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Dr. Ken Shore's
Classroom Problem Solver

The Student With Low Self-Esteem

A student's self-esteem has a significant impact on almost everything she does -- on the way she engages in activities, deals with challenges, and interacts with others. Self-esteem also can have a marked effect on academic performance. Low self-esteem can lessen a student's desire to learn, her ability to focus, and her willingness to take risks. Positive self-esteem, on the other hand, is one of the building blocks of school success; it provides a firm foundation for learning.

The challenge in working with children with low self-esteem is to restore their belief in themselves, so they persevere in the face of academic challenges. You do not need a formal program to promote self-esteem, however. Educators shape self-esteem every day, in the normal course of interacting with their students.

Although you cannot teach a student to feel good about herself, you can nurture her self-esteem through a continual process of encouragement and support. At its most basic, that means showing appreciation for the things she does well, expressing confidence that she will improve in the areas in which she doesn't do well, and adapting instruction so she can experience success.


Praise the student in a specific and genuine way. Students are experts at distinguishing genuine feedback from empty compliments. They learn to dismiss vague words of praise as insincere, and perhaps even phony. Comments that suggest thoughtful appreciation of their work, on the other hand, are meaningful to them. Toward that end, let the student know in specific terms what you like about her work or behavior. If she is progressing slowly, praise her for small steps forward. If you sense that she's uncomfortable being praised in front of her classmates, tell her in private or in a note.

Show the student tangible evidence of progress. Expressing confidence in a student's ability is important; pep talks alone might not be enough, however. Help the student appreciate her own improvement by pointing to concrete signs of growth -- perhaps by taping an oral reading at the beginning of the year and comparing it to a later performance, by showing her papers from earlier in the year and contrasting them with later papers, or by demonstrating that the math problems she struggled with during the first marking period now come easily to her. You might also have the student place in a box index cards with spelling or reading words she has mastered.

Showcase her accomplishments. You might read one of the student's compositions to the class, display her artwork on a bulletin board, have her demonstrate how to do a math problem, or, in the case of an ESL student, invite her to speak to the class in her first language. If the student has a particular hobby or interest, suggest that she talk to the class about it. If necessary, have her rehearse her talk in advance.

Help the student feel important in class. You might give the student an important classroom job or find ways in which she can help others. Tell her you are giving her the responsibility because you are confident she can do it well. For example: have the student take care of the class rabbit, deliver lunch money to the office, collect homework, help another student with a computer problem, read aloud the school's morning announcements, answer the school phone while the secretary is at lunch, or tutor a student in a lower grade.

Engage the student in conversation about her interests. A student can gain self-esteem from involvement in activities she cares about. Find a few minutes every day to talk with her about her favorite hobbies, sports, television programs, or musical groups. If necessary, ask her parents for the information you need as a basis for talking with her. Suggest to the student ways in which she can pursue her interests in greater depth. You might even bring in a book or item from home related to one of her interests.

Help the student deal with adversity. If the student encounters academic difficulties, help her appreciate that failure is a normal part of learning and that everyone experiences disappointment or frustration at some point. You might tell her that Lincoln lost seven elections before being elected president of the United States, or that Babe Ruth struck out 1,330 times during his career. Acknowledge the student's frustration, and then move on to help her develop strategies for improvement. Express your confidence that --with hard work and your support -- she is likely to succeed.

Encourage a sense of belonging. Students with low self-esteem often are isolated from their classmates. You can promote a student's peer involvement with others by finding ways to integrate her into activities that are take place both in and out of school. You might organize a group activity that includes her. Or ask a couple of friendly and accepting students to spend time with her during recess or lunch. If students pair up for class activities, assign the student a kind and easygoing partner. You also might want to encourage the student's parents to arrange additional social contacts with classmates, perhaps suggesting potential playmates.

Inform parents of their child's successes. Teachers are quick to let parents know when their child has a problem. They are not nearly as diligent about notifying parents when their child is successful. Consider sending home a note or calling parents when their child does something noteworthy. Tell the student you are doing it. The gesture might take only a couple of minutes, but it can brighten the student's day and engender positive responses from the parents to their child.

About Ken Shore

Dr. Kenneth Shore is a psychologist and chair of a child study team for the Hamilton, New Jersey Public Schools. He has written five books, including Special Kids Problem Solver and Elementary Teacher's Discipline Problem Solver.

Click to read a complete bio.