serve to confirm her negative view of her abilities, rather than to be perceived as a normal part of learning. Her beliefs may give rise to self fulfilling prophesy: expecting to fail, she puts forth little effort, resulting in poor performance, which reinforces her expectation of failure. These students may also experience social and emotional problems. Fearful of rejection, she may be tentative in relating to peers and prefer solitary activities. The common behaviors exhibited by such students are:

•Believes that she is unlikely to succeed, even with hard work
•Gives up easily when frustrated
•Is very discouraged by experiences with failure
•Is especially sensitive to judgments of others
•Is timid in relating to peers
•Puts herself down
•Shies away from academic challenges
•Has difficulty concentrating in class
•Is reluctant to speak up in class
•Hesitates to seek teacher assistance when confused
•Approaches new situations with anxiety
•Is at increased risk for dropping out of school

Self esteem wanes as children go through school. During preschool and the early elementary years, children are typically confident, as evidenced by their curiosity and eagerness to learn. As they move into higher grades, they become increasingly aware of how their performance compares with that of their peers and siblings. Confidence and self-esteem take a downward turn for many students during their middle and high school years. A child’s self-esteem is affected by her perception of success or competence in four basic areas;

•Family: does she feel valued and respected by parents and siblings?
•Peer interaction: does she feel accepted and sought out by classmates?
•Academic ability: is she confident of success with most academic tasks?
•Physical attributes: is she content with her physical appearance?

Does she feel confident and skilled in athletic activities?
Some students feel unsuccessful in any area, and experience a pervasive sense of worthlessness. Others may feel confident in some areas and confidence in her academic skills. Another student may be secure in her ability to read but feels inept in math. Still another may feel valued and accepted at home but sense a lack of belonging in school. If a student feels competent in the areas that are important to her, she is likely to have high self-esteem; conversely, if she is deficient in those areas-or perceives herself as deficient-she is likely to have low self-esteem. The areas that are important to her will most likely reflect the values of her family and community. Thus, a child who is physically awkward in a sports-oriented family may have low self-esteem. Similarly, a slow learner in a high-achieving family may feel especially self-conscious about her academic deficiencies.
Students with learning disabilities often experience low self-esteem. Many are confused by the mixed messages they receive as a result of their ability to do some tasks and inability to do others. As their failure experiences mount and they become increasingly discouraged, they may write off their strengths and conclude they are dumb or there is something wrong with them.

Self-esteem is not inborn, but rather learned and the building blocks for it are laid in the early life as children learn to feel loved and valued. They begin discovering about themselves as a result of the feedback they receive from important people in their lives. The key adults in a child’s life, notably parents and teachers, play a vital role in promoting feelings of confidence and competence. While they can foster the child’s self-esteem through supportive words and actions, they can also cause self-esteem to plummet by. Its is not unusual for children to receive mostly negative feedback from adults, but its true that ten times more negative messages are received than positive ones. They are bombarded with a constant stream of “don’ts”, “cant’s” and “shouldn’ts”, both in homes and schools.
As the child grows and becomes less egocentric, she shows increasing awareness of how she measures up against her peers. Their perceptions of being accepted by peers and their ability to get along affectively with them help to shape their feelings of self-worth. This is especially true during the teen years. In particular, their success in school plays a crucial role in how they perceive themselves. She is likely to dwell on her failures and dismiss her successes. When she does well, she may attribute it to luck; when she does poorly, she may attribute it to incompetence.

The challenge for their teachers is to restore their belief in themselves so they persevere in the face of academic challenges. Teachers must not only express confidence in their ability to success, but also arrange instruction so they experience success. While schools generally recognize the importance of promoting self-esteem, they have not always agreed on the best way to do this. Though you cannot teach your student to feel good about themselves, you can nurture their self-esteem through a continual process of encouragement and support. At its most basic, it demands that you show appreciation for the things students do well and express confidence that they will improve in the areas they don’t do well. Following strategies are useful in helping students become more confident academically and socially:

1.Set a Warm, Supportive Tone in Your Classroom
Provide an accepting atmosphere in which students feel valued, supported and free to take risks. Show respect for all students, especially those who are different. Let your class know that mistakes are expected and a normal part of learning. Encourage your students to compliment their classmates, and do not allow them to make fun of or put down others.

2.Consider the Impact of Your Actions and Comments on Your Students
Small actions or offhand comments have the ability to lift a student’s spirits or send them on downwards spiral. The power of teachers to shape the self-confidence of their students is evident from many people who can recall either encouraging or discouraging teacher statements years after they were made. Get in the habit of trying to anticipate the impact on your students’ self-esteem of what you say and do in the classroom. Keep in mind that they may interpret ambiguous comments in unintended and often negative ways, so be clear in your communication. Avoid using language that students may perceive as criticizing them in front of their peers.

3.Offer Praise That Is Specific and Genuine
Praise that conveys real appreciation for the student’s work will be more meaningful to her than vague, nonspecific compliments. Let her know in particular what you like about her work or behavior. This not only tells her specifically what she has done well but also demonstrates your genuine and thoughtful appreciation of her effort. Keep in mind that student may be uncomfortable being praised in front of her classmates; if so, praise her in private or send her a note(for example, “Congratulations on a terrific oral report!” “That was very thoughtful of you to help.” or “I missed you and your sense of humor when you were sick.”

4.Avoid False Praise
Students are skilled at distinguishing valid feedback from empty compliments. Vague, general words of praise may mean little to them and even sound phony. Constantly telling a student that she is special or making a big deal out of a small accomplishment may make her uncomfortable and lessen your credibility. She may learn to dismiss your compliments and tune out your words of support.

5.Bolster the Student’s Academic Skills
A student who consistently struggles with schoolwork will begin to lose confidence in her academic abilities. The most effective way to life her confidence is to help her improve her skills. Success is the best antidote to low self-esteem, and academic mastery is the best remedy for low academic self-confidence. Carefully analyze where her weaknesses are, and find ways to support her in these areas by paying special attention to her understanding of directions.

6.Help the Student Gain a Realistic Understanding of Her Strengths and Weaknesses
Students with low self-esteem tend to focus on their failures and dismiss their successes. Try to modify her perception by having her make a list of her strengths. Review her list, and have her add strengths that she omitted. At the same time, talk about a few areas where she needs to improve, noting that every student has weaknesses.

7.Replace Negative Self-Talk with Positive Self-Talk
The internal messages of a student with low self-esteem are often negative. The public comments she makes about herself most likely reflect her private speech. If you hear her saying things like “Other kids can do this. Why can’t I?” “I got lucky with that one,” or “Nobody likes me,” you can be sure she is also saying these things to herself. Try to counter her negative self-talk by exposing her misperceptions and offering a more positive and realistic view of her abilities. Give her feedback that she can turn into positive self-talk such as “I’m in the high reading group, so I must be pretty smart,” “I was elected to the student council so other kids must like me,” or “if I work hard, I’ll eventually get it.”

8.Show the Student Evidence of Her Progress
It is important that you show confidence in the student’s ability to be successful, but pep talks may not be enough. Children with low self-esteem often misperceive their skills, giving excessive attention to what they do poorly and discounting as unimportant what they do well. Try to redress this balance by focusing on the student’s strengths and helping her appreciate the progress she has made. Show her visible evidence of her growth by keeping a chart of her progress, comparing papers from earlier in the year with later papers, or demonstrating how the math problems she struggled with during the first marking period now come so easily to her.

9.Help the Student Cope with Failure
You role is not just to show the student how to minimize difficulty, but also how to cope with it constructively. Help her appreciate that failure is a normal part of learning and that accomplishment rarely comes without setbacks. Convey to her your belief that her failure is temporary, and that with perseverance and new strategies you are confident she will succeed. Ask her to recall a time when she had difficulty with a task but with hard work finally mastered it. Allow her to express frustration and acknowledge her feelings, but then move on to help her understand the source of the problem and giving her strategies for improving.

10.In Disciplining the Student, Be sure to Focus on the Behavior Rather than the Individual
A student with low self-esteem may sometimes misbehave in class. You should not treat her differently from other student if she does, but be sure to convey that your concern is with her behavior, and not with her as a person. Remember that calling a person bad, cuts the very root of self-esteem.

11.Challenge the Student
Give the student work that engages her mind and stretches her abilities, but make sure it is within her ability. Presenting tasks that are too difficult will quickly discourage an unconfident learner; presenting tasks that are too easy will leave her feeling unfulfilled. Use your knowledge of the student and her frustration tolerance to determine the appropriate difficulty level. Make sure she completes it, even if prompting and additional time is needed. As she gains confidence, give her somewhat more difficult work and lessen you involvement.

12.Create Opportunities for the Student to Feel Important
Assign the student classroom or school tasks that give her a sense of importance. Tell her that you have given her this job because you are confident she can do it well. Seek out opportunities in which she can help others; it is hard not to derive self-esteem and personal satisfaction from the act of giving to another person. Some possible activities follow:

•Serving as line leader
•Being class messenger
•Handing out papers
•Having responsibility for audiovisual equipment
•Being a “buddy” to a classmate or a new student

13.Give Special Attention to the Student’s Interests
Students gain self-esteem and a sense of purpose from being involved in activities that are meaningful to them. Find a few minutes everyday to talk with the student about her interests and concerns. If necessary contact her parents to find out about her favorite hobbies, programs, games to give you a basis for initiating a conversation with her. Bear in mind that what seems trivial to you may be important to her. Offer ways she can pursue her interests in greater depth, and suggest that she become involved in related extracurricular activities. Consider making this a classroom practice by setting aside time to have one-on-one or small group discussions with all your students to learn about their concerns and interests.

14.Be Especially Encouraging of Girls in Secondary School
As girls enter middle school, they often experience a slump in confidence. Make a special effort to promote their self-esteem and be aware of any subtle tendencies on your part to expect more from boys than from girls. Avoid particularly gender-based teaching practices in math and science – subjects in which girls are generally less confident than boys.

15.Minimize the Negative Effects of Competition
Students with low self-esteem can be disheartened by performing poorly in class competitions, whether by being first to be disqualified from a spelling bee or last to finish a race in gym. If you have competitions in your class, try to reward as many students as possible – or plan the competition so that students are competing against an attainable standard rather than against each other.

16.Encourage Other teachers to Bolster the Student’s Confidence
Keep in mind that there are opportunities to promote the student’s self-esteem in her nonacademic classes. Talk with the art, music, and physical education teachers about your concern, and ask them to find ways to make the student feel important or successful in their classes.

17.Inform Parents of Their Child’s Successes
Teachers are usually very conscientious about letting parents know when a child has a problem, but not nearly as diligent about notifying them when she has a success. Send a note home or call them when the child does something especially well. Let the student know you are doing this. A gesture that may take you only a couple of minutes can brighten a student’s day and generate positive responses from the parents to the child.

Self-esteem is not something that teachers can give to students. Rather, it results from real effort and genuine accomplishments. It comes from meeting what they perceive to be real challenges-in short, from earning it. It is not just the student’s experiences with failure that lessens self-esteem, but also her interpretation of these experiences. Teachers should promote self-esteem and prevent low self-esteem. A child doesn’t come in this world with low self-esteem; it’s the environment that makes him so.
Published: 2008-01-10
Author: Zahra Habib

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