Student and teacher, working on a lesson, Starbucks window, Fremont, Seattle, Washington, USA. Photo: Unsplash.
Teachers are some of the most influential figures in a person's life. From the time they're in kindergarten all the way through college, educators' attitudes and actions toward their students have a significant impact on a learners’ self-esteem.
Those students with healthy views of themselves have a natural ability to buffer rejection and criticism. They are receptive to feedback and see mistakes as opportunities to grow rather than personal failures, which sets them up for success in life.
However, students with low self-esteem, on the other hand, tend to take everything personally and can reach a point that they're afraid to even try learning because they don't believe they're smart enough to succeed.
A teacher can help build confidence and love for learning along the way. Early intervention can make the difference between a life of passionately pursuing one's interests and one marked by self-sabotage and ungratifying experiences.
To help bolster students' emerging identities, teachers must first understand how perception impacts academic performance and the various ways a skewed or negative view can manifest in the classroom.
What Is Self-Esteem?
People often use self-esteem and self-confidence interchangeably, but they share a fundamental difference.
Self-confidence refers to the belief a person has in their abilities, and it can fluctuate depending on what tasks they're faced with. For example, a gifted math student might be extremely self-confident when they're doing algebra, but they could lack self-confidence in sports or English literature.
Self-esteem, on the other hand, is a broader concept that covers the feelings, thoughts, and attitudes someone holds toward their entire self, and it is connected to a person's core identity. It impacts not only how a person values themselves, but also how they perceive and interact with the entire world around them.
Basics of Self-Esteem Development
Children do not form an identity or view of themselves instantaneously. Like walking or talking, it is a gradual process. The foundation of a child’s self-esteem is established during the first eight years of life, aptly known as the formative years. It continues to evolve throughout middle and high school.
Students who think favorably of themselves are more eager to try new things, don't give up easily, and are motivated to achieve goals. On the opposite end of the scale, students struggle with feelings of inferiority, unworthiness, and guilt. They are more critical and tend to carry a negative view of themselves throughout their lives.
Family background, socioeconomic status, race, and academic achievement all play a role in a child’s identity. The way they relate to the world is influenced by those around them; in many ways, they figure out who they are by how others see them. Those who are bullied and ostracized by their peers tend to think worse about themselves long after their school-age years; the labels others place on them become the labels they carry themselves.
Many students in high school develop a negative outlook about their future because they do not have money to afford higher education. They go on to become young adults who struggle to find well-paying jobs and launch a career because they lack the ability to finance their dreams. After a while, they lose the hope to even dream at all.
Now, while there are many ways students can borrow money for their tuition and go on to lead a life they're proud of, that can be a huge challenge if they have low self-esteem. Teachers and parents are the cornerstones of helping students from low-income backgrounds rise above their circumstances and develop healthy high self-esteem.
Identifying High vs. Low Self-Esteem
It's often easy to identify which students have a more positive view of themselves than others, but it can be surprising to learn how those with poor perceptions are prone to behave. Depending on their personality and temperament, a student’s true feelings can emerge in a variety of ways.
Children with a positive perception and view of their own identity:
- Believe in themselves
- Carry themselves with confidence
- Are proud of what they can do and achieve
- Speak positively about themselves and others
- Take on new things with excitement
- Don't give up easily
Children with a more negative perception:
- Are self-critical and may also criticize others
- Often engage in social comparison
- Expect to fail at something rather than succeed
- Avoid or are afraid of trying new things
- Refuse to try or give up after making a mistake
Cons of Low Self-Esteem in Students
Students who struggle to believe in their worth and ability are more likely to procrastinate. Avoiding tasks that induce anxiety is one way for them to avoid further disappointment and rejection. This typically results in them being labeled as lazy by teachers, parents, and even peers, which only worsens their image and reinforces the behavior.
Other students with low self-esteem may take a different approach. They could be disobedient, defiant, or assume the role of the class clown to distract others from their anxiety and insecurity.
Students who frame things more negatively are also hyper-aware of judgment or disapproval. In some cases, they may try to avoid these feelings by acting out in ways to deliberately sabotage their success.
Rather than scolding or penalizing, parents and teachers should first attempt to respond with compassion. Meeting students where they are means holding them accountable, while still embracing them through acceptance and reassurance.
When students don't believe in themselves, they ultimately put less effort into their studies. When they do achieve something, they're more likely to chalk it up to luck or coincidence than their own hard work and intelligence.
Students with low self-esteem are also more prone to socially isolate and become withdrawn, avoiding their peers, and missing out on opportunities to make friends and form meaningful experiences throughout childhood and adolescence.
How to Help Low Self-Esteem Students Thrive
Teachers, parents, and mental health professionals can help build confidence through encouragement, positive reinforcement, and plenty of affirmation.
When children feel safe to be themselves, they develop a sense of belonging and capability that stays with them as they grow.
Identifying the signs of a negative self-image and finding ways to challenge them is also important. Rather than shaming a child for feeling bad about themselves, professionals should continually offer affirmation and model positive self-talk and praise.
When a student is unable to overcome their challenges, talking to a school counselor or a therapist can help them begin to reshape how they see themselves.