Promoting Self-Esteem Through Positive Interaction

Create a strong student/teacher relationship to foster a trusting environment.

By Ann Whittemore


Teacher with young school girl

People believe many theories on why some students suffer from a low self-esteem. While there are truths to many of these theories, self-esteem could have a connection to bio-chemical factors such as depression or anxiety. Or perhaps, the child just doesn’t know how to relate to children his own age. Whatever the reason, we as teachers want to teach coping skills, interpersonal communication skills, and boost these kids up in a healthy and positive way.

Creating a Classroom Community

It’s the first day of the new school year and you stand behind your desk. After the children file in (no matter the grade) you write your name on the board, introduce yourself, and start the first lesson. You have the class use name tags throughout the first week and keep your recess to yourself. P.E. is your time to prep, and after school the door is closed promptly at 3:25pm. Nothing in this scenario is bad, but it is not promoting a classroom community, building a strong student/teacher relationship, or bolstering self-esteem.

Ask any master teacher what is of utmost importance in his classroom and 8 out of 10 will probably tell you it’s building a strong student/teacher relationship.

It’s the first day of the new school year and you greet each new pupil as they come through the door. If you know them, you call them by name. If you don’t know them, you introduce yourself and shake their hands. Instead of using name tags, you show interest by playing a different name game each day that week. Recess is your time, but if necessary, you let your class know they can get extra homework help or clarification on a subject if they need it. You make sure to run the track with them and have lunch in the cafeteria at least once a week.

By changing a few simple aspects of how you relate and show interest, this relationship starts to flourish and grow.

Why is the Student/Teacher Relationship Important?

You are with your class 6 hours out of every day. The more they trust you, the more they will want to work with you. When children feel important, cared for, and secure, then they are more able to put forth effort. With added effort, comes positive attention, and positive attention leads to a higher self-esteem. How do you build a trusting relationship beyond running the track? Establishing clear, firm boundaries is the first step. Children do very well when they know exactly what to expect of you and what you expect of them. Consequences should be fair, but firm, and hold true for everyone. Use the first week to compose a class rubric, set-down ground rules, and prove you’ll stick to your word whether that means following through with consequences or a promise. The relationship you start to foster in the first two weeks will follow you for the rest of the year. But how does this improve individual self-esteem? Once a trusting relationship is established, what you say will have more weight. When you praise, compliment, or give a high-five, it will mean more if the children know you are trustworthy and honest.

Keeping Self-Esteem Going

Here is where all those tips and tricks come into play. Your relationship with your class is on the right track. You took the time to play name games, remember who is about to have a new sibling, and even had school lunch. Keep the self-esteem train rolling! Don’t just praise them, praise with purpose.

Example of praise:

  • “Great job”
  • “Good work”
  • “Keep it up"

Note: They have stickers that say that stuff, so you shouldn’t.

Example of purposeful praise:

  • “John, I like how you finished your work. It looked great.”
  • “Maggie, I think your handwriting is improving, keep it up.”
  • “I am so proud of all of you. Every one of you sat down and got to work like I asked. Class point!”

Note: Save the sticker sayings for the Friday folder.

Provide Real Feedback

A trusting person will tell you why they like what you did and what needs improvement. I read one of my student’s poems last week (true story). She has a learning disability, but always tries her best. We were writing the classic “I am” poem and she came up to me, big brown eyes looking for approval. I took her paper and read her poem out loud with her; it was beautiful. I put my arm around her and said it was perfect. Then I told her we’d work on her spelling later, but the words were lovely. She skipped back to her seat. She was proud of herself because I was proud of her and she knew I meant it. Providing real feedback can also be tagged on with the assessment process. I always take the time to do class reading assessments. I like to hear them read. After each reading, I tell them what they missed or got right, and why. They feel OK about the constructive criticism because it is non-judgmental and is meant to help. When second quarter assessment rolls around, I show them how much they have improved and talk about why. This is a tangible instance where kids can see their progress and that makes them feel great.

Know Individual Strengths

Every child has struggles and every child has amazing ability. Let them know that struggling is normal and a part of life, provide the supports they need to succeed, and show them they’ve improved. Pick up on the things your kids are good at and give them the opportunity to shine. More than just displaying their 10/10 or pretty picture, find what their good at and make them the class mini-expert. “Hey Morgan you did a great job solving those problems. Can you show Billy and Mark what you did?” or “I’m sorry Meg, I’m not that great at drawing dragons. Did you know Grayson is? Maybe he could help you out.” Having a class expert is a great way to have real peer on peer interactions that work to build self-esteem in an honest way. I’ve seen my little experts become brilliant and positive teachers who are just as excited when they’re “students” do a good job as I am.

Self-Esteem is Not an Easy Fix

Once negative behaviors are established, they can be very difficult to rectify. However, with proactive positive programming, a strong classroom community, and a solid student/teacher relationship, it can be acheived in your learning environment.