How Schools Can Improve Students’ Confidence

This article is an excerpt from the Shortform book guide to "The Six Pillars of Self-Esteem" by Nathaniel Branden. Shortform has the world's best summaries and analyses of books you should be reading.

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What role do schools play in students’ self-esteem? What can educators do to help nurture their students’ confidence?

Many parents are emotionally unable to teach their children the skills and beliefs necessary to achieve healthy self-esteem. Schools can rectify this gap and boost their students’ confidence—or, if they misstep, they can reinforce the harmful behaviors learned at home and further impair their students’ psychological development. 

Here’s how schools can help nurture children’s self-esteem.

How Schools Can Improve Self-Esteem

According to psychotherapist and self-esteem expert Nathaniel Branden, schools can be an excellent place to promote self-esteem. In his book The Six Pillars of Self-Esteem, he discusses why schools are a good place to teach self-esteem—and the three levels on which schools can promote students’ confidence.

(Shortform note: In particular, researchers have highlighted how school-sponsored extracurricular activities can promote self-esteem by giving students opportunities to engage in what Branden would call self-esteem-supporting behaviors, like taking on challenges.) 

(Shortform note: Students come to school with varying degrees of self-esteem—so how can educators tell who might have low self-esteem and need extra support? The American Psychological Association suggests that students with low self-esteem may shy away from anything new, insult themselves, or avoid anything they may struggle with.) 

So how can schools effectively teach their students self-esteem? Branden says that to do so, schools must support self-esteem on three levels.

Level 1: The Curricular Level

On the macro level, Branden argues that educators should make building self-esteem a major educational objective. Schools are meant to provide their students with the tools necessary for success, and in the modern workforce, you need self-esteem to succeed. For example, many modern jobs require you to make judgment calls—which you can only do if you trust your own mind and thus have self-esteem. 

However, schools are designed to teach compliance over self-esteem because that was necessary for success in previous labor markets: Back when most people worked in factories, you succeeded if you followed orders well. But this system doesn’t work anymore.

So how, exactly, can schools adjust their curricula to teach self-esteem? Branden suggests three main additions. 

1. Schools should teach children how to feel and accept their emotions without acting on them. Many children are rejected by their parents when they express emotion—so they learn that certain emotions are bad and should be suppressed or ignored to avoid parental rejection. By teaching children how to properly deal with their feelings, schools can prevent these kids from growing into adults who always suppress or ignore their emotions—in other words, who live in self-rejecting ways that damage their self-esteem. 

2. Schools should teach children how to have healthy relationships because healthy self-esteem requires confidence in your ability to do so. (Shortform note: Researchers add that teaching children how to have healthy relationships in school may also reduce domestic violence among young people.) 

3. Schools should teach children critical thinking skills because, in a world that depends on knowledge work, students must learn how to use their minds effectively in order to survive. (Shortform note: One technology company adds that teaching critical thinking to kids can also help them detect and avoid misinformation on the internet, which could lead them to avoid dangerous situations like meeting a stranger from the web.) 

Level 2: The Teacher’s Self-Esteem

At the teacher level, Branden contends that teachers who want to increase their students’ self-esteem must first improve their own self-esteem. Kids imitate the adults in their lives—so if their teacher has healthy self-esteem, they’re more likely to imitate and learn the behaviors that support it. 

Additionally, teachers provide the greatest value to their students by believing in their potential—so much so that the student comes to believe in her own potential, too, even if she didn’t at first. When a student believes in her own potential, she believes that she is worthy and capable of doing more—in other words, she has greater self-esteem. In order for a teacher to believe in someone else that strongly, Branden argues, he must believe in himself first—in other words, he must have self-esteem. 

Level 3: The Classroom Level 

In addition to supporting each student’s self-esteem with self-esteem-nurturing curricular changes and teachers, Branden argues that schools can support self-esteem on a micro-level. To do so, each teacher must ensure that their classroom is an environment that supports self-esteem. Teachers can do so by following five simple rules.

1: Treat every student with respect. Branden contends that many adults treat children with disrespect they would never direct towards adults. So by treating your students with respect, you reinforce their sense of self-worth and support their self-esteem. (Shortform note: One simple way to let your students know that they matter is to use their names whenever you speak to them.) 

2: Treat every student the same. A child who thinks that their teacher will treat every student fairly feels safe and confident in their capability to handle the classroom; a child who thinks their teacher plays favorites doesn’t have this sense of safety or confidence. (Shortform note: As Jennifer Eberhardt notes in Biased, you may treat your students differently due to your unconscious racial biases. To mitigate this bias, attend empathy-focused training sessions, during which you listen to students’ stories about experiencing discrimination in schools and learn strategies for prioritizing a healthy, balanced relationship with your students.)

3: Focus on what your students are good at to help students gain confidence in their own value. Branden notes that this may involve helping your students realize what their strengths are if they don’t know them yet.

4: Notice every student. Branden explains that every child needs to feel like she’s significant. You can send that message by paying attention to every student in your class—especially the smart, shy ones. These kids often don’t receive much attention from adults, so they start to believe they’re insignificant, which damages their self-esteem. 

5: Be careful how you administer authority. In any classroom, kids will misbehave. As a teacher, you must strike a balance when dealing with these infractions: You can’t insult them as it would damage their self-worth and thus their self-esteem. But you can’t overlook these infractions either—teaching kids that they can get away with anything discourages self-responsibility and likewise damages their self-esteem. 

Branden recommends two ways to strike that balance. First, he urges, teach your students why specific rules exist. A child who understands why a rule exists is more likely to follow the rule because she’s contributing to an environment she wants. For example, if she knows that you must raise your hand to speak so that everybody gets a fair chance to speak, she follows the rule because she wants to be in a classroom where everybody can speak. In other words, in following the rule, she’s exercising her own power for a desired outcome—and so she’s practicing self-esteem-supporting behavior. In contrast, if she follows a rule because she’s afraid of being punished, her actions are motivated by fear or avoidance of punishment, which does not contribute to her self-esteem.

Second, Branden recommends, instead of punishing kids, letting them live out the consequences of their infractions so that they’re more motivated to follow the rules. For example, if a disruptive student breaks something, make them fix it. 

How Schools Can Improve Students’ Confidence

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Darya Sinusoid

Darya’s love for reading started with fantasy novels (The LOTR trilogy is still her all-time-favorite). Growing up, however, she found herself transitioning to non-fiction, psychological, and self-help books. She has a degree in Psychology and a deep passion for the subject. She likes reading research-informed books that distill the workings of the human brain/mind/consciousness and thinking of ways to apply the insights to her own life. Some of her favorites include Thinking, Fast and Slow, How We Decide, and The Wisdom of the Enneagram.

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