Low Self-Esteem

There is nothing in the world that will take the chips off of one’s shoulders like a feeling of success. Thomas Wolfe.

Low self-esteem underlies many of children’s problems. Their self-esteem declines when they receive more discouraging, negative messages then encouraging, positive ones. They see themselves as more bad than good. It’s hard for children to grow, accept failures, take on risks and challenges, be optimistic, keep trying, and feel competent when their incoming messages are telling them otherwise. A child’s opinion of himself mirrors what adults and other children tell him. No child thinks more of himself than what he learns from other people.

Children feel good about themselves when they achieve goals, receive praise, and feel like they are needed and belong to a group. If a child doesn’t get these positive ingredients he may feel inferior, overreact to criticism, or develop a there’s-no-point-in-trying attitude, because whatever he does won’t be good enough anyway. His anticipation of failure almost guarantees his failure, and confirms his notion that he is a failure.

When low self-esteem children do experience success, they are inclined to think of it as a lucky break or undeserving of credit. For instance, a child may comment, “I guess today was my lucky day” after passing an arithmetic test. He doesn’t connect his behavior, studying, with a positive consequence, passing his exam. He may also make illogical assumptions when things don’t go his way. For instance, “The teacher didn’t pick me to take the permission slips to the office because she doesn’t like me, or she thinks I’m too stupid to do it right.”

Children’s low self-esteem usually stems from faulty child-rearing: (a) over-protective parents who didn’t let their child figure out his own problems and make mistakes; (b) parents who seldom spent time with their child; (c) parents who expected too much from their child, frequently criticizing, punishing, and blaming him when he didn’t meet their standards; (d) parents who ruled their child and showed little respect for him; (e) parents who also lacked self-esteem, and treated their child the same way they were treated as children; or (f) children who feel inferior because of their looks or a handicap. These lead to irrational beliefs which limit children’s perceptions of what they can do, have done in the past, and will do in the future.


  1. Encourage independent, realistic thinking in your students. Discourage generalized illogical thinking patterns like, “I failed the last time, so I’ll probably fail again,” or, “She got mad at me, so I must have done something wrong.” Ask questions like, “Do you think if one person thinks you’re bad, that everybody thinks you’re bad?” or “Do you think that same person will think you’re bad the next time you see him?” or “Should that one person’s opinion of you influence your whole opinion of yourself?” Questions like these help children realize they need to develop their own criteria for evaluating themselves, because relying on other people makes them vulnerable to other people’s mistakes.
  2. Emphasize trying, rather than being the best or winning. It’s nice to win, and after all, we play to win; but in any competition there can only be one winner, and if you’re not a winner, you’re a loser. At least when you try your best, you can lose the game, but still be a winner.

You can help children understand this point more by asking them questions like (a) “If Cathy gets the highest mark in the class, does that necessarily mean she tried the hardest?”; (b) “If Jill fails, does that mean she didn’t try at all?”; (c) “If you tried your best to pass a test and you failed, would you still feel bad?”; and (d) “If you get the top mark in the class, does that make you a better person than anyone else in the class?”

  1. Discuss with children how each of them has different things they are good at and can take pride in. Some children, who are not as good in schoolwork, find they have talents, better than most, in other areas such as music, sports, or understanding other people. These talents are just as significant as being smart at school.

Expose your students to a number of hobbies, sports, and arts, so they’ll be more likely to find an activity they enjoy and are good at. Ask children to make a class presentation on what they enjoy doing the most, or take the most pride in. Encourage children to do whatever they want: bake a cake, bring in their family photo album, demonstrate how to play a sport.

  1. Help children realize that how well they do in school now does not necessarily reflect how well they will do later on at university, at a job, or in making friends. Many children who don’t do well at first in school go on to become doctors, lawyers, or start up their own successful businesses. Point out prominent people like Sir Winston Churchill, Albert Einstein, Babe Ruth, and Leonardo da Vinci who started out as problem children in school, but later became exceptional individuals.
  2. Foster children’s acceptance of themselves. Assure them there is nothing wrong with being satisfactory, or even less–if that’s the best they can do. Nobody is perfect. In fact, perfection is a dangerous goal to strive for, because those who do seldom are satisfied with what they accomplish. It is better for children to accept themselves, along with their shortcomings, and pursue the talents they have. Their chances for happiness and satisfaction are much greater.
  3. Nurture children’s independence by (a) letting them work out their own problems–controlling your natural impulse to rescue them; (b) leaving decisions up to them, and not giving away answers; (c) encouraging children to set and accomplish goals by helping them think realistically, anticipate problems, and cope with failure; (d) teaching them daily living skills like cooking, riding the bus, mapping out their neighbourhood, and trying out money-making ventures; (e) attending to what they do right, rather than what they do wrong; and (f) praising them at every turn of their journey, not just when they finish the race.
  4. Teach children the Sammy Davis Jr. song “I’ve Gotta Be Me,” or Barbra Streisand’s song “I Will Never Give Up.” Even if they only remember the theme line, it will empower them to think about and reach for the goals they value, and to prize their own ideas and ways of doing things. Another idea is to make a banner with Emile Coue’s saying, “Every day, in every way, I am getting better and better.”
  5. Organize a Speedy Muffler Club in your classroom. As your slogan have, “You’re a Somebody when you belong to the Speedy Muffler Club.”
  6. Give children the feeling you accept who they are, the way they are, and you like and prize their personalities. Don’t give them any reason to doubt that you are on their side, and will be there to support and help them achieve their best.

Make an effort to listen to children in the same way you would listen to your own children, parents, or friends. Accept and respect their feelings, let them say what they want to say, and show a caring, understanding attitude.

Frequently make specific positive comments about their attributes, your feelings about them, your confidence in their abilities, and their specialness to you. Don’t wait for the major event, the 100 per cent, but reward small steps. Especially reward those behaviors which strengthen children’s individuality, independent thinking, kindness, and truthfulness. Be careful, on the other hand, not to make a big deal about nothing. Children are quick to pick up on phony comments and exaggerations. They know when they do and do not deserve praise.

  1. Orient your discipline towards rewarding positive behavior, rather than punishing negative behavior. This does not mean turning your back on what children do wrong; it means placing less emphasis on it, and ignoring it if possible. When children learn that you’re more tuned-in to what they do right, they’ll work harder at getting your attention the right way, and their negative behaviors will naturally extinguish.
  2. Make a practice of taking pictures of your students, and mounting the shots on an eye-catching bulletin board.
  3. Have an honor roll in your class with special sections for most improved students, up-and-coming students, most sportsmanlike students, and Mr./Miss Congeniality.
  4. Assign the classroom monitor duties such as greeting visitors, carrying messages, pet/plant caretaker, cleaning blackboards, distributing snacks, displaying artwork, tidying cloakroom, emptying wastebaskets, dusting, roll call, closing windows and pulling blinds, emptying pencil sharpeners, and making classroom announcements on the school public address system. Giving children opportunities to contribute in their classroom helps them feel their participation is important to everyone.
  5. Make buttons with slogans like, “I am proud of _____,” or “I am doing my best.” You can give these out at the end of the day, or at the beginning of the next day so winners can wear their buttons all day (Rogers, 1987). Another idea is to give out, at the beginning of each day, buttons with positive affirmations like, “I’m going to have a good day,” or “I’m going to try my best today.” These may help children start their day off on the right foot.
  6. At all times display at least one piece of work by each child. This lets your class know that in some way you think each child is outstanding.
  7. Help children understand the positive part of failing. Failure should be viewed as a learning experience, a necessary step in self-improvement. Never having failed is more a sign of weakness than of strength, because it reveals that a person was never willing to try something he wasn’t assured of being successful at.
  8. Distribute a list of class names to each child, and ask them to put one positive comment beside each name. Make a profile of each child based on the comments made by the class, and post the profiles in a prominent spot.
  9. Ask students to compile autobiographies entitled About Me. They can put whatever they want in it: assignments they enjoyed doing or feel proud of, poems they like, pictures of their favorite movie stars, what they couldn’t live without, important people in their lives, what they like and don’t like about themselves, what they want to be when they grow up. Another idea is a Me Collage, made up completely of pictures and words saying something about Me.
  10. Give children ways of compensating for poor grades. For instance, if Ryan fails his math test, let him write another one, do a make-up assignment, or make his corrections count for extra points. Having a second chance dilutes some of the tension exam-writing typically creates, and may even help children get better marks.
  11. Remember to say “Happy Birthday” or sing the birthday song on the day of each child’s birthday. This lets children know you are thinking about them.
  12. Believe it or not, studies have shown that your own self-concept rubs off on students. Teachers with higher self-esteem tend to have students who rate themselves higher in self-esteem. They also evaluate their students more positively than teachers low in self-esteem (Curtis & Altmann, 1977).

It is difficult to give children a sense of security unless you have it yourself. If you have it, they catch it from you. Dr. William Menninger.

  1. Have Very Important Person Days. Make one child the centre of attention for an hour. Let him select his favorite refreshments and activities for the celebration.


  1. Videotape the child playing a sport or working on a task. Letting a child see himself on the silver screen can be extremely reinforcing for him.
  2. Have the child start out his day by listening to a tape with positive self-affirmations on it.
  3. Occasionally give yourself a break from the challenging child by trading classes with another teacher.
  4. Every morning make a point of greeting a low self-confidence child with a compliment.
  5. Invite a child to have lunch with you in your classroom. This is a nice way of telling him you enjoy his company (Rogers 1987).
  6. Arrange for the child to be a guest lecturer in another classroom. He can make a presentation on a special project, report, hobby, or skill he has which fits in with what the other class is studying.
  7. Encourage the child’s parents to take a course on effective parenting.


  1. Comparing children, either positively or negatively, with other children. “You’re not as smart as most kids” tells a child he’s not good enough, and implies further that you like the other children better. “You’re smarter than most kids” encourages him to think he’s superior to other children.
  2. Steer away from negative remarks like “You can do better than that,” or “Why haven’t you finished this yet?” These emphasize what children are doing wrong, raises their defences, and discourages them from trying harder. It is better to say, “Remember how hard you tried on your assignment yesterday? I’d like you to try just as hard today”; or “This must be an especially difficult question for you–keep trying–I know you’ll get it.” These encourage students to feel competent and motivate them to try harder.