Self-Esteem and Its Importance to Children’s Wellbeing and Learning

Self-esteem could be defined as “something we feel inside, the way we think about our self.” 

A young child is not born with high or low self-esteem, it is something that develops over time. It is a picture a child creates of themselves based on their interactions with key adults, their experiences and what they achieve. Young children view themselves through the lens of what they can do, and from the messages adults give to them. The more able they are at doing things, the more their self-esteem grows. As children grow they start to challenge themselves to experience new things and to learn new skills which is often driven by their own motivation to succeed. Their successes and failures influence how they think about themselves and so influence their self-esteem. 

Children and young people with positive self-esteem feel they are a good person, deserving of love and support, who can be successful. The opposite is true for children and young people with low self-esteem. 

Factors that can influence low self-esteem can include, negative feedback from parents/carers or on the opposite side overtly positive and inflated praise. Peer victimisation or bullying can cause low self-esteem, as can a high body mass index (BMI) or academic stress.

Poor self-esteem can lead to:

  • lack of interest in learning as it is difficult to succeed and manage,
  • increased experiences of frustration and more negative emotions,
  • difficulties in making and maintaining friends withdrawal and increased likelihood of being susceptible to peer pressure,
  • self-defeating coping skills such as avoidance or poor resilience leading to avoidance or early quitting of an activity,
  • have a negative image of themselves – they might feel bad, ugly, unlikable or stupid,
  • lack confidence, 
  • feel lonely and isolated,
  • tend to avoid new things and find change hard,
  • can’t deal well with failure,
  • tend to put themselves down and may say things like ‘I’m stupid’ or ‘I can’t do that’,
  • are not proud of what they achieve and always think they could have done better;
  • are constantly comparing themselves to their peers in a negative way.

Self-esteem plays a crucial role in children’s happiness, self-worth and overall development. Those children and young people with high self-esteem will have a positive image of themselves, make friends easily, can play in groups and on their own and can be proud of their achievements. Children that are confident in themselves will be better at building and maintaining relationships, adapting to new things, are more able to recover from mistakes or failures and have greater resilience.

Positive self-esteem also has close links to, and can influence a child’s feelings of, actual and perceived competence, or ‘self-efficacy’. Self-efficacy is the belief that we can do something and that we can influence events that affect our lives. A child’s level of self-efficacy can vary, according to individual temperament and how that has interacted with the child’s environment, but it continues to evolve throughout childhood and adolescence. A child with high self-efficacy will be more optimistic, less anxious and have a higher level of problem-solving skills, with the ability to persevere in times of difficulty, focusing less on the possibility of failure (Plummer and Harper, 2007). This is a concept that can be nurtured throughout childhood, especially within schools, as enabling a child to develop a sense of mastery and the ability to overcome a challenge will develop positive self-esteem.

There will be many children and young people in schools who have low self-esteem. This will be especially relevant for children in the care system or living in difficult circumstances. Many of these children in our classrooms will have experienced loss, trauma and significant life events on multiple levels. Young Minds reported that in an average classroom ten young people will have experienced parents separating, eight will have experienced severe physical violence, sexual abuse or neglect, one will have experienced the death of a parent and seven will have been bullied. 

If we now think about self-esteem alongside of the risk and resilience model we can see that low self-esteem is one of the risk factors in the development of poor mental health, whereas positive or high self-esteem acts as a protective factor to mental health. Children and young people with low self-esteem are at a higher risk of developing mental health problems over their lifetime and therefore, it is vital that parents, caregivers and the school community work to support young people to develop positive self-esteem.

How Can Parents Improve Children’s Self Esteem?

As adults we can support children develop positive self-esteem by

  • encouraging them
  • scaffolding their learning to ensure experiences of success
  • focusing on small steps and not just the final achievement
  • helping them when they struggle but not taking over
  • ensuring that they understand that learning is a process that takes time and is full of challenging experiences and mistakes
  • giving them time and showing an interest in what they are doing, 

How Can Teachers Improve Self Esteem of Pupils?

Schools are ideal environments to promote resilience and build self-esteem both of which offer protective factors and prevent mental health issues. This can be undertaken in a variety of ways including ensuring staff are well trained in attachment issues, are trauma informed and understand the skills that underpin positive mental health and wellbeing. Through the use of specific lessons and activities we can support children and young people’s understanding of how they create a picture of themselves and challenge any negative thinking they have as part of a wellbeing curriculum or prevention strategy.

Positive self-esteem in children and young people is vital because it affects how they think, feel and behave and has a long term effect on their ability to learn and their mental health and wellbeing.

Article contributed by Alison Waterhouse from the Circles for Learning Project. Building self-esteem is a central aspect of the Circles for Learning Project that is a unique and proactive way of supporting children and young people develop the positive foundations that underpin mental health and wellbeing.

Original article can be found here

The learning process is interwoven with emotions and the ability to work with others. Therefore, emotional literacy is a vital skills for young learners to develop to ensure they maximise their learning in school. Here’s how educators can support the development of emotional literacy in school

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