Building children’s and teens’ self-esteem is a core component of bullying prevention. Developing children’s and teens’ ability to recognize and accept their strengths, differences and limitations leads to a greater ability to accept and respect differences among people. This is not the same thing as “pumping their egos”. Children and teens who perceive themselves realistically as adequate and competent and whose self-acceptance is unconditional will not feel threatened by differences in others. They won’t need to feel more powerful than or superior to others in order to feel good about themselves. Their basic self-acceptance will not waver when they make mistakes, encounter misfortunes or experience relational difficulties, even though they may be emotionally shaken by such life challenges. In her 2002 bestselling book, Bully, the Bullied and the Bystander, author Barbara Coloroso explains that children who bully appear more confident than they are, and that they generally need a great deal of reinforcement to maintain a “big ego”, as opposed to a “strong ego”.
Building self-esteem that helps to develop a strong ego is not always easy. Teachers help children and teens develop a core belief in their own intrinsic self-worth by:
(Example: Identify specific examples of what you liked or what you think needs improvement; avoid feedback that does not go beyond vague, general statements about students’ work.)
(Example: Demonstrate your belief in students’ competency by giving them basic tasks and responsibilities such as bringing something to the office, bringing a message to another teacher, etc. Selecting students with greater self-esteem challenges to accomplish such tasks is a way of confirming your belief in their capabilities.)
(Example: Give positive reinforcement for various kinds of behaviour, such as acts of kindness and caring, cooperation, demonstrations of positive leadership (e.g. inspiring others to take positive action, or taking responsibility for others’ well-being), courage (e.g. a student who is normally hesitant and who attempts something which you know is difficult for her or him).)
(Example: Use a geography class to initiate discussions about respect for differences, and the differences and commonalities which exist among students in your classroom and around the world; identify a historical figure whose route to success was different from the norm, to stress the many ways people can learn and achieve.)
- ensuring that feedback is specific, concrete and non-judgmental; even positive feedback can be judgmental; telling someone their short story is “fantastic” does not allow them to assess their strengths realistically, whereas, commenting on their fantastic use of descriptive adjectives does;
- ensuring that you are communicating consistent messages by what you say and what you do;
- recognizing and validating every kind of learning and intelligence, not only academic achievement;
- initiating self-esteem building activities for the whole class or incorporating them into other curriculum-based activities;
Although many factors contribute to children’s and teens’ healthy development, teachers play a critical role in this regard. We can continue to strive to use every opportunity throughout the school day to interact with students in a way that brings them nearer to that goal.