Helping all children become happy learners
Nearly every child will experience a difficult time at some point in their schooling. Having systems in place to enable children to access support quickly is essential. For school leaders it may be useful to audit the following questions:
How accessible are teachers and other staff in your school? Is there time and space for pastoral care?
Does your school encourage a culture of seeking support? How do you promote and communicate this?
How is information about vulnerable children communicated to adults who need to know?
What training have staff received? What are the gaps?
How do you measure the self-esteem of your students? What monitoring of the effectiveness of school systems to promote and sustain good self-esteem takes place?
Do you have a self-esteem policy or other guidance document?
Do you have a designated member of staff who has responsibility for managing and developing good self-esteem practice?
Clearly and most obviously, a school needs to have a fully inclusive ethos that makes each and every child welcome. Though schools will have equality policies that address issues of gender, race, culture, religion and physical disability they may not fully address issues associated with differences in learning ability and social competence. For example, staff may struggle to recognise the difficulties of children with diagnosed conditions such as ADHD, Dyslexia or Social Anxiety. These children often experience self-esteem issues as a result of inadequate recognition and provision. This happens in all schools but particularly in secondary schools.
Ensuring that children feel welcome and valued takes effort. Teachers should try to develop their own systems for ensuring that they regularly speak individually with each child. Registration can be an opportunity to make a welcoming comment. Recording a little personal information about a child such as informal family news, their interests etc, can help forge a positive relationship. Responding to each child's own perception about their learning is important in establishing where they experience success and where they feel that they fail.
Adult and peer support
Having systems and procedures to enable students to get support when needed is essential in schools. Peer mentor and Bench Buddy schemes can be very successful in primary schools, providing opportunities for vulnerable children to access support at break times. The Circle of Friends approach works across the age ranges and can be particularly effective with older students in supporting a vulnerable individual when other approaches are less appropriate.
All staff can have a role in providing emotional support to students. In primary schools teachers and teaching assistant are often able to form a positive professional relationship though often it can be auxillary staff who have established a more trusting relationship. In secondary schools it may be staff in student services or learning resources that are best placed. Much of this support is informal and unrecorded. Some schools have a care team, formed from a cross-section of the school including the school leadership, classroom or subject teachers and anxillary staff. The purpose is to collate information from across the school and any external sources on vulnerable students and ensure that they are adequately monitored and supported. Some schools may also have a trained school counsellor or other staff that fulfil this role to some extent like home/school link workers. There is a need for this role in every school.
Consider the impact on a child's self-esteem of both verbal and written marking of students' work.
'Nearly half a century later I can still feel the dread of seeing PLEASE SEE ME! in the margin of my school book in bright red ink. Later, as a teacher, marking was a chore I did not enjoy and it was often easier to recognise what was wrong with a piece of work than what was right. Too easily could I carelessly reduce a first written draft to a series of spelling, punctuation and grammar errors and a quick 'good work' at the end. Totally failing to report back on the positive achievements of the work and where the student could improve further. '
Marking helps teachers to assess learning of students and can provide an opportunity for constructive feedback that can help students to move forward in their learning. However, written and verbal comments are only worthwhile if the students want to engage with the feedback. Students with low-self esteem may view corrections as evidence that they have failed to achieve the task and are no good at the subject.
Try to focus only on the most relevant corrections to the learning task.
Try to word criticism in a positive and constructive way.
Try to start and finish with something good about the work.
Avoid 'See me' type comments and instead use phrases like "Can we discuss this further, thanks?' or I have some ideas to discuss with you.'
Work is differentiated
Differentiation is hard. Getting the right balance of challenge and achievability for every student in every lesson is extremely difficult to achieve. When done well each student has the opportunity to complete the task to the best of their abilities and gain a sense of achievement for doing so. However, students are very sensitive to the status or ranking of their work compared to their peers. Try to minimise these comparisons by ensuring that differentiation always leads to similar end 'products.' For example, where a specific student is not expected to write the same amount as other students use writing frames so that they complete a whole page. Use borders and drawing spaces to pad out their work so feel the same level of accomplishment. Most importantly, ensure that all students are able to complete work and experience success in every lesson. In seeking to get students to be intrinsically motivated we need to ensure that they get the intrinsic reward of pride and accomplishment that is only achieved when they experience successful completion of the task. This bolsters their self-esteem whereas 'just finish what you can' or 'just write a few sentences today' does not.
Reflect on these questions:
How do you measure success in your lessons?
Do all your students experience success each lesson? If not, what are the barriers to this happening?
How do your students measure success?
How do your students know what they need to do to be successful in your lesson?
Staff are consistent and fair
Students are very sensitive to any sense of being treated unfairly. They generally prefer a strict teacher who 'barks' at everyone rather than a more relaxed teacher who is inconsistent in their application of rules and boundaries; then reprimands a student for a behaviour that many of the class were doing moments earlier like chatting. Poor low-self esteem can often lead to poor classroom behaviour particularly in boys. Being told off only feeds the negative self-image of themselves and can fuel a downward spiral of poor behaviour. However, having clear visual rules and applying them equally to all students creates an equality of experience that maintains self-esteem. Teachers may also want to explore restorative approaches to discipline which attempts to repair the relationship after an incident.
Awards and certificates
Almost everyone feels good when they receive praise from others. It is not always easy to find things to praise about students as we often take for granted good behaviour and learning. As teachers we often find it easier to praise the most able and the least able. The former because we are often genuinely pleased that they have achieved our ambition for the lesson and the least able because well 'at least they tried'. It is therefore often the case that many of the children, between these two extremes, are consistently ignored when we give out praise and recognition. Boosting the self-esteem of these children is equally important and teachers need to ensure that they have systems to ensure that all students earn praise, awards and certificates. You may find the certificates on the school awards page useful.
Celebration of success
All students benefit from opportunities to share positive news about their work and see that it is valued. Celebrating success through student work displays, showing their work to other adults such as senior managers and celebration assemblies can be good ways of celebrating achievement in schools. Verbal and written positive comments about work to parents also boosts self-esteem. Online galleries of work are also an effective way of displaying success to the school community.
Supported risk taking
If a student continually fails at tasks it can knock their confidence and lower their self-esteem. One strategy that some students adopt is to give up trying. By not trying they can not fail and this protects them from another knock. This is particularly so in older children and teenagers. In secondary schools there are many students who give up on subjects that they find difficult and some who give up completely on learning. Often these students will resort to distracting and disruptive behaviours to avoid tasks they feel threatened by. Others, particularly girls, will avoid school all together and become school refusers.
For schools it is therefore important to create a culture where it is safe to take risks with learning. This can involve:
Staff modelling and owning up to mistakes so children recognise that this is a normal part of life
Ensuring that laughing at the mistakes of others is not tolerated
Praising the efforts of students even when they are wrong
In maths and science subjects giving the students the correct answer and asking them to provide a proof
Giving pupils responsibility communicates to the child that they can be trusted and their contribution is valued and needed. Having lots of monitor jobs works really well with primary aged children. In secondary schools where students are more nomadic there are still roles within lessons that give responsibility such as setting up and giving out equipments and books. Use of group role cards assigns individual responsibility in group tasks that ensures that all students exerience different roles and the opportunity to feel equal to everyone else. Resources to support class responsibility can be found on the Responsibilities page.
Regular circle time that is delivered well can have a huge impact on self-esteem. Circle time can be an opportunity to share issues and problems in school. It can be an opportunity to get feedback from students on their perceptions of the effectiveness and relevance of lessons, learning approaches and curriculum areas. It can make students feel that they are listened to and that their opinions count. This helps to establish a relationship of trust. This is essential before a student will feel able to share with staff the areas of school they struggle with. See the page on Circle Time for more information.
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