Inextricably Linked: Self-Esteem and Academic Performance

By Allison Wedell Schumacher

Inextricably Linked: Self-Esteem and Academic PerformanceIf you didn’t experience it in school, you’ve surely felt it in another aspect of your life: the awful, sinking sensation called “I can’t.” Even if you’ve practiced. Even if you’ve studied. Sometimes those powerful negative feelings override your logic until you’ve talked yourself right out of the success you were so hoping for.

And if you’re a teacher, you know that countless children subject themselves to this negative self-talk every day: “I’m too dumb.” “I don’t know the answer.” “I’m not as smart as Sam.” How can we help them snap out of it?

Educator and mom to four boys Tamara Anderson, who holds a B.S. in special education, has known more than her fair share of children who have low self-esteem. One of them—we’ll call her Ann—transferred into Mrs. Anderson’s class with severe behavior problems stemming from high anxiety and low self-esteem. Mrs. Anderson immediately spotted Ann’s issue. She says, “Often, you can tell children may have low self-esteem when their anxiety levels increase when asked to do a task they feel is too difficult to successfully accomplish. They may respond in negative ways: screaming, stomping, running, task avoidance, or shutting down and saying ‘no.’”

This is especially distressing given the negative impact low self-esteem can have on a child’s academic performance as well as on the child’s classmates, Mrs. Anderson says: “Students who believe they aren’t as smart as their peers can have a negative impact on student learning. When students have low self-esteem, they often respond by shutting down, crying, or with other behavior problems. This leads educators to have to readjust their teaching to include behavior plans or other strategies to help move students past their anxiety to a better focus of positive self-esteem.”

And if that sounds more easily said than done, it is—but it’s worth doing in the end.

For example, when Mrs. Anderson realizes a student has low self-esteem, she looks for the “trigger tasks”—the assignments that overwhelm the student. She then breaks down the trigger tasks into small pieces, letting the student succeed at one before moving on to the next and giving her praise and encouragement during and after each piece of the task. “If it’s a social skill,” says Mrs. Anderson, “then model the skill in a positive way and have the child mimic the action. Afterward, praise, praise, praise! Even if the task isn’t completed perfectly, always point out the great things done and work on the skills that are still a struggle later in the same manner.”

And as for Ann, after weeks of encouragement and praise from Mrs. Anderson (“I love to see your smile! You should smile more often, it makes me smile!” and, “Ann! You rock, girl! I knew you could do it!”), the positive self-talk seemed to be setting in. Which was good timing, because the state assessment was coming up, a task in which Ann’s low confidence and anxiety had crippled her before.

Mrs. Anderson finishes the story: “We set up some great pep talks, and I asked her, ‘Guess what you need to tell your brain?’ She said, ‘I believe in myself!’ Although she said it timidly at first, we kept practicing saying it with confidence. She tested, and went from the 20th percentile to the 42nd! All because she made the switch in her brain to truly believe in herself when she knew we all believed in her!”

Allison Wedell SchumacherAllison Wedell Schumacher is a freelance writer, editor, and mom whose diverse work focuses on child abuse prevention, bullying prevention, social-emotional learning, fitness, and theater/acting. She is the author of Shaking Hands with Shakespeare: A Teenager’s Guide to Reading and Performing the Bard (Simon and Schuster, 2004), and her work has been featured here and at babycenter.com, MomsRising.org, and Committee for Children. You can find her on LinkedIn.


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Suggested Resources
Feel Confident! A book about self-esteem by Cheri Meiners
Be Confident in Who You Are by Annie Fox
Stick Up for Yourself! Every Kid’s Guide to Personal Power and Positive Self-Esteem by Gershen Kaufman, Lev Raphael, and Pamela Espeland


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