Promoting Self-Esteem

This article examines some general ways to promote self-esteem, including some that are specific to changing the negative messages to positive ones.

The first step is to get rid of critical attitudes, labeling, and name calling. Even in the name of socializing a child, you can’t make him feel better about himself by making him feel bad about himself. That doesn’t mean to move right to “La-La Land,” where everything is sweetness and light and nothing connects to reality. Of course children misbehave, make adults angry, and act in less than loving ways. They need guidance and protection. They need honest feedback. But the form in which you guide, protect, and give honest feedback matters.
Give More Honest Feedback and Encouragement Than Praise

Some adults, in the name of building self-esteem, vow always to be positive and to praise children at every possible opportunity. They replace honest feedback with constant overblown praise. Praise is no cure for low self-esteem. All it does is create a need for the child to look to the adult for a judgment of everything he does. Children need coaches, not cheerleaders (Curry & Johnson, 1990). If you overdo praise, your words become meaningless. For example, if you say “Great job!” about every little thing, it becomes an empty phrase. It’s more effective and less damaging to use encouragement instead of praise. Call attention to children’s legitimate successes, but don’t butter them up with heavy judgments. Compare past performances with present ones, but not with those of other children—“You picked up more blocks this time than last time,” rather than “You’re the best block-picker-upper I’ve ever seen.” Better yet, explain why this behavior is valuable (Hitz & Driscoll, 1988).
Give Children Opportunities to Experience Success

Even more important than just talking is to give children many chances to experience success of all sorts. Challenge them so that when success comes they’ve worked for it—it didn’t just arrive on a platter. Do this by creating a manageable, yet challenging, environment that is appropriate to their age and stage of development. The book Developmentally Appropriate Practice in Early Childhood Programs Serving Children from Birth Through Age 8, by Sue Bredekamp and Carol Copple (1997, 2006), gives many ideas about how to respond to children appropriately.

When adults give children a helping hand, they also help them experience success. Lev Vygotsky (1978) came up with the term assisted performance to describe this helping hand. He suggested that other children can be the ones who provide the helping hand, not just adults. Others now use the term scaffolding. Scaffolding is a process that can be viewed as similar to the temporary structure one puts up to paint a building. In other words, the adult provides the support the child needs, allowing him to problem solve at new levels. The scaffolding helps the child experience success, which encourages the child to challenge himself further, thereby meeting with the possibility of new success. Scaffolding, because it is temporary, can be built for a specific need on each occasion and can easily be remodeled to serve changing needs.



Optimum challenge and risk taking is the secret to development, to learning, and to skill building. Scaffolding supports children so they have experiences with positive results when challenged to take a risk. When children encounter a problem or an obstacle and are about to get stuck in the problem-solving process, instead of rescuing them, adults can provide help—not heaps of help but the smallest amount necessary. In this way adults can facilitate the continu-ation of the problem-solving process. They provide the missing link in the chain that allows children to move forward toward solutions. Thus, children’s success is eventually their own, not the adult’s. Experiencing personal success in the face of obstacles gives children messages about their abilities, about their self-worth.

Look at the following scenario, which illustrates scaffolding:

Dashinique wants to try out for the school play but has to choose a scene, and she can’t make up her mind. An adult helps her sort out the possible contenders and then offers to listen to her try the part in each scene to see which works best. The answer becomes obvious to both of them as Dashinique acts out each scene. But then comes the second problem. Dashinique is scared of the tryout. She can speak her lines fine, but the thought of standing up in front of people makes her nervous. Again the adult helps by gathering some people to listen to her say her lines so she can practice in front of them and get used to being watched. It works. By the day of the tryouts, Dashinique has gained self-confidence and does well in spite of a few leftover nerves. Dashinique gets the part, and her success is her own. She only had a small bit of help (but lots of support and encouragement).

The next situation shows the difference between scaffolding and “rescuing,” in which adults provide too much help:

Brandon and Shelby are having an argument over who gets to use the glue gun to finish the craft projects they are both working on. Brandon had it first, but Shelby grabbed it and is holding it out of Brandon’s reach when an adult comes up to the table. The adult could rescue Brandon by taking the glue gun from Shelby, but instead he helps the two sort out the situation. He starts by merely saying what he sees: “Brandon wants the glue gun.” He waits to see what happens. Shelby answers, “Yeah, but I need it.” Brandon cuts in, “I had it first.” Shelby responds, “But you were just holding it—you weren’t using it.” Brandon turns to the adult, “Make her give it to me—I had it first! It isn’t fair!” Shelby responds, “I really need it. If I don’t hold down this piece the whole thing is going to fall apart.” “Well...,” says Brandon, “I could let you use it for a minute if that’s all you want to do. But next time don’t grab!” he says emphatically. No longer needed, the adult walks off, and the two continue to work on their projects. Think about what the children learn and how they feel when they solve a problem themselves rather than depending on adults to fix it.

By J. Gonzalez-Mena

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