The area of self-esteem is broad and considerable however we feel the three most important things for teachers to know are:
What is self-esteem and how is it formed?
Why is self-esteem so important for healthy functioning and early intervention?
What can teachers do to improve and support the self-esteem of the young people?
What is self-esteem?
Put simply self-esteem is how someone thinks or feels about themselves. Often, we hear self-esteem referred to in quite deterministic terms such as someone having high or low self-confidence. This is sometimes interpreted to mean that self-confidence and therefore self-esteem is something someone is born with, however by examining what self-esteem is we can see that self-esteem is something that is developed and often inconsistent.
Becoming a person
The self, or rather our sense of self, is formed through our relationships with others, this can occur in what is presently being experienced; for example, feeling good about praise you received in a meeting you just had, or historically, feeling bad about upsetting a friend in the past. These experiences of others responsesand recognitions act to inform us of our sense of worth and highlights the importance of early relationships and connectedness. These early relationships and connectedness are key conceptions in the theory of attachment.
To break things down further aside from sense of self, linked to this, is a sense of what we can “do” which is known as self-efficacy. Self-efficacy is the sense of mastery young people develop through their interactions with the world (though not necessarily via others). If a young person masters a particular skill, for example playing guitar, then they are able inform their sense of self that they can achieve things which can help to generate self-esteem themselves. Being self-efficacious often accompanies a whole host of useful skills and beneficial attributes such as perseverance, problem solving, and young people with high self-efficacy tend to be more optimistic and less anxious in general.
An individual that has both sense of self-worth (self-esteem) and a sense of self-mastery (self-efficacy) displays to the outside world what we often describe as self-confidence.
Why is self-esteem so important for healthy functioning and early intervention?
Low self-esteem is a risk factor for the development of mental health problems as outlined in risk models of early intervention.
Looking at self-esteem in terms of our own self-evaluation, via our interactions with others, we can begin to see how crucial the early development of a positive mindset becomes for a young person to navigate their everyday lives. Young people are set this task whilst learning about the world, their bodies, their studies and often against a backdrop of peer pressure to look a certain way (which often accompanies bullying). In most classrooms there will also be a significant number of children that have experienced trauma, neglect or abuse of some form, something which we can attain a measure of by using something called Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs).
As self-esteem feeds into self-confidence it can affect the choices young people make and shape their perception of the world. A lack of belief in one’s abilities or worthiness can mean the necessary attempts to take on challenges and learn from experiences can become limited, reducing a young person’s ability to build resilience, independently cope/problem solve and regulate emotions.Continued low self-esteem can have a snowball effect reinforcing itself in a negative cycle and creating vulnerabilities to other mental health concerns such as anxiety and depression.
Overtime a young person with low self-esteem can begin a process of psychological defence building, removing themselves from activities and interactions altogether and building a negative worldview as a means of normalising how they are feeling and perceive their role in the world. This can make it much harder to communicate with a young person, diminishing our abilities to support, assess for riskand guide them through difficult times in their lives.
What can teachers do improve self-esteem?
As with all matters of wellbeing taking time to focus on areas such asemotional intelligence and social confidence helps to build an outlook that feeds into the interactions a teacher has with the young people they support. Whilst we are preparing ourselves to help others we must also look after ourselves, we’ve got some advice and guidance on this in the teacher wellbeing section.
Assessing the young people you support will give you a sense of who might need extra help with their self-esteem. Young Minds have compiled a list of characteristics of high and low self-esteem which can help with identifying young people who may need further support.
a young Person with low self-esteem could:
struggle to deal with failure
think they could have done better
say ‘I’m stupid’ or ‘I can’t’
feel bad, ugly, unlikable or stupid
struggle to make and keep friends
feel lonely or isolated
have a negative image of themselves
not take prides in achievements
find change hard
avoid new things
a young person with high self-esteem could:
make friends easily
be willing to try new things
have a positive image of themselves
play in a group or on their own
ask for help if necessary
admit and learn from mistakes
be proud of their achievements
try to solve problems on their own
adapt and change
be comfortable with new people
As a young person cannot always predict what feedback they will get from those around them teachers can step in and try to the promote a young person’s positive aspects, being mindful that whilst a young person might recognise they should be valued they might not feel it.
When feelings are hard to access for a young people self-efficacy can become an invaluable tool in which helping a young person take part in activities can self-generate a sense of self-worth. This could be setting individuals and groups tasks and recognising the effort in taking part. Alternatively, it could be giving individuals responsibilities within the classroom which gives a young person opportunity to work with others in positive manner and receive feedback (completing a circuit of positive reinforcement).
It is important when setting tasks for young people with low self-esteem that they are challenging but realistic. It is also important to be realistic with feedback and avoid unwarranted grandiose praise (as this can be make young people feel they can complete any task regardless of skill or learning and can lead to simply the seeking of praise).
Acknowledging that it is impossible to be good at everything all the time, and that this is normal, will help a young person persevere through difficult times. Often these explanations can be delivered through personal or created stories (for example the ‘little engine that could’).
Focusing on how learning through experience occurs and relating how a young person might have felt when first attempting something to when they have become more comfortable is a great way to build a young person’s capacity for resilience.
Of course, teachers have to manage their own self-esteem themselves and therefore it is paramount that a teacher’s wellbeing is nurtured and supported as well. It is often through the reflection and understanding of one’s own mental health and wellbeing that we can be become truly effective in providing support to others.
Working with parents
Everyone is born into relationships and when considering individuals, we must also consider the environment around them. This applies to schools, communities and households that young people interact within.
If a young person is identified as suffering from low self-esteem, then for the chances of intervening to be effective, having yourself and the parents working together to provide consistent support is highly advantageous. Sometimes however parents are not aware or equipped with knowledge of how to support their child’s mental wellbeing and may even be suffering with aspects of mental health themselves. This a where being able to direct parents to sources of information and support in their local communities can result in a big positive step for both child parent. For more general information on parents see our talking to parents section.