Practical strategies and ideas for supporting pastoral and curriculum leaders and SEAL co-ordinators. This first issue discusses different types of self-esteem, and how to focus on preventing students from engaging in a negative learning cycle

Welcome to your new fortnightly e-bulletin from Social and Emotional Learning Update at Optimus Education. With the development of a wide range of well-being initiatives currently being implemented in schools, it is hoped that this e-bulletin will provide busy teachers with practical ideas, resources and strategies for supporting students across all key stages.

Topics to be covered during the coming months include the following:

  • Self-esteem and what really works in the classroom
  • Motivation and how to engage with even the most difficult and less resilient students
  • Managing stress both socially and in the learning context
  • Using cognitive behaviour therapy (CBT) approaches with young people to promote positive thinking, feeling and behaviour
  • Using solution focussed strategies to empower young people
  • Identifying emotionally vulnerable students and supporting their learning in the classroom
  • Developing approaches to manage self-harming behaviours
  • Developing social and emotional skills in the early years
  • Creating support systems to promote staff well-being
  • Developing emotionally literate staff meetings and supervision/coaching systems
  • Using motivational interviewing techniques to promote positive behaviour change
  • Developing SEAL in the special school context
  • Developing programmes to support the emotional well-being of teenage girls
  • Developing programmes to support the emotional well-being of teenage boys
  • Developing emotionally literate mentoring systems for students

Whilst recognising the high level of expertise that teachers have already developed in these areas, it is hoped that this e-bulletin will further promote their thinking and awareness of a range of new or more innovative programmes and support systems, positively impacting upon their practice on a daily basis.

Issue 1 – Self-esteem

Self-esteem has always been a vital area for development in young people, and one that has been frequently misunderstood and demonised by some members of the psychological community. Why is it so important? ‘It is because children learn well with a combination of appropriately high expectations and appropriately high self-esteem’ (Roberts, 2002). In order to develop this high self-esteem learners need to be able to take risks; this process must involve failure and the need for young people to be able to cope with the associated frustration. We therefore need to focus on preventing students from engaging in a negative learning cycle, for example: I worry about failing – I will not succeed – I won’t bother trying.

It is important, at the same time, to note that the relationship between academic achievements and self-esteem is rather confusing. Does good self-esteem raise achievement or does achievement raise self-esteem? This is rather a chicken and egg concept. What is evident, however, is the fact that children who believe in their abilities tend to achieve more i.e. the notion of the self-fulfilling prophecy.

Key terms
There is some confusion about the key terms of self-concept, ideal self, self-esteem and global self-esteem.

  • Self-concept is really the perception that a child has of himself – how he defines himself. For example: I’m a boy; I’m Arthur’s best mate; I play football; I like Big Macs. My self-concept would be that I am a woman; I am loyal; I like writing and going to the gym; I love good wine and malt whiskey. It’s these individual components that make up the person.
  • The ideal self is what or who I would really like to be, and this is usually an idea that is formulated in comparison to others.
  • Self-esteem, in effect, is the evaluation of those parts. For example, how much do I value being Arthur’s mate? How important is it to have friends?
  • Global self-esteem is the overall feeling that we have towards ourselves. There will be specific areas where we feel good about ourselves and others when we’re not so positive – this is perfectly normal.

Low self-esteem
Self-esteem has many causes and can be linked to distorted self-evaluation. Teasing or bullying by peers can trigger attachment issues which often lead to an inferiority complex. Low self-esteem is also frequently caused by a poor ability to communicate, which limits the success of a student’s social interactions. What is important to remember, however, is that experiencing low self-esteem at some point in our lives is completely normal. This is not a problem if we have what Rob Long calls ‘a reservoir of good feelings to ourselves in order to help heel ourselves’ (Rob Long, 2009).

’Depersonalised’ self-esteem
Some psychologists have put forward the view that self-esteem is becoming depersonalised i.e. your low self-esteem is nothing to do with you and you are simply a victim. It is based on the urge to shift blame for low self-esteem away from ourselves i.e. it is not our fault – we are helpless and high self-esteem is our right.

When working with young people, however, it is important is to ensure that they are aware of the fact that they need to take responsibility for their feelings, starting with their actions. A person’s self-esteem will rise when their actions display some merit, since self-esteem is the outcome of what we do and is influenced by the choices we make for ourselves. This is quite a powerful concept but one that is important for young people to grasp.

‘Feel good’ self-esteem
A further argument put forward by some psychologists is that making oneself or others feel special by using methods such as looking in the mirror and saying ’I am somebody’ doesn’t actually do any good – in fact it may actually do harm. Rosemond (2002) considers that this type of self-esteem building produces ‘counterfeit positive self-assessment’, which can consequently set people up for disappointment in the real world as we can develop an unrealistic picture of our specialness.

The resiliency route to authentic self-esteem
Nan Henderson (2002) developed a resiliency route to authentic self-esteem which she describes as ‘not being the stuff of meaningless affirmations’. Having worked with young people for many years in a range of educational and learning contexts, I have found it to be a hugely convincing and productive argument.

It is based upon: recognising actual accomplishments; identifying and understanding how we can make use of our strengths; living a life where we express our talents and gifts. These processes involve a shift in thinking for both adults and young people working to improve self-esteem. It is entirely solution focused. There is an appreciation of how and why we have done as well as we have done, and there is also a recognition of the need to draw on innate capacity for overcoming adversity and bouncing back. Key questions here, for both adults and young people, are as follows:

  • How have I done as well as I’ve done?
  • What are the two or three biggest challenges, including crisis or traumas I’ve overcome in my life?
  • What did I use to overcome them?
  • What do I use everyday to effectively cope with the typical stresses in my life?

Personal resiliency builders
It is essential that young people learn how to develop their own personal resiliency builders in order to overcome adversity. Individual qualities that facilitate resiliency are as follows:

  • Relationships
  • Humour
  • Inner direction
  • Perceptiveness
  • Independence
  • Positive view of personal future
  • Flexibility
  • Love of learning
  • Self-motivation
  • Competence
  • Self-awareness
  • Spirituality
  • Perseverance
  • Creativity

It is important for individuals to recognise the personal resiliency builders that they use most frequently. Do they rely upon relationships and the ability to be a friend and form a positive relationship? Do they use humour to deflect difficult situations and feelings? Are they able to adjust to change, and bend as necessary in order to positively cope with a range of situations? Are they able to use creative outlets in order to express themselves? Building this kind of self-awareness is particularly important when young people are developing in all these areas. They require prompting to consider their skills and to reflect upon how they can be further developed.

Do not reject old chestnuts
Although these tactics all represent positives moves away from simple ‘feel good’ self-esteem towards authentic self-esteem, which involves choices and responsibilities, there remains a clear need to support the development of this kind of authentic self-esteem across a school community. These include:

  • Valuing attempts that students make, but not in an over the top manner – particularly for students who have social, emotional, behavioural difficulties. This needs to be done discreetly and can often involve a mere look or comment.
  • Providing students with ‘helper’ roles, from which their commitment and contribution is valued.
  • Allowing students to make choices and be responsible in the learning context.
  • Developing personal records of success.
  • Avoiding comparisons that can be damaging to individuals.
  • Teaching the skills for emotional literacy in order to foster self-awareness and self-concept.
  • Teaching and modelling the skills and strategies of cognitive behaviour therapy in order to promote resilience and self-esteem (this will be the topic of our next e-bulletin).
  • Promoting personal resiliency builders [link to above] as described in this article.
  • Building positive relationships with both peers and adults in the school community.

14 way to enhance self-esteem

Finally, it is useful to provide both students and adults in the school community with the following 14 ways to enhance self-esteem. These are common sense strategies, clearly not rocket science − but it can be all too easy to forget the importance of such simple ideas:

  1. Spend time with people who like you and care about you.
  2. Ignore and stay away from people who put you down or treat you badly.
  3. Do things that you enjoy or that make you feel good.
  4. Do things you are good at.
  5. Reward yourself for your successes.
  6. Develop your talents and skills.
  7. Be your own best friend and treat yourself well doing things that are good for you.
  8. Make choices for yourself and don’t let others make those choices for you.
  9. Take responsibility for yourself, your choices and your actions.
  10. Always do what you believe is right.
  11. Be true to yourself and your values.
  12. Respect other people and treat them right.
  13. Set goals and work to achieve them.

And, finally and most importantly
    14. Don’t beat yourself up when you get it wrong.

Some useful references

  • Buckingham, M. & Clifton, D.O. (2001) Now, Discover your Strengths. New York: Free Press.
  • Henderson, N. (1999) Preface in N Henderson, B Benard, N Sharp-Light (Eds), Resiliency in Action: Practical Ideas for Overcoming Risks and Building Strengths in Youth, Families and Communities. San Diego, CA: Resiliency in Action Inc.
  • Long, R. (2008) Rob Long’s Intervention Tool Box for Social, Emotional and Behavioural Difficulties. London: Sage Publications
  • Rae, T. (2000) Confidence, Assertiveness, Self-Esteem. Bristol: Lucky Duck Publishing.
  • Rae, T. (2001) Strictly Stress: Effective Stress Management – A Series of 12 Sessions for High School Students. Bristol: Lucky Duck Publishing.
  • Roberts, Dr R. (2002) Is this Self-Esteem and Early Learning, Sage
  • Rosemund, J. (2002) Unmerited praise doesn’t help kids. The Wichita Eagle.
  • Seligman, M. (2001) Review of the book, Now, Discover Your Strengths. Printed on back cover. New York: Free Press.
  • Smith, L.L. & Elliott, C.H. (2001) Hollow Kids: Recapturing the Soul of a Generation Lost to the Self-Esteem Myth. Rocklin, CA: Prima Publishing.

This e-bulletin issue was first published in January 2010

About the author: Tina Rae, a senior educational psychologist in the London Borough of Hillingdon and the emotional literacy co-ordinator for Chantry SEBD school in West Yiewsley. Tina has extensive experience of teaching, research, programme development and consultancy across the country