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How to Improve Student Self-Esteem

written by: Trent Lorcher • edited by: Donna Cosmato • updated: 1/5/2012

In a tempest of insecurity, fears, and lack of self-worth, you can be the anchor for drifting students.

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    “What do you teach?”

    I used to answer this question English, History, or Literature depending on the subject I was teaching that particular year. I discovered later that teaching English, History, or Literature is no substitute for teaching children. Once I began teaching children, they began learning all that other stuff I used to teach.

    When teaching children, no topic is more important than their self-worth. The following suggestions help establish an atmosphere conducive to improving self-esteem in your students and in yourself.

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    Start with Yourself

    Set the example. Marianne Williamson, author of Our Deepest Fear, writes, “As we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same. As we are liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others.”

    Share your successes with your students and encourage them to do the same. Some days your self-esteem light may flicker. If so, fake it. Children live in a world teeming with insecurity and fears; give them permission to overcome theirs by overcoming your own. Our society will blossom as self-esteem in the schools increases. That increase should begin with the ones in charge.

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    Handshakes, High Fives, and Hugs

    Self-esteem in the schools improves when students have teachers who care. Teachers can show their concern with appropriate contact. Research suggests human beings need four hugs a day for survival, eight for maintenance, and twelve to thrive. In many situations, however, especially for male teachers, hugs are inappropriate and unwise. Handshakes make a nice alternative.

    Improving self-esteem begins at the classroom entrance. Greeting students at the door with a firm handshake allows you to make eye contact, establish a professional atmosphere, and give students a feeling of security. Don’t force reluctant students to comply. Most will eventually, without coercion. High fives are an effective way to celebrate student and teacher accomplishments. Encourage students to shake hands and high-five each other during class when appropriate.

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    Applause and Praise

    We applaud the basketball team for shooting well, the football team for tackling well, and the track team for running well. Why not applaud the student for speaking well, writing well, reading well, or answering well? Don’t just tell students they’re doing a great job; show them. Be sure to establish classroom rules and procedures for applause, or chaos may ensue. In addition, bring plenty of cookies for the teacher next door who may or may not appreciate your efforts in improving self-esteem.

    We all crave praise. When given sincerely it motivates students to achieve. Praise is most effective when it is specific, sincere, and instructive. Criticism should be used sparingly and in an instructive manner. Phrasing criticism positively is much more effective.

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    Boosting a child's self-esteem takes time. It's a process. With every handshake, applause, and praise, self-esteem improves. The following are more methods for boosting your students' self-esteem and practicing classroom habits that create an atmosphere conducive to learning.

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    Display Work

    Every student that walks through your classroom door wears an invisible sign that says, “Make me feel important.” If you don’t make them feel important, they’ll find alternative ways to feel important. Displaying exceptional work accomplishes four important tasks: it provides recognition for those who do well; it provides examples for those who want to do well; it provides incentive for those lacking positive attention; and it shows the class they are collectively important. Of all the ways to improve self-esteem, nothing works better than recognition for well done work.

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    Put Up, Not Down

    Put downs can cripple self-esteem and establish a hostile learning environment. Follow every put down with two put ups. If someone makes fun of Sally’s hair, serious or not, that individual must follow it immediately with an apology and two kind things about Sally. This rule applies to the teacher as well. There is no enemy greater to boosting a student's self-esteem than threats and put downs. Bullying should never be tolerated.

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    The Most Important Word in the English Language

    What is the most important word in the English Language? It’s not “please,” “thanks,” or “lunchtime.” It’s your name. Learn student names as quickly as possible, even if you have to cheat. Make copies of the seating chart and paste them strategically throughout the room. Find out student interests. This can be done formally through a questionnaire or informally through eavesdropping. Listen to the announcements. Find out who’s on what team and in what club and talk about it.

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    Tell Students You Love Them

    Students assume you don’t like them. After all, you’re the enemy, ruining their lives with copious amounts of work and stringent rules. They take every red mark and every missed answer personally. Every time you don’t call on them, they think it’s because you don’t like them. You’ll get some strange looks at first, but telling students you love them will motivate them to achieve. And if you don’t love them, fake it until you do.