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Ten Ideas to Build Confidence in Teens

We just received survey responses from students in a variety of locations around the world. In our survey, we asked what leadership skill or quality students believe they lack the most. While respondents were kids of various ages and from a variety of locations (low income and high affluence), most shared something in common.

They felt they lacked confidence.

More than any other trait or skill, these students desired to feel more confident about the decisions they made and the direction they felt they should go. Predictable you say? Perhaps, but fifteen years ago, Millennials had plenty of it as they graduated from high school to take on the world. We’ve definitely seen a shift on perspective among teens today.

Ten Methods to Build Confidence in Students

photo credit: fox-orian [untld:6] via photopin (license)

1. In discussions, don’t constantly correct. Instead, use the word AND.

In brainstorming conversations, be intentional about building off of their ideas, rather than telling them how their idea won’t work. If your first response is a correction, students will certainly “shut down” internally and “shut up” externally. Using the word “and” after someone speaks is the secret of all good “improv.” It cultivates confidence.

2. Affirm what you can.

Whenever I host a Q and A session in a forum or a classroom discussion with students, I work to affirm whatever I can. Once I begin with encouragement, I feel I can redirect their ideas—if necessary. This slowly develops confidence in students. Then, I can move from that point to a tougher level of learning and achievement.

3. Hear them out and don’t interrupt.

Interrupting communicates the other person is wrong. This is demotivating. Do your best to completely hear out a student before you speak. This is the principle behind one of our Habitudes®: “The Indian Talking Stick.” We should always place an imaginary “talking stick” in the hands of our students, permitting them to finish.

4. Set doable goals for each discussion.

When you set clear, attainable goals at the start, they’ll know what a “win” looks like by the end. For example, what if you said at the beginning: “By the time we end, I want you to know how to XYZ.” When they’re finished, you can say, “Congratulations! You now know how to XYZ!” I always write down my objective at the top of my lesson plan and make all learning goal-oriented.

5. Give students the chance to choose what they learn.

Here’s an idea. What if your teaching time looked more like their lunch time? One teacher suggested to me recently, “Try a learning menu or choice board where students get to choose which activities they like, what methods they prefer and what topics they want to learn about.”

6. Keep a journal and celebrate even small progress.

This is paramount. People (including students) become more confident when they see they are making progress. Success breeds success… and confidence. So why not keep a log of how far they’ve come and share it? Then, celebrate improvement and let them see the milestones they’ve crossed.

7. Use visuals.

The use of visuals or images helps retention of any material, hence inducing a sense of confidence and progress. I’ve said it a million times—images help us learn and remember which gives us confidence in our ability to improve. There is an artist and musician in all students—even if they don’t believe it. We must harness that creativity.

8. Have students do a “mind dump.”

Confidence grows when we see how we’ve grown. So, after a learning period why not have students jot down all they can remember from it? Edutopia calls this a “Brain Dump.” Students take a blank piece of paper and record all they’ve acquired in the period. “It helps to raise student confidence and is also a useful approach for the teacher to receive feedback and see where gaps exist. For some students, holding the information inside their head can cause anxiety.”

9. Build off of prior knowledge.

The best teachers know to introduce a new concept by utilizing an already familiar one—and building off of it. Analogies from students’ lives can be golden. They create a sense of comfort before moving into the new and uncomfortable. We want them to be stretched but not overwhelmed.

10. Communicate when they are on the right track.

Educator Julie Thompson says, “Nothing succeeds like success. Design activities where your students can shine, and they will still want to continue the positive feelings generated by that success. Use differentiation techniques to reach as many learners as you can.” Always relay when they are getting “warmer and warmer.”

These ideas are a start. When used, I’ve seen them cultivate leadership as well as learning in students. We need students who take initiative—but it will never happen until they are self-confident. Helen Keller said, “Nothing can be done without hope and confidence.”


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  • Last evening I was leading a summer bridge session for incoming freshman student-athletes at our institution. This group was made up of about twenty student-athletes from football as well as men’s and women’s basketball. The topic, “Making Tough Decisions.”

    It was remarkable the lack of confidence to state ideas without fear of laughter/judgement from their peers. On more than one occasion I heard “disclaimers” and “warnings” before they spoke. Things like, “OK, please don’t laugh because I took this exercise seriously…..” and “I was really trying so please don’t judge me…..”

    What was incredible, though, was the amount of depth and thought that went in to their replies to the exercise. I marveled at how seriously they took the material and how they put it in to their own terms and made it better and more relevant. Millennials are the most amazing generation to exist and I very much enjoyed this article on ways to help them have more confidence. Thank you for sharing!

    • Tim Elmore

      Honored to help, Erika. Thank you for having those conversation with your athletes. Leaders like you are my heroes.

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