Unlocking children's capacity lies in allowing them
DR EDWARD KRISHNAN
Self-esteem became a buzzword in child psychology in the late 1980s and early 1990s, as the world became flooded with personal-development books. Psychology circles and the public talked endlessly about the benefits of acquiring a positive self-image, and ways to attain one.
I personally came across some books that I found inspiring and emotionally moving, which were made up largely of quotations. However, authors of such books often have exceptional verbal intelligence, and by ingeniously stringing together words touch the minds and hearts of readers to no result.
Words, when creatively put together to form inspirational phrases, clauses, and sentences can stimulate a mental reaction and arouse emotion. Nevertheless, studies in child development emphasize that positive self-talks alone do not necessarily change one's image of self. Inspiring messages in fact do little or nothing to actually change one's self-image in a favorable manner. They lack real substance or concreteness, and hence they lack any long-term effects.
Approaching self-esteem problems
We need to be more concrete in our approach in building children's self-esteem, or our intentions will not be understood by the children we are trying to help.
Anything that cannot be observed and measured directly is difficult to attain. This is one reason why teachers are required to write specific objectives, called instructional objectives, in their lesson plans. These objectives are useful in determining the quality of teaching and learning. Teaching will take place haphazardly without these clear objectives, and accomplish little or perhaps nothing at all.
Similarly, we need to be more intentional in our approach to identify and help children who struggle with low self-esteem. Being deliberate and concrete allows children to be helped more efficiently, and encourages their co-operation.
Which children suffer from low self-esteem? Children who suffer from low self-esteem are often those who have not been given the opportunities to develop a sense of independence. Independence in child psychology is a child's ability to judiciously choose thoughts, behaviors, and emotions for themselves, without the influence of external pressures. Those lacking these traits are usually children deprived of experiences to initiate and build competence in various areas of their life.
In other words, children who suffer from severe loss of respect for self are the ones that feel that they are not in control of their lives and that they are not capable of doing things at school, home or on the playground.
These children continue to wrongly think that they will always live under the subjugation of external forces. They wrongly believe that it is impossible to master knowledge and skills relevant for healthy living. This is a condition known as learned helplessness.
Self-efficacy and self-esteem
To be specific about an abstract psychological construct like self-esteem and to build it in an observable and measurable manner we must use specific, observable, and measurable intervention.
Self-efficacy is a person's belief they are in control of themselves and their surroundings. It also includes a person's belief that they can successfully perform and accomplish tasks. A close adjunct to self-efficacy is a person's self-esteem, which is the positive or negative evaluation of one's self. It answers the question, ``What is my worth?''
Children sometimes feel small and unmotivated when they experience a significant lack of control in their pursuit to accomplish different tasks. They suffer psychologically when they feel powerless and incompetent. Resorting to disruptive alternatives is usually the result of a need to gain independence and mastery, which are unfulfilled.
Most children engage in unruly behavior in the classroom or at home because they dislike themselves for not being able to function as an independent and competent individual. These feelings may eventually affect other aspects of their lives, such as studies, self-management, interpersonal relationships, play, mental development and even physical health. Parents and teachers fail in their attempts to help because they focus on addressing and removing disruptive behavior, without addressing its origin. The behavior is a byproduct of something deeper.
Encouraging children to become well-behaved and perform well at school result in a temporary state of elevated self-respect, which dwindles as soon as they realize that they are still depending on external pressures to define their worth.
Nurturing independence and competency
It's better to focus on engaging children in activities that enhance their sense of independence and competency, whether it is at home or school. Parents and teachers can help increase children's self-esteem by providing them with opportunities to experience a sense of independence and competency.
Fulfilling these two basic needs go a long way towards resolving other difficulties. This is fairly easy because children inherently are driven to explore and master new tasks. They long to try things and conquer seemingly difficult assignments. They do so because they want to prove to themselves that they can do it! The value of the attempt, in terms of self-esteem, is enhanced if they complete the task on their own.
Simply identify a child's areas of interests and engage them in activities related to their interests. These can be school-related or non-school-related activities. Tasks can be as simple as collecting coins, singing, playing soccer, making kites, baking cookies, or computer games.
Strong points get stronger
Research indicates that a child's greatest room for growth is in the area of their greatest strength. Capitalize on that fact, even if the strength may not be school related. Likewise, children are more motivated to change when their strengths are supported. Success in one area of life often leads to success in other areas. It is not uncommon for someone who excels in music to also excel in math, science, or other subjects.
Even small successes provide an in dividual with an overall feeling of competency and satisfaction. It increases motivation and adds zest to life.
Hence, when we engage a child in activities of interest to them, we provide him or her with an opportunity to succeed, grow and increase their self-worth, which leads to higher self-esteem. Improving on an existing, well-established skill reduces the child's fear of failing and rejection. Do this by providing support, but avoid taking control of the task; assist when needed but leave the child responsible for the ultimate outcome. Parents and teachers should work in tandem to increase a child's self-esteem.
Nurturing and celebrating children's strengths, allow parents and teachers to help children become overall achievers and to respect themselves. The earlier in child development parents and teachers do this, the better it is for a child!
Edward Roy Krishnan, PhD is a Lecturer in the Psychology/Education Dept, Mission College, and a visiting lecturer cum research consultant in the Graduate School of Psychology, Assumption University. He is the author of `How to Become a Caring Teacher', `Engaging Teaching Methods', `Secrets of an ``A'' Student', and `It Takes a Learner to Teach a Learner'. His website is www.affectiveteaching.com and his email address is email@example.com .
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Last modified: June 25, 2007