How Teachers Impact Self Esteem of A Child

My youngest son (9) came  home from school distressed twice last week, but wouldn’t say why. When he was ready to share the reason I almost went into overprotective mommy mode. His teacher had negatively commented  on his handwriting once and used his ‘cursive’ as the bad example the second time. His anxious temperament needs critical feedback to be given in a nurturing, positive way and in private. He told me he cried in the bathroom and had been clenching his fists in class in anger.

I paused when he told me, after this moment of reflection I acknowledged how embarrassing, awkward and frustrating this must have been for him. Later, I stepped into counsellor mode and started brainstorming solutions with him. In the end he opted to move to another teacher, after he researched all the Grade 4 teacher’s names and asked his friends at school about each of them. Then he asked for my help to email the school and inform them.  However, I first contacted his teacher to let her know how these incidents affected him. She revealed that it was not her intention to hurt him, but I suspected she meant no harm. Most teachers mean well, but don’t always act well or understand the way a child’s temperament needs to be factored into their teaching.

What is Self Esteem?

  • It is liking yourself (not conceit or boasting), believing in yourself and what you do.
  • Feeling you have a place in the world where you belong and accepted just as you are.
  • Its not the same as self confidence but being confident is part of self esteem provides the ability to cope with challenges of life and
  • The right to be successful and happy.

The impact of the teacher on a child’s self esteem is crucial as this is the other adult they spend a huge portion of their day with. A study was conducted in 1995 by the Irish National Teachers’ Organisation entitled  Enhancing Self-Esteem and many interesting findings were revealed. What was suspected and now proved was that “The role of the teacher in the education process of children is central and largely determines the experience that children have in school, which in turn influences the child’s self-concept and development.” (Pg 26)

It was interesting to note the teachers own self esteem also has an impact on how he/she interacts with the learners. “Teachers who have a high level of self-esteem manifest themselves in the classroom as confident, relaxed and have a respectful attitude towards students. The ethos engendered by such a person who projects trust and belief in the child’s capacity and who has a warm supportive presence which enhances the child’s view of him/herself as someone of worth, results in an enhancement of the student’s performance. Teachers who have a high level of self-esteem are more likely to be flexible and exploratory in their approach to teaching.” (Pg 26)

So now you are wondering how teachers can increase children’s self esteem. The environment in the class needs to have 3 elements present for this to take place : (Pg 28 & 29).

(i) Empathy

Empathy, when expressed verbally, gives students reassurance that they are understood and accepted for what they are. Empathy also implies being able to appreciate what it feels like to be another person. One possible way of doing this is perhaps trying to come to

terms with the feelings behind a verbal message. If pupils feel that the teacher understands them and that the teacher “is on their wavelength”, then it is more probable that the pupil will trust or be influenced by that teacher.

(ii) Acceptance

Acceptance means liking and demonstrating concerns for the students as they are, with their strengths and weaknesses, capacities and limitations. For instance, if a child misbehaves, it is important that the child is still accepted even though the behaviour requires reprimand.

(iii) Genuineness

Genuineness means being able to respond to a person in need, naturally and spontaneously as one might respond to a good friend, rather than in terms of an individual’s professional stereotype or status.

Where does my son’s story fit in to all this? When we discuss the last part you will see how the teachers ability to give feedback with positive sensitivity will enhance the child’s self esteem. “Positive and negative feedback in the form of verbal or non-verbal communication is an integral part of teaching. Teacher feedback, an integral part of the teaching/learning process, provides reinforcement for behaviour which has an influence on self-concept and on the expectations an individual has for him/herself and for others.” (Pg 30) So a stern look, frown or shaking of the head can also be seen as a disapproval or disappointment even if no words are uttered. Smile more and frown less is the key!

The study further states that:

“A child who has a good perception of him/herself will perform at a reasonably adequate level and the teacher will in turn perceive the child favourably. The teacher’s favourable expectations and perceptions fuel the pupil’s self-concept. The progress of the child continues and so the cycle is ongoing. On the other hand, a child who has a perception of him/herself as a failure comes to school with a poor view of him/herself and performs in accordance with this opinion. The teacher is likely to view the child unfavourably and this is picked up by the pupil, who in turn is pushed further into a cycle of failure and low self-esteem.” (pg 30) In every class, like every family there tends to be a perceptional black sheep, one that that just won’t tow the line, behave, succeed etc. So he/she will struggle to see their potential to be more or better as they receive the message from the teacher that they are ‘bad’ or ‘less capable’.

How tragic is this, a child who has low self esteem and a poor self concept may perform poorly and the teacher’s attitude towards him and his lack of ability/effort/attention may continue to reinforce his poor academic results. The teacher’s expectations and teaching method can also enhance the self esteem of learners. According to ‘The Expectancy Effect’  the students tend to behave in accordance with the teachers believe in their worth and this will affect the child’s  performance/outcome.

To conclude, other than parents teachers are the other powerful force that shape, build, or destroy a child’s self esteem. As a result, they should receive more intense training on the psychological and emotional intelligence aspects of teaching to ensure they use this power for good. I have the utmost respect for teachers and have a few in my family who I know to be dedicated and passionate. I always take my hat off to them, especially when I have to help my son with his homework. Patience is needed for sure !

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