I was reminded of the central role that self-esteem plays in the success of students during a conversation I had last year. I wasn’t hosting a focus group, yet it all but turned into one as I talked with several young people about their challenges. Each one struggled with anxiety, lack of confidence, poor study skills and self-doubt.
You might say that’s normal for adolescents in any generation and you’d be right. After 38 years of teaching students, however, I think I see an environment today that makes the challenge especially difficult.
1. The Role of Social Media
Today’s teen draws so much of their sense of identity from social media, and the various personas they use. Part of their struggle is they’re not congruent in how they feel about themselves. One minute, they’re on top of the world—thanks to all the “likes” they got on Instagram. The next minute, they plummet—due to other friends’ reactions to the same post.
2. Culture’s Fluidity
We’ve all heard the term “gender fluid.” Its popularity rose as Generation Z came of age. But gender isn’t the only issue that’s fluid in a teen’s life. Consider the extreme sense of identity via athletics, theatre, cheerleading, music and other immersions that demand their very soul. They don’t draw their esteem from one primary place.
3. Stress and Anxiety
I’ve written much about the anxiety students feel today. It’s higher than any past generation of high school or college students. Teens today have the same level of anxiety as a psychiatric patient did in the 1950s. Anxiety can be a killer of healthy self-esteem, leading to self-doubt and paralyzed emotions.
No one can experience healthy self-esteem with lots of unhealthy emotions.
How Can We Cultivate Self-Esteem as We Lead Them?
While I realize that most people reading this are not psychologists or therapists, you can play a role in the development of a student’s self-esteem in your day-to-day interactions with them. You likely practice some of these already, but here are four simple reminders for how to do it as you go about your normal routines with kids:
1. Affirm with honesty any display of improvement.
We need to throw away all the hyperbole that is used in our day. It actually dilutes believable affirmation. When everything is “awesome” and “amazing,” nothing is. Kids will believe you when you notice details and affirm them accurately; when you recognize any sign of improvement and tell them. When they respond to questions you ask, affirm what you can about their response. Affirm anything at all, but be real. Look them in the eye and be genuine in your remarks. Honest appraisal works wonders.
2. Hold high standards they can meet and let them know you believe in them.
There is a fine line between challenging a student appropriately and holding a standard so high that they want to give up. I believe one of the greatest boosters of healthy self-esteem is beckoning a student to meet a high standard because you know they can reach it. It’s like working out in a gym—it’s both painful and satisfying. Say things like: “I am holding you to this standard because I have high expectations of you, and I know you can reach them.” This communicates relationship, knowledge and belief.
3. Help them discover a personal strength that is timeless.
Too often, teens don’t believe they actually have strengths, because they compare themselves to the best and brightest on social media. Yet, all of them do have strengths. Support them in their discovery of gifts, talents and strengths, but zero in on the ones that cannot be taken away. For example, athleticism is good, but one day soon, it won’t matter. It can be taken away. My parents and teachers helped me find artistic gifts and communication gifts that I could use my entire life. Just knowing I could do something better than most of my peers in one or two categories really boosted my self-esteem. Subsequently, it affected all other areas of my life.
4. Listen to their thoughts and feelings.
Nothing raises someone’s own sense of value like someone they respect listening to them. I realize this is tough to do in our very busy days. In fact, I have found I must remind myself of this significant practice almost daily. When I listen to a student I give my most precious commodities to them: my time and my attention. Receivers intuitively know this. Even if you don’t have the energy to say much in response, just listening adds to their sense of value. You add to their self-esteem because you esteemed them.
Remember—a student’s self-esteem is directly tied to their performance. Dr. M. Scott Peck once said, “Until you value yourself, you won’t value your time. Until you value your time, you will not do anything with it.”
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