By Dr. Raymond J. Huntington
If your child is a good student with a “can-do” attitude about life, you probably believe he or she has a healthy level of self-esteem. But what came first – the confidence that she would do well in school, or confidence borne by the fact that she is doing well?
It’s a surprisingly complicated question that’s at the heart of a decades-long debate about the role, origins and outcomes of self-esteem as factor of success in school and in life. If you were born at a time when people actually said things like “children should be seen and not heard,” you probably had to earn a good report card and glowing praise from your teacher before your mom or dad congratulated you on your academic brilliance. If you came into the world a little later, the notions of popular culture may have led your folks to shower you with compliments at every opportunity because they thought you could only achieve success if you believed very strongly in your ability to attain it.
For most children, today’s winning formula is a blend of both perspectives. Here are some tips for building the kind of confidence your child needs to succeed academically – and for appropriately acknowledging progress along the way:
The early years. From your baby’s first steps, to the progression out of diapers, to the learning of the alphabet, the years before kindergarten are full of challenges. Children who are generously praised for these accomplishments internalize the message that “I’m smart” and develop a sense of capability and a desire to learn and do more. Children tend to respond very well to positive reinforcement during these early years, so it’s important to catch your son or daughter “being good” and praise that behavior. Building self-esteem in the home will instill self-confidence as he or she heads off to school.
Elementary school. As your child moves through the later grades of elementary school, being well-organized, cooperating with others and doing neat and careful work will all have a direct impact on academic success. For this reason, you should nurture – and praise – your child’s willingness to keep his bedroom tidy and his ability to overcome conflicts with brothers, sisters and neighborhood rivals. Sitting down and carefully reviewing homework will send the message that accuracy and neatness are valued, and will help your child build the kind of confidence that comes with well-presented work.
Middle school. In middle school, your child will face increasingly complicated academic challenges while grappling with peer pressure, mood swings and a growing desire for independence. Middle school is also a critical academic juncture for students who are struggling – a time when many basically give up on their dreams of graduation and higher education.
For these reasons, it’s important to pay special attention to both self-esteem issues and academic performance during this period. Be especially alert to any signs that your child is being bullied or is having trouble making friends (visitwww.stopbullyingnow.hrsa.gov ) to learn what to look for and how to respond). Reaffirm your belief in your child’s abilities whenever you hear comments like “I’m stupid,” or “I’ll never understand this.” Help your child discover special talents that can boost self-esteem by taking advantage of extra-curricular opportunities through the school or your community. And pay special attention to test scores and report cards for any signs that your child is falling behind.
Secondary school. From the first romantic break-up, to not making the soccer team, to losing a part in the school play, the teen years can wreak havoc on your son or daughter’s self-image. These types of disappointments can easily fray your child’s sense of connection to the school and spill over into a defeatist attitude about his or her studies.
One of the best ways to help your child get past these disappointments is to continually reinforce the understanding that “there really is life after high school.” Talk with your child about your own setbacks and how you overcame them and discuss the many reasons why your child should feel good about his or her capabilities. Make your own list of your son or daughter’s talents and look for frequent occasions to mention and strengthen them.
Remember also that real accomplishment is usually the surest route to real self-esteem. With this in mind, you should help your child engage in positive activities in and out of school. Volunteering to serve others in your community will give your child a sense of well-being, and so will working hard to meet higher academic goals. Once your child has a restored faith in the future, it will be easier to get back to the books and concentrate on being a good student – which will build the kind of well-deserved self-esteem that will carry over to success in college and in life.
Dr. Raymond J. Huntington and Eileen Huntington are co-founders of Huntington Learning Center, which has helped children achieve success in school for 29 years. For more information about how Huntington can help your child, call 1 800 CAN LEARN.