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How Can Teachers Foster Self-Esteem in Children?

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By Robert Brooks, Ph.D.

Reinforcing Responsibility by Having Children Contribute

Self-esteem and resilience are nurtured when children are provided opportunities to contribute to their world and to the well-being of others. In my research, I found that when adults are asked, "What is one of your most positive memories of school when you were a student, a memory involving something an adult said or did that boosted your self-esteem and motivation?" the most frequent answer centered around being asked to help.

For this reason when I consult with educators, I request they make a list of their students and what each contributes to the school environment. I have found that when students feel they are making a positive difference in school, they are more motivated to do well and are more willing to take appropriate risks in learning. These acts of caring can easily be linked with academic tasks. There should not be one student in a school who does not feel he is contributing to a better school environment. A few examples follow:

  • Students with learning problems can be asked to read to younger children.
  • An educator I knew enlisted adolescents with learning problems to sponsor a bake sale and raffle, with the proceeds going to a needy family in the community. This educator noted the students'self-esteem improved as they performed the many academic skills involved in the charitable project.
  • Students can take care of plants in school, or paint murals on the wall, or hang up favorite drawings.
  • Some schools use cooperative learning groups so students gain experience working together and helping each other. For some youngsters with learning problems, it is the first time they realize they have something to contribute to the school.

Learning from, Rather than Feeling Defeated by, Mistakes

All students are concerned about making mistakes and looking foolish. However, youngsters with learning problems typically experience more failure situations than peers who do not have these problems. Thus, they are even more vulnerable and fearful about failing. They feel especially "exposed" in school since it is an environment in which their learning problems are very evident. If we are to keep students from losing hope and quitting, we must help them develop a more positive attitude towards mistakes.

One of the most effective means of dealing with the fear of making mistakes and failing is to discuss this fear directly with students even before any mistakes are made. This is best done during the "orientation" period mentioned earlier. One of my favorite techniques for accomplishing this task is for teachers to ask at the beginning of the school year, "Who feels they are going to make a mistake and not understand something in class this year?" Before any of the students can respond, teachers can raise their own hands and discuss times when they were students and worried about making mistakes and how this interfered with their learning. They can then engage the class in a problem-solving discussion of what they can do as teachers and what the class can do to minimize the fear of failing and looking foolish. Rules can be established about how to call on students and how the teacher and other students should respond when a student does not know an answer.

Openly acknowledging the fear of failure renders it less potent and less destructive. Tying this to a discussion of how we all learn differently and have different strengths (islands of competence) and weaknesses sets the foundation for a class environment filled with respect and understanding. Such an environment is one in which students with learning problems will feel respected and their self-esteem, motivation, hope, and resilience will be nurtured.

Concluding Remarks

One of the most precious gifts we can provide children and adolescents with learning problems is to develop their self-dignity and resilience. I hope this series of articles has provided a helpful portrait of the world of these youngsters and what we can do to assist them to lead more satisfying, fulfilling, successful lives. A wonderful legacy we can leave these children and students is to be the charismatic adults in their lives, knowing they have truly "gathered strength" from us.

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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