Instilling Self-Confidence and Self-Esteem in Struggling Students
School can be really tough on students’ self-image, and they are quick to label themselves as someone who is “bad at math” or a “D student”. As a high school Learning Support Teacher Aide, I see this on a daily. By the time they enter high school, they have already developed a concrete sense of what type of student they are, and what they supposedly can and can’t achieve, and this is something I struggle with every day. A common conversation I have with students entering an exam goes something like this:
“You’ve got this, you’re going to do amazing!” I say with a high five.
“Miss Kara I’m going to fail, I already know” they say with an unenthusiastic high five.
“False! Take that back and tell me you’ll do the best you can!”
I am often shocked by how much they struggle to say that they might have a chance at passing and it breaks my heart. I can assure you that I don’t leave that student until they look at me and say something like “I will try my hardest” or “I will pass”. And even if they don’t believe it, saying it is the first step.
A parents role
As parents, you play a pivotal role in instilling self-confidence and self-esteem in your children. Often they don’t believe in themselves so they need you to believe in them. The competitiveness of school makes it very easy for children to lose confidence and belief in themselves. This may work as a protection mechanism, such that setting the expectation of failure protects against disappointment by eliciting an “I knew it” response when they receive a bad grade. Although the disappointment may still be deep-rooted in there somewhere, they are able to keep a strong, “carefree” facade. This expectation is a self-fulfilling prophecy, a belief or expectation that an individual holds about a future event that manifests because the individual holds it1. Because they expect to fail, their behaviours will reflect this expectation – i.e. they won’t study or put as much effort in class. On the other hand, if they believe that they can pass, their behaviours will begin to reflect this, and they will start working towards this.
What they need from you is for you to tell them that you believe in them, that their marks do not define them, and that you will love them regardless of what marks they come home with. “They already know this”, you may think, but you would be surprised at the catastrophising thought process some children go through when they experience failure, especially if it is for the first time. A principal said it best in a letter sent home to parents during exam period, “Tell them, no matter what they score, you love them and will not judge them. Please do this, and when you do, watch your children conquer the world”. The rest of the letter is below.
Top 5 Tips
Here are some tips to help foster self-confidence and self-esteem in your children:
- Praise the effort and not the mark– Let them know that you value the effort they put into their work instead of the actual mark.
- Praise the behaviour, not the trait – Instead of saying “You are so smart” which is seemingly something they can’t change, say something like “You are such a hard worker”.
- Celebrate the little things – Did they get a B in HPE but failed math? At least they are a great sportsperson! Students needs to experience success, because constant failure gets exhausting, and after a while, I see a lot of students fall into a helpless, unwilling and unmotivated mindset which is really hard to get them out of.
- Speak to them about failure – Explain that failure is not a bad thing but in fact, a great learning curve. Discuss times that you may have experienced failure (e.g. when trying a new recipe that flopped) but it was ok because you learnt from your mistakes. Students often get surprised when they ask me a question and I reply, “I don’t know, let’s have a look at the textbook and work it out together”. Sometimes I even get it wrong and they have to correct me, which they love!
- Help them set realistic goals – Getting an A in every subject may not be possible, but a C may be. Support them in setting reasonable goals that are achievable and that will help avoid feelings of failure.