Advice for supporting students’ self-esteem

  • Advice for supporting students’ self-esteem

Q I am head of Y7 in a relatively small, inner city academy. We cater for young people from a wide range of backgrounds, but the demographic is overwhelmingly from the lower end of the socioeconomic scale. Every September I receive a new intake of children, many of whom are aware that they have been judged (by the SATs system) and found wanting – plenty of whom have already decided that they are ‘worst at maths’ or ‘bad readers’, because that’s the message they’ve been given. I know that raising their confidence and self-esteem is absolutely key to breaking them out of this cycle and giving them the aspirations they deserve; but it can be a long, slow process, and I’m convinced that we need to manage it as quickly as possible in order to have a real impact. Do you have any suggests for fast, effective ways to address low student self-belief, that we could implement from the start of Y7 (or even earlier, through transition work)?

A Firstl, telling students they are brilliant and that they will go far simply doesn’t work. For many, they know it is false; it is a lie. But tell any student, and I do mean any student, that they can do better, and that you can show them how, provides them with the vital ingredient, the vital step they need to start building their own self esteem.

Initially small practical things like getting the children to hold doors open, be polite, helpful and friendly, helps them to feel better about themselves. By doing these types of things they receive positive feedback from others which is so important – a simple thank you and a smile can go a long way in raising a child’s self-esteem. If they receive positive feedback they feel better so are more likely to repeat this behaviour and they feel better again - self-esteem starts growing fast.

Longer term, teacher and student need to work together; the student needs to buy into the learning process and take responsibility for it. To get them to engage in their learning they have got to understand that with effort goals are achievable and not pie in the sky. It is up to us, the teacher, to show students how to work effectively. In other words we need to show them how to improve, believe in them and expect realistic yet high standards for all. High standards do not automatically mean high academic standards.

However, encouraging pride in the everyday will encourage high standards for all aspects of life, including academia and education.

Q I work in a successful secondary school in the North West of England. We were rated ‘Good’ in our most recent Ofsted inspection (last year), and our results are slightly above the national average. We enjoy a positive reputation in the local community, and our staff retention rate is excellent. On paper, therefore, it all looks pretty rosy; and yet, as someone who teaches a core subject from ages 11-16, it frustrates me hugely that there is always a small, but significant, number of our students who simply cannot seem to engage with their education, and who contribute, needlessly in my opinion, to the 30% or so of young people who annually leave our school without 5 or more A*-C grades at GCSE, including maths and English. We’ve tried various reward systems; gamification of some lessons; ‘rebranding’ in terms of uniform etc – but this group of children remains, somehow, out of reach. Is there anything we can do to get them onside?

A When students stop caring it is because they have lost their self-belief and their motivation. The motivation they once had has been knocked out of them because they have always found schoolwork too difficult and they cannot see themselves making any progress. I think we would all give up if we found ourselves in their shoes.

Motivation is complex; it includes both intrinsic and extrinsic factors yet it is a key factor in the success of students at all stages. The trick is finding that motivational trigger that will turn students into active learners and self-believers.

Finding these triggers however can be so difficult, because students respond differently. What works for one doesn’t work for another but I think there are a few triggers that work most of the time with most of the students.

For the majority of these very hard to reach students, the ones who have given up on themselves, I honestly believe it is weakness in some of the basic, essential key skills that is the root of the problem – language and thinking skills. We must explicitly and directly teach these essential skills and tackle their difficulty and misunderstandings head-on.

Don’t try to avoid it. It doesn’t matter if it is b/d reversals with younger students, certain spelling patterns, use of punctuation or mathematical procedures or word definitions, they need explicit teaching to overcome their particular hurdle.

Remember if the student is having difficulty in understanding basic skills repeating the same instruction in a slow, steady manner will not in most cases work, so please think about alternative interventions and strategies rather than continuing with more of the same. After all, if you always do what you always did, you’ll always get what you always got. So think of something different.

Break the task down, focus on small steps and practise, practise, practise until that step is mastered before moving onto the next step. To learn and build upon new skills they need lots and lots of repetition. This is often what goes wrong. The pace of introducing new concepts is too quick, others in the class have mastered the concept the class moves on and they feel lost, left behind.

Students have got to feel secure in their learning environment so that they feel OK about taking risks. If they are not taking risks they are not learning. If they feel secure we can set high expectations.

For this group in particular setting high expectations does two things. It suggests to them that you believe in them and that they have the ability to achieve.


Katy Parkinson is the founder of Sound Training (01642 42 42 98, www.soundtraining., a fast, focused and fun literacy programme that’s proven to raise attainment and help close the gap for mainstream students.