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Self Esteem

General points
Self-esteem is often quite rightly identified as being key factor in explaining challenging/inappropriate behaviour - but we aren't always sure as to what we actually mean by 'low self-esteem'. We can find ourselves continually try to improve youngsters' self-esteem - but feeling frustrated at the lack of progress.

Transactional Analysis (TA) provides some useful insights into how children and young people's self-esteem is formed and ways to effectively promote it. According to this theory, everyone is born with a hunger for recognition - to be noticed by others. Initially this is satisfied through physical touch (picture the baby being stroked and held by adoring adults).

As the child grows older, she becomes more sophisticated in picking up on the ways others give her recognition - the verbal messages, the non-verbal messages that accompany the verbal (eg scowling). Any way in which recognition is given is referred to in TA as a 'stroke'.

These strokes can be positive and negative. They can be offered for what the child has done (conditional - 'What a great model you've made') and for simply 'being' (unconditional - 'It's good to see you back'). This is illustrated in the matrix below:


What about the pupil who doesn't accept my praise?

Some children don't appear very receptive to the positive strokes we offer. The analogy of a diet can be useful here. If you imagine a child who has been regularly fed on a diet of fast-foods; they are then taken to a new town where there is nothing but healthy food outlets. As much as these foods will be 'good' for them, the child's taste buds have become so accustomed to the fat and sugar of the fast food diet that he craves the burgers, chips etc. Consequently, he will still be craving the fast food, no matter how strongly we know that the healthier food is 'better for him'.

Similarly, the youngster whose diet of strokes has been more skewed to the negative might well struggle to accept the positives coming their way - and indeed crave the negative strokes. This can lead to some seemingly illogical behaviour. John, who rarely puts pen to paper, has completed his work. You are delighted and respond with plenty of positive strokes - 'Well done', a smile, giving him a merit etc etc. 2 minutes later he has hit someone, been sent out of the room (accompanied by a loud bang of the door) and, having now sworn at the headteacher, is now facing a 3 day exclusion. You are left with wondering 'Where on earth did that come from?'


Improving self-esteem - some general pointers

Raising youngsters' self-esteem takes time and patience. In particular, they need to:

Hear - the positive strokes - many youngsters with low self esteem will not be tuned in to the positive strokes being offered - establishing eye contact can be helpful here

Receive - for pupils with low self-esteem they will often reject the positive strokes - 'She doesn't really mean that'; 'That might apply to the rest of the class, but not me'

Internalise - this will be a gradual process as the youngster is invited to rewrite his perception of himself

Below are some suggestions for effectively communicating positive strokes:

  • Using 'I' statements makes it harder for pupils to reject the positives being given. Contrast 'Well done', 'Great' etc with 'I like the way you set out your work with the title in the centre', 'I am impressed with ....' 'I was pleased to see that you ..'
  • Be specific - 'I like the way you have set your work out, with paragraphs and a title'; 'I am really pleased to see you walking down the left hand side of the corridor'
  • Privately understood messages - eg a hand of the shoulder, a thumbs up etc etc can be useful
  • Avoiding public praise- for some pupils, being praised in front of others can be embarrassing -and the feeling of embarrassment can overshadow the sense of pride you would hoping to instil.
  • Be more measured in the giving of positive strokes - avoid the temptation to give too many as they are likely to be rejected.
  • Encouraging the pupil to accept where they are - that they don't have to aim for perfection; eg pupil could set their own target number of points they are aiming to achieve during a day - adult sets target lower to communicate the message that they can be 'good enough'.
  • Having permission to fail.
  • Adult modelling - 'it's ok to make mistakes'.
  • Challenge 'I must' and 'I should' statements.

The 3 components of self-esteem

A particularly useful way of understanding self-esteem, especially when thinking about targets for IEPs etc is the idea of it having three components: (Long and Foggell 1999)

  • A sense of value ('I'm liked')
  • A sense of competency ('I can')
  • A sense of control ('I will')

Click here for some ideas as to how to promote a stronger 'Sense of Value', 'Sense of Control' and 'Sense of Competency'

Some Examples
Possible developmental tasks Affirmations Strategies
Some Examples
There are many behaviours that can be indicative that a pupil's self-esteem might need improving. Some of these include:

Body language
Poor eye-contact

Rushing work
Not attempting work
Destroying work (click to resource link)

Social difficulties:
Dominating others
To start to give up beliefs about being the centre of the universe

To separate from parents without losing their security

To assert an identity separate from others

To acquire information about the world, self, body and gender role

To learn extent of personal power

To learn skills, from mistakes; to learn to be 'good enough'

To test abilities against others

To identify with one's own sex

To test ideas and values
You can learn to think for yourself and others too

You can be yourself and we will still care for you

You can explore who you are and find out about others

You can be powerful and ask for help at the same time

You can try out different ways of being powerful

All of your feelings are OK here

You can learn from your mistakes
There are a number of suggestions for raising self-esteem under the specific headings 'Sense of Value', 'Sense of Control' and 'Sense of Competency'

To support a youngster exploring their identity: Stories where there are clear character types - heroes and villains, rescuers; Dressing up area

Social difficulties:
Consider which specific social skills need to be developed; teach these, giving opportunity to model, rehearse and review.

Paired work - to minimise the challenge of getting on with a larger group of others - gradually increasing the group size

For further ideas refer to 'Getting on with others'