Why we need to re-think our approach to developing children’s self-esteem

Over the past number of years, parents and educators have increasingly focused on children’s self-esteem and how to boost it. However, self-esteem is a complex concept and some of the methods we have been using to boost it may actually be counter-productive. I think there is a real need to re-examine the self-esteem movement in our schools and change our approach.When we look at the core emphasis of the self-esteem movement, it is often based on the use of positive affirmations to constantly reassure children that they are special, or wonderful or amazing. Sometimes this is done through adults telling the children these things, sometimes it involves getting the children to say it to themselves.Of course, using abstract positive affirmations like these is done with good intentions, but research shows that it can actually be harmful to those with low self-esteem.This is because the affirmations may not feel authentic; this can cause a disconnect between how children actually feel about themselves and what they are being told.

This is of huge importance to educators, as many schools are still using this approach in a misguided attempt to raise self-esteem. We need to use positive affirmations with caution, children who don’t feel amazing or wonderful may actually feel worse if they are constantly told this. It highlights the discrepancy between how they actuall feel and how they want to feel.So, what can we do to help children develop a healthy level of self-esteem? It may be helpful to regard self-esteem as a by-product of strong self-efficacy and strong self-acceptance. So, if we want to build a child’s self-esteem, there are many practical things we can do in these two areas. Let’s have a look at some ideas for both.Self-efficacy refers to the belief we have in our own abilities to reach our goals and overcome challenges.[2] High self-efficacy is linked to increased well-being and self-esteem, and there are many ways in which we can develop it in children. If a child appears to have low self-esteem, this can often be rooted in low self-efficacy. So, we can start by talking to the child and helping to explore their feelings and beliefs about different parts of their lives. We can help the child to identify areas in their lives which they feel under-confident about and which may be contributing to poor self-esteem.

Let them pick one or two areas to focus on, perhaps it may be friendships, or a particular topic in school they are struggling with, or they may have a worry or anxiety about something. Set some small targets and support the child as they work towards them, as they experience small successes as a result of personal effort, this will provide a powerful boost to self-efficacy and indirectly to self-esteem.We need to build up children’s internal skills and show them that we believe in these abilities. In my work as a primary teacher, I’ve been so lucky to see children blossom and thrive once they start to believe in themselves. It’s such a precious gift to give them; perhaps one of the most important ones of all.Another crucial element in developing self-efficacy is with regard to how we teach children to view failures along the way. We need to help children to interpret failure as feedback, rather than internalising it and taking it on a personal level. If we continually reinforce the message that mistakes are part of the learning process and that it’s normal to experience disappointments and failures, we can prevent children from attaching their sense of self-esteem to particular outcomes. This can allow them to experience a great sense of pride and achievement based on the effort and perseverance they are putting in, rather than just focusing on the outcome alone. The aim is progress, not perfection!The other area which I believe we need to focus on a lot more with our children in order to build healthy self-esteem is self- acceptance.

Self-acceptance is a major factor in well-being; it refers to the idea of being okay with ourselves just as we are, in all of our imperfections.Self-acceptance means recognising our intrinsic self-worth, regardless of these imperfections. It’s easy for us to accept all the amazing and wonderful parts of ourselves, however it’s a great relief to be able to accept all the not-so-amazing parts too! We need to tell our children that they don’t have to be perfect, that we all have parts of ourselves which are unkind, or mean, or judgemental, or make mistakes, or all those other parts which make us human. Some children can be so hard on themselves when they fail to measure up to their own high standards, we need to help them to develop self-compassion from an early age to try to prevent mental-health difficulties from developing. I send this message every day to the children in my class during our mindfulness sessions; instead of telling the children that they are amazing I ask them to try to accept all the not-so-amazing parts of themselves. I sometimes see the sense of relief on their faces as they work through this process. At the end of a recent session, one of the children asked me “So, basically, you’re telling us that it’s perfect to be imperfect?” What a great insight, which led to a very interesting class discussion!


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