Tackling low self-esteem

Self-esteem is the way we judge our ‘worthiness’ and it affects the way we see ourselves. Many pupils, especially those at the top end of junior school and in secondary school, have problems related to self-esteem.

Low self-esteem affects pupils’ capacity to learn. The effects of low self-esteem are often evident in pupils who have emotional and behavioural difficulties (EBD) or in those whose behaviour is inappropriate. Because their difficulties with behaviour and academic achievement sometimes make them feel worse about themselves, if you employ strategies to raise achievement, this can have a knock-on effect of improving pupils’ self-belief. It is useful to consider how many pupils in your class suffer from low self-esteem so that teaching and support can be targeted where needed.

What causes low self-esteem?

Problems with self-esteem can occur for many reasons. For example, it may be because pupils:

  • feel they must fit the stereotypes of their peer group
  • have to adjust to the growing responsibility of adolescence
  • are striving for independence from their parents in front of their peers
  • are worried about planning for future jobs and acquiring appropriate skills.

In addition, sometimes adults place children under pressure to achieve in areas that they do not consider important. Also, at this stage, pupils’ bodies are changing, causing them to worry that they do not conform to ideals publicised in the media.

Characteristics of pupils with low self-esteem

Pupils with low self-esteem find it difficult to express themselves. Sometimes they are reluctant to complete work for fear of failure and being ridiculed. They also find it difficult to reveal their true personality because of a fear of rejection and disapproval. It can seem easier to avoid failure by not completing work and to behave in ways that reinforce their feelings of rejection.

Think of pupils whom you think have low self-esteem and consider whether they behave in the ways listed below. Discuss with colleagues the kind of support these pupils need and what effect it should have.

  • Blaming others – When most of their peers seem able to do the work and complete the tasks set, pupils with low self-esteem tend to leave their work unfinished because they do not want to feel they have failed. A pupil with EBD might blame others for their own difficulties, using excuses such as “I couldn’t finish it because they were talking and I couldn’t concentrate” or “They were making too much noise” or “This was too hard and you didn’t explain it properly”.
  • Lying and boasting – Many pupils with low self-esteem do not want others to recognise their failings, so they mask this with a confident and brash exterior. They tell lies and/or boast about their work and their exploits in order to gain popularity. It soon becomes obvious that their work is not particularly good and their exploits are non-existent, and often the only peers who listen to them are those with similar problems. If allowed to persist, these peers can become an unteachable sub-group.
  • Dropping out – Failing to complete work turns pupils into low achievers. This can lead to them dropping out of the lesson altogether – not participating, handing in a blank piece of paper and, even when punished with extra work, not completing it. The teacher’s anger is seen as much better than the humiliation of failure.
  • Bullying and aggression – Pupils with low self-esteem are often hostile towards their peers and adults to disguise their feelings of inadequacy. They do not mind being excluded from lessons, because they are not being expected to produce work and no one will notice their low standards.
  • Truanting – A pupil with low self-esteem may not have much in common with most of their peers, or with the ethos of the school. This can result in them avoiding school altogether. Rather than continuing to do nothing at school, they will transfer their energies to doing nothing useful out of school. This may lead to boredom and a downward spiral towards vandalism and delinquency.

Identifying pupils with low self-esteem

Consider a pupil whom you suspect may have low self-esteem. Does the pupil:

  • make disparaging remarks?
  • make excuses to avoid situations that could be stressful?
  • hang back and remain on the fringe of the class or group?
  • daydream a lot?
  • avoid work even at the risk of displeasing adults?
  • blame others for their own failure?
  • sometimes refuse to complete work?
  • threaten other pupils?

Is the pupil:

  • boastful?
  • hesitant and timid in new situations?
  • continually asking for help and/or reassurance?
  • continually checking whether they are liked by their peers?
  • apathetic, with a ‘don’t care’ attitude to work?
  • reluctant to take any responsibility for their work?
  • physically and verbally aggressive?

If the pupil you are thinking of behaves in most of the ways listed above, they may need substantial support. You should discuss this with a teacher or senior manager.

NAPTA, 10 Hills Road, Cambridge CB2 1JP — tel 01223 224930 — email