We’ve already shared how important self-esteem is for students, and how they perform behaviorally and academically. We’ve also discussed how our perceptions of students affects their overall experience (see linked study below)[i]. One author wrote, “…if they put limits on students’ abilities and potential, they essentially guarantee that those limits become the students’ maximum potential.”[ii] We have to be careful how we think about our students, because it will inevitably bleed into our expressions and our actions, whether we are conscious of it or not.
I discovered a secret for helping with this. We’ve all had students that we struggle with, find unpleasant to be around, whose every action seems to drive us up the wall. (Just me? Oh, okay) After an interaction with one such student, I confessed to another adult (when no kids were around, of course) that I was having a hard time with that particular girl. The other adult’s response was a genuine, “Really? I never would have known.”
And that’s because I went out of my way to be nice to that girl. I consciously gave chipper good mornings, compliments, praise for positivity. Not a significant amount more than other kids, but I planned opportunities for those kinds of interactions with this girl. Why? Because I knew that, if I didn’t, they wouldn’t happen. If I wasn’t aware of it, I would fall into more comfortable habits of avoiding interaction with her, which can easily lead to her feeling like I don’t like her, and is a slippery slope to becoming snide or negative toward her because of the lack of positivity.
You know what happened?
She became less unpleasant to me. Eventually, after forcing so much positivity into our relationship, it began to be genuinely positive. She began interacting with me (and others) the way that I interacted with her. Knowing that I liked her, and would be kind no matter what, gave her the confidence and sense of security to open up and risk a relationship. By repeatedly being exposed to a model of what a relationship should look like, she was able to internalize and replicate it without the fear of failure or rejection.
We have to understand that negative behaviors are usually attempts to gain something positive or avoid something negative. They do this by exhibiting “bad” behavior because of fear; they may have experienced repeated failure or rejection and need to feel powerful in the situation; they may be afraid to ask for what they need because they’ve never gotten it before; admitting that they need something may make them feel vulnerable.
Who They Are
The primary way around this is to find ways to connect their self-esteem to who they are as a person, instead of the choices they are making. It is important for kids to understand that you can make bad choices and still be a good person, and that they can always turn their behavior around to match their wonderful personalities.
For this reason, I stopped using or reinforcing phrases like “being good” or “having a good day.” This is a sample conversation.
“Mrs. Piles, am I being good?”
“Paul, you are awesome! You’ve been working really hard all period, and you got all your stuff organized and put up right away. I love seeing you enjoying class!”
“I did notice that you were struggling a little when you had to work with Gary. Is there a way I can help with that?”
“Well… I just think Gary really doesn’t like me. We don’t get along, and it’s hard to work.”
“Hmm. Maybe sometime we can talk to Gary together about that. Until then, what can we do?”
“Maybe Gary and I can pick new partners tomorrow?”
“I think that’s a good idea. Have a great lunch, Paul.”
During this conversation, a few things were done.
- Specific praise was provided that addressed not only actions, but attitude and effort. This gives Paul something concrete, so he knows what he did well and can do those things again later. Many times telling them they’re doing “good” leaves them unsure of how to replicate the good in the future; this can make it feel arbitrary, and take away their sense of ownership and control.
- Struggle was noted, but encouraged. Help was offered, reinforcing that struggling is normal and okay, and that it’s appropriate to seek assistance.
- While a long-term suggestion was given, Paul was encouraged to do his own problem solving and express a specific way that I could help. This teaches him that he is able to generate solutions to problems, and capable of helping himself. Not all the ideas presented by students may be appropriate or actionable at first, but this can be taught; in this case my acceptance of his solution increased his confidence in himself and in me.
Failure and Memory
In addition to providing concrete scaffolding about what they’re doing well, we also need to be careful that we are not peddling failure. It takes multiple instances of success to outweigh even one failing experience, and those numbers get stacked against many of our kids.
As funny as it sounds, when you see something questionable going on, don’t assume that he is trying to get himself into trouble. Instead of snapping “what are you doing?” or “stop that!” try seeking to understand, first. A calm, “Hey, what’s going on?” or “What’s the plan here?” gives him the opportunity to explain what he is doing. If it’s well-intentioned, you can give him guidance on a better, safer way to do it. If not, the simple question gives him the opportunity to redirect their behavior without confrontation, power struggle, or a sense of failure. He can completely change his behavior without becoming defensive, because he feels like no one even knew what his intent was in the first place.
One of the primary reasons success over failure must be emphasized is that our experiences shape our view of the future. Extensive studies were done in a gentleman with brain damage, who had lost most of his memory. When asked to predict events in the future, or even if he was hopeful about the future, he could not answer; this is because when we remember, and when we think about the future, the same part of our brain is activated.
What does this mean for us? This means that if our students only have negative memories associated with school, they will not be able to foresee a positive outcome in the same environment. This means that if all our students experience is failure, they will only be able to predict failure. Lewis Carroll wrote, “It’s a poor sort of memory that only works backward.” We need to make sure that our students have positive and successful memories to draw from, because we all know that our outcome often depends on our thoughts.
Without self-esteem, our kids will struggle with their behavior. Making good choices requires the confidence and belief that you are capable of making those choices, because you are a good person. All of our kids are good kids. Let’s make them feel that way.
What kind of experiences do you have regarding your own self-esteem, or that of your students? Do you have ideas or strategies you’ve found successful? Please share them in the comments!
[ii] Frizielle, H., Schmidt, J., & Spiller, J. (2016) Yes We Can! pg.36