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How Can Teachers Foster Self-Esteem in Children?

Teachers play an important role in nurturing a student's sense of dignity and self-worth.

By Robert Brooks, Ph.D.

In this article, Dr. Robert Brooks describes what teachers can do to foster motivation, self-esteem, and resilience in students with learning problems.

Research about resilience highlights the significant influence of even one adult to help children with learning and attention problems become increasingly hopeful and successful. The late Julius Segal called that one person a "charismatic adult," noting this was an adult with whom children "identify and from whom they gather strength." Segal observed, "And in a surprising number of cases that person turns out to be a teacher." Not surprisingly, teachers and schools play a major role in determining a child's sense of self-worth and dignity.

The Mindset of Teachers Who Are Charismatic Adults

How can teachers serve as charismatic adults? Certainly they must use particular interventions to bolster the self-esteem and resilience of students. However, if strategies are to be effective, the teachers using them must possess a positive mindset, or set of assumptions, about themselves and their students. Some of the main features of this mindset are:

  • Every student desires to learn and be successful in school. If they are not, we must strive to understand the nature of their learning problems.
  • If students are demonstrating self-defeating behaviors, such as quitting, or not trying, or acting like the class clown or class bully, we must recognize these are ineffective coping strategies that often mask feelings of vulnerability, low self-esteem, and hopelessness. Rather than impose punitive consequences, we must ask how to minimize the despair these youngsters experience each and every day.
  • If we are to lessen the use of these ineffective coping behaviors, we must teach these youngsters in ways they can learn best. This implies that as educators we must first change our approach and teaching style if students with learning problems are to adopt a more hopeful, positive approach. We must be comfortable in making accommodations when needed.
  • Each child or adolescent possesses "islands of competence," or areas of strength, that must be identified, reinforced, and displayed by educators. A strength-based model does not deny the child's problems but recognizes the importance of using the child's strengths as an important component of any intervention program.
  • We must actively invite and involve students in the process of their own education.

Interventions to Nurture Self-Esteem and Resilience in the School Environment

If one accepts the tenets of this mindset, then it is easier for educators to rely upon attribution theory for offering guideposts for bolstering self-esteem and hope. This theory directs us to find ways for youngsters with learning problems to feel an increasing sense of ownership, control, and responsibility for their successes and to view mistakes as experiences from which to learn rather than feel defeated. What follows are several key strategies with examples of how teachers might accomplish this task. Each educator should use these strategies in a way that most successfully meets the particular needs of each student.

Understanding Our Students' Learning Problems and De-Mystifying These Problems for Them

A first step in helping children with learning difficulties is for teachers and parents to appreciate the nature of these problems, help children understand their unique learning strengths and weaknesses, and make appropriate accommodations in their school programs. When I conduct psychological/educational evaluations, I seek to enlist the children, as well as their parents and teachers, as active "partners" in the evaluation. I ask these youngsters what they see as their learning strengths and weaknesses. I am often very impressed with their ability to articulate their learning profile. I describe the evaluation as an attempt to understand more clearly their strengths and weaknesses so together we can figure out the best ways for them to learn.

When I complete an evaluation, I sit down with the youngster to review my findings, emphasizing both his islands of competence and his areas of difficulty and what we might do to strengthen the latter. Typically, I write a special report for each child, thanking him for working with me and detailing, in language he can understand, the main findings of the evaluation and the interventions I believe would help him. I should note that the interventions follow from the discussions I have with parents and teachers.

My close friend Dr. Mel Levine, through his writings and lectures, has skillfully demonstrated the importance of de-mystifying for children their learning strengths and problems. The more articulate students are about their learning style, the better equipped they will be to become self-advocates for what they need to succeed in the school environment.

Robert Brooks, Ph.D. is on the Faculty at Harvard Medical School and former Director of the Department of Psychology at McLean Hospital in Boston, Massachusetts.

Comments from readers

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