Helping Kids Build Self-Esteem as a Lifelong Practice

By Liz Bergren

Helping Kids Build Self-Esteem as a Lifelong PracticeIn my teaching experience, I found it difficult to find lesson plans on self-esteem that could provide deep insight into the topic and practical strategies students could walk away with. The internet is filled with one-off lessons and suggestions: Write a list of positive qualities and place them on your mirror, think about your accomplishments and talents and share them with your friends, take inventories on how you rank your personal qualities, and so on. But the problem with one-time self-esteem lessons or lessons that are squeezed in is that they don’t address the serious health issues that can correspond with struggles with self-esteem. A comprehensive approach, scaffolding instruction, and dedicated time to teaching self-esteem in the classroom is necessary to help students understand the importance of this topic. This post provides insight into the importance of self-esteem as well as resources that can be used for a unit on it.

Self-esteem is a basic human need as defined by Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. It is something we don’t talk enough about or address as an underlying issue for many of our problems. As author and self-esteem expert Nathaniel Branden says in his book The Six Pillars of Self-Esteem, “Self-esteem is not a substitute for a roof over one’s head or food in one’s stomach, but it increases the likelihood that one will find a way to meet such needs.”

You might be thinking, “I teach math. Where would I fit in a lesson on self-esteem?” Self-esteem plays a critical role in successful learner outcomes. Students’ noncognitive skills can greatly impact their ability to perform well in class, which means that working on our relationships with students, striving to understand them, and helping them develop skills like self-esteem are not only valuable for social-emotional reasons, but they can help improve achievement as well. And with new technology available and new initiatives to incorporate social-emotional learning and personalized learning, there are resources out there to help core subject teachers work noncognitive skills into the curriculum.

One such resource is Agile Mind, and it is available for STEM teachers. In the “Our Approach” section of the Agile mind website, they state: “Core to Agile Mind’s pedagogical approach is the knowledge that 21st-century skills such as motivation, positive self-belief, a productive persistence, and a sense of belonging are fundamental to success in school, college, and career.” Along with their commitment to building student self-regulation and self-esteem, their resources provide research-based formative assessments that can help teachers use data to impact instruction. For teachers who teach any STEM subject, this site can be useful for a whole-child approach.

If you teach a class in which social-emotional learning is embedded, then you can work to build your foundation of lessons on self-esteem. One author’s work was particularly helpful for me as I established my lesson plans. In 1994, Nathaniel Branden wrote The Six Pillars of Self-Esteem: The Definitive Work on Self-Esteem by the Leading Pioneer in the Field. According to his website, “Branden focused on the critical need to understand the psychology of self-esteem and its relationship to our daily lives. Through this work he contributed to the evolution of the concept from obscurity to greater levels of clarity and acceptance.” I believe that is what we need as educators—clarity on and acceptance of this important topic.

As I researched ways to enhance my curriculum with effective lessons on self-esteem, the following quote by Branden sold me on making it a top priority for my students: “Apart from disturbance whose roots are biological, I cannot think of a single psychological problem . . . that is not traceable, at least in part, to the problem of deficient self-esteem.”

In seeking a way to design a comprehensive approach to this topic, I struggled with how to create lessons that would get student buy-in. The practical aspect of Branden’s pillars helped with student engagement. I built lesson plans around each pillar: living consciously, self-acceptance, self-responsibility, self-assertiveness, living purposefully, and personal integrity. Using Branden’s book as a resource, I was able to work with my students to define these concepts and understand how they play out in real life. I used a lot of role play to demonstrate these practices. We worked on communication skills and what it means to be assertive and advocate for one’s needs. We explored scenarios where students need to practice self-responsibility and integrity. We practiced mindfulness and how to use it to live more consciously. You can use Branden’s practices with many lesson strategies to help teach self-esteem.

Students always like to do personality inventories or self-assessments to learn more about themselves and to compare their results with their friends. Any time I did activities like this, it created a lot of discussion among students about their scores and how it made them feel to self-evaluate. Again, don’t use a self-esteem inventory as part of a one-off lesson, but rather use it as a good segue into your lessons or unit on self-esteem.

Pinterest has a variety of tools you can adapt for your own self-esteem program, such as this journal that can be used for a week or this series of questions that can be used for a month. Teachers Pay Teachers has plenty of suggestions for self-esteem inventories that can be used based on the age of your students. (Search for lessons on self-esteem for middle school.) Self-Regulation in the Classroom: Helping Students Learn How to Learn by Richard M. Cash, Ed.D., addresses how one’s sense of self plays a role in the learning process. The Courage to Be Yourself: True Stories About Cliques, Conflicts, and Overcoming Peer Pressure, edited by Al Desetta, M.A., with Engaging Schools, is another title that may help you start discussions or develop lesson plans.

Self-esteem should be the foundation of an effective social-emotional learning program. Encourage growth in this area when working with children or adolescents. It is a potentially lifesaving practice that helps us throughout our lives.

I’d love to hear about how you teach self-esteem in your work. Feel free to leave a comment.

Liz BergrenLiz Bergren is Free Spirit’s education resource specialist. She is a former teacher with 15 years of classroom experience. In addition to being a teacher, she spent five years working for Park Nicollet’s Melrose Institute where she counseled and taught classes to patients who struggled with eating disorders. She has a B.A. in health and secondary education from the University of St. Thomas and an M.Ed. in family education from the University of Minnesota.

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