Children’s therapist John Cousins examines the concept of self-esteem, which is integral to a child reaching Early Learning Goals in the PSE area of learning

Self-esteem is feeling good about yourself: feeling confident, accepted, valued. Older children and adults rationalise criticism or praise from a positive inner strength and confidence in their own ability. Younger children don’t consciously link these feelings to an evaluation of themselves. When a young child says, ‘I’m a good boy’ he is usually responding to some adult who has said it to him. He is not deciding for himself that he is an OK person.

 Young children rely on good feelings to help them grow in confidence and emotional stature. Self-esteem for them is a mixture of feeling happy, confident, secure, important and feeling they fit in.

Observing self-esteem

You can see self-esteem in children’s behaviour. Spend some time watching your children to find out if they have high self-esteem. Check out the behaviours listed in the box, right, at various points in the nursery’s day. Each of these is a sign of self-esteem.

 Any child will have off days and some children will display some of these behaviours sometimes. A child with high self-esteem will display many of these behaviours consistently.

How has this come about and how can we help children to this level of self-esteem?

‘While he is still a young child [the judgements of others] are bound to exert a powerful influence on his self-esteem’ (Margaret Donaldson, Children’s Minds, p113, Fontana Press, London, 1989).

A child develops the feelings that make up his self-esteem from the responses and interventions by people, mainly adults, round about him. To build up a child’s self-esteem nursery staff need to help a child feel OK in his surroundings, to feel accepted, valued, happy and confident. This aim must inform the staff attitude, the nursery philosophy and the organisation’s policies, so that staff know how to respond to effect the best outcome for the child’s self-esteem.

For staff this means:

  • Being closely aware of a child’s needs; abilities; home circumstances; likes and dislikes; problems; behaviour record; individual plan; strengths and weaknesses.
  • Having the attitude of tolerance; patience; awareness; sensitivity; diplomacy.
  • Being alert to one’s own emotions; level of self-esteem; emotional response to particular children.

Developing good practice amongst your staff

Discussion and thought should take place to consider how staff will respond to children so that positive support is given to developing self-esteem. Actions that will diminish a child’s self-esteem should not be acceptable. For example:

  • How do you cope with a child who forms a close attachment to a member of staff whose absence may cause the child distress? Staff should be aware of the potential difficulty and prepare the child.
  • On the day give the child opportunity to cope without too much intervention, so boosting his coping strategies, developing his self-confidence, helping him to feel good about himself (with appropriate positive feedback from staff).
  • Feedback should be about what he is achieving there and then, without reference to the absent staff member, as part of his coping mechanism might be pushing thoughts of the absent staff member to the back of his mind.
  • A behaviour policy ought to have in mind the possibility that unwanted behaviours are the result of low self-esteem.
  • Responses need to be sensitive and positive. Consequences that belittle the child don’t help. However, staff helping the child to maintain boundaries and nursery rules will reinforce the secure nature of his environment and help him to feel safe.
  • This should be done with tact, sensitivity, quietly and in a non-punishing way.
  • The quiet, withdrawn child may respond to a buddy system policy where a more confident child protects, and encourages the child who is unsure of himself.
  • Children who display signs of low self-esteem need special concentration and skill. A child who is emotionally fragile will probably sabotage most attempts to boost his self-esteem.
  • Typical statements are, ‘I’m no good’, ‘I can’t do it’, ‘Nobody likes me’. Typical behaviours are to tear up or scribble over work, to rubbish other children’s work and generally be disruptive.
  • These children need one-to-one attention with loads of encouragement, small targets and lots of praise for the smallest of achievements. Alongside this a strict adherence to nursery rules and boundaries should be maintained. This positive, firm attention by a supportive, patient and sensitive member of staff should win the child over and ease their anxiety.

If a child appears to be happy going about their tasks, confident, prepared to take risks and comfortable in mixing with other children you could say they have high self-esteem. In normal circumstances nothing is going to disturb them. These behaviours will be consistent for most of the time. An atmosphere of praise and encouragement needs to prevail if those who are not sure of themselves are to flourish. Staff need to be vigilant from the off so that their every intervention is good for the child’s self-esteem. Notice and comment on every small step of progress. What is simple for one child may take a leap of courage for another.

‘…getting love, reliably and consistently makes the child feel worthy of love; and his perception that he can attain what he needs from those around him yields the sense that he is an effective person who can have an impact on his world’ (Robert Karen, Becoming Attached, p238, OUP Oxford, 1998).


  • Chatty
  • Leaving parent happily
  • Greeting staff and other children
  • Approaching staff openly
  • Finding an activity
  • Moving to other children for play
  • Maybe preoccupied with his own agenda
  • Willing to show and tell

Through the session

  • Accepting change of table, staff or routine
  • Willing to try new activities
  • Putting hand up to answer questions
  • Being helpful
  • Being aware of other children’s needs
  • Sharing
  • Concentrating on tasks
  • Not clingy
  • Not isolated
  • Not displaying frustration
  • Coping with mistakes
  • Not rubbishing his work
  • Not interfering with others’ work
  • Patient
  • Accepting
  • Obeying instructions
  • Putting his point of view

Home time

  • Finishing off when told
  • Helping tidy up
  • Not panicking if parent is late
  • Going off happily
  • Acknowledging friends with goodbye
  • Indications that he is meeting some friends later