Developing Self-Esteem – How to Aid in a Healthy Outlook by Pam Macisaac #TeachMeTuesday

In the last decade or so, the concept of self-esteem has taken some hard knocks in educational circles. The Internet teems with articles criticizing the prevalence of awards for participation and overly permissive discipline philosophies. According to this backlash, a focus on how kids feel over how they perform leads to coddling and over-parenting. Supposedly, we’re raising a generation of kids who are undermined by excessive self-regard. Of course, there is some truth to these criticisms—sort of. Isolating our children from failure and adversity is wrong-headed, as it denies them an opportunity to develop strength and resilience. We learn from our mistakes. We learn by losing.

However, like all polarized perspectives, many of these commentaries on the dangers of the “self-esteem approach” lack nuance or are over-reactions. In my experience, it’s rare to meet a child with too much self-esteem. Among the hundreds of children I’ve taught and worked with, I’ve met a few who, I suppose, may have thought too highly of themselves, but I’ve met far more who had become resistant to learning because they had internalized years of overly harsh and humiliating feedback or insincere praise.

Perhaps the problem lies with definition: Self-esteem is not narcissism. Kids with strong self-esteem aren’t arrogant or over-confident, they see themselves clearly. They are aware of their own evolving strengths and challenges. They have a solid core of belief in themselves, which helps them to identify and externalize undeserved blame or reward. Setbacks and failures might temporarily get them down, but they rebound because they believe that they can ultimately succeed.

Self-esteem is integral to the learning process. It seems like a simple truth but it’s one we seem to forget: kids learn when they feel good about themselves. Kids who believe that they are smart are able to listen to others. They have empathy and understand multiple perspectives. They are able to be vulnerable and say, “I don’t know”. Kids with self-esteem are able to relax with peers and teachers, focusing on learning rather than their anxiety about learning. They can hear and incorporate constructive criticism because they know that they’re okay.

So, how do we encourage true self-esteem? The key is honesty. Kids are very quick to spot insincere praise or undeserved awards, and using those as a tool to prop up self-esteem is ineffective, possibly even destructive. Instead, as educators and parents, we need to listen and observe kids closely, and take the time to offer both sincere praise and constructive criticism. Those of us who work with children can often, unconsciously, reinforce the social and academic hierarchies that they establish for themselves. It’s important to subvert their “pecking order” by identifying the challenges of the academically and socially successful and the gifts and strengths of the ones who struggle. Feedback that recognizes this complex individuality, whether it’s in the form of a formal report or an offhand comment, is the only way to encourage genuine self-esteem.

PMacIsaacHeadshotPam MacIsaac is a writer, teacher, enthusiastic amateur cook, mom, and lifelong pet owner. Her academic coaching practice, Think Academic Enrichment and Support (, offers literacy tutoring, enrichment classes, PA Day and March Break Creativity Camps, and other services for kids in midtown Toronto. She lives in the Arlington Village/Oakwood & Vaughan neighbourhood, and loves her local parks!

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