An Elementary School Teachers' Guide to Building Student Confidence
Being an elementary school student can be incredibly difficult — which is why developing a strong sense of self-confidence in elementary students has become a key goal for educators. Positive self-esteem is important to a student’s development as a person, and a fundamental way to improve academic success.
Teachers know the importance of self-confidence in a student’s life. It’s a valuable “soft skill” that can nurture an elementary student far beyond their school years.
If you’re looking to utilize self-esteem activities for elementary students in your classroom, start with an understanding of behavioral reinforcement. Emphasizing positive behaviors in the classroom while effectively managing the negative ones is an essential step before deeper self-esteem implementations.
Once you’re feeling comfortable with your reinforcement, you’ll notice that sometimes it takes more than a few positive words or games to drastically change the classroom culture. After all, students receive messages from other students, home, media and countless other sources. You’ll need to be intentional about creating a learning environment that enhances elementary students’ self-esteem.
Confidence Building Activities for Students: Four Strategies to Improve Student Esteem
Our four favorite actions you can take today to improve student self-confidence in your elementary classroom:
- Nurturing a growth mindset
- Helping students get organized
- Empowering their choices
- Reviewing your approach to feedback
1. Encourage a Growth Mindset
Developing a growth mindset is about shifting a student’s perceptions of an event.
What Is a Growth Mindset?
Many students have a fixed mindset, which suggests that intelligence and ability are static. Fixed mindsets form a rigid, black-and-white concept of success.
A growth mindset employs a fluid understanding of experiences as they happen, leading to an attitude of curiosity and development. As the movement’s cornerstone Carol Dweck notes, a growth mindset is not just about the effort expended, but the actual progress that takes place as a result.
While it’s important to note that we’re all a combination of fixed and growth mindset, an emphasis on neuro flexibility can often help students change the perception of classroom experiences.
How Does a Growth Mindset Inspire Students?
Consider the influence of a growth mindset on student self-esteem and building confidence in the classroom. Case studies have found that an emphasis on growth mindsets may reduce student anxiety. It can also build confidence through increasing performance. A 2016 study found a growth mindset in students to be the most predictive of six potential indicators of student growth on state testing. As students feel more confident in their abilities to grow, they’ll follow through on actions that make them better learners.
Imagine the following scenario in your elementary classroom:
As a part of progress monitoring, you listen to individual students read ten sight words. One student, who often struggles through reading tasks and generally scores between two and four, identifies four of ten words correctly.
A fixed mindset would interpret this as failure. Reflective discussions about the event would likely indicate the student believes this is all they will ever achieve, that they do not have enough talent for reading and that their attempts to improve will likely be met with low results. Discussions about the next test will reveal that the student believes the pattern is set.
Meanwhile, after the same activity, a student with a growth mindset might reflect on the ways that this represents a chance to learn what they don’t currently understand. It’s data that will help improve future learning. This frame of thinking considers how current results lead to routes of improvement. The second student’s growth mindset improves their sense of self as a learner and reinforces positive learning patterns that will make them stronger.
How Do I Foster a Growth Mindset in Students?
Despite the remarkable benefits, only half of teachers in a nation-wide survey agreed (45%) or strongly agreed (5%) that they possess adequate strategies to assist students in developing a growth mindset.
One great starting point is to share the science with students. Concepts like “growth” and “improvement” are abstract, which can make it difficult for many students to visualize. Describing how the brain can physically change as it works gives students a material understanding of how these skills will help.
When looking for self-esteem activities for elementary students, don’t limit yourself to elementary searches. Growth mindset has become such an important educational concept that colleges, such as the University of Arizona, have begun promoting growth mindset development tools directly on their website. The movement has also developed its share of curriculum and classroom activities, which are sure to enhance student self-confidence.
One final idea is to demonstrate a growth mindset in front of your students. Challenge yourself to let students know when you’ve fallen short and the ways you’ve thought through this problem. Like most other ideas in education, a model of the behavior can have a profound impact on student understanding.
2. Help Students Organize Their Goals
It can be difficult for students to feel confident when they’re not sure what they’re supposed to be doing or where to find their work. Regardless of your goals, it’s difficult to be successful without a strong plan. This is true for all elementary students as they are still developing these strategies, but it can be especially important for students with executive functioning issues.
How Does Organization Help Confidence?
Think of the last time you lost an important paper or missed a deadline. Emotionally, how did you respond to the situation?
Anxious? Frustrated? Embarrassed?
Chances are, your answer didn’t include confidence or raising your self-esteem.
Now imagine the same scenario, but being a six-year-old child who, despite any effort, does not have the same neurological developments you have. It can be extremely overwhelming to an elementary student.
To learn how to organize and process information, students must first be given the tools and shown what organization looks like. In this way, they will develop strong patterns as they grow into their mental abilities to handle more complex tasks.
How Do I Help My Students?
One of the most important ways to assist students is to help them break a task into parts. The vast majority of humans do not begin thinking with their prefrontal cortex — the planning, abstraction and impulse control center of the brain — until well into late adolescence.
In other words, students lack the brain processes to plan ahead or comprehend the future.
Because of this, it is crucial that teachers help students break large goals into smaller tasks. For instance, in a sixth-grade classroom, assigning an analytical essay may seem like a clear task. Plan it, and then write it. However, consider the reading, analyzing, brainstorming and writing elements necessary to be successful. This is before addressing time management, impulse control and motivation.
The same is true for tracking assignments and organizing homework. As adults, it is natural to overlook the executive functioning skills we utilize every day. Doing so, however, puts your students in an emotionally precarious situation.
What Materials Organize Students?
As more schools move to digital platforms, the influx of online management systems will likely grow. Learning online abilities, such as mastering time management apps and media literacy, can be an important part of developing skills for the future.
However, what may seem like a quick solution also comes with some caveats. There is growing concern about student screen time in schools. Moreover, while some online organization solutions might cost very little, many schools lack the financial ability to put a device in each student’s hands, especially at the elementary level. Then, there is not only the cost of the device itself, but also repairs and technology personnel to keep the technology functioning.
Because of this, we offer low-cost student planners for your students. This solves obvious problems presented by technology, but it also fits practical classroom application. When all students have the same planner, teachers can easily form a class routine of writing in the notebook. Moreover, it’s an easy resource to send home at the end of the day so that parents can quickly see all upcoming assignments and goals.
As you fill out your own plans for the upcoming weeks, consider what actions you will take to help your students become more confident planners themselves.
3. Give Students Choice
For teachers, it is common to get stuck in director role. Frankly, making unilateral classroom decisions is easier than giving students options. It’s difficult to find viable choices for students, get feedback and then implement changes that might not be your first instinct.
Consider that work a tradeoff for the other ways it will save you. If providing choice creates more student motivation and returns better efforts, you will also save time you used to spend modifying those issues. Moreover, providing student choice fosters autonomy and confidence in students. Research has even found that offering student choice positively affects motivation even when the choice is not directly tied to the learning task.
One place to start might be the class setup. No seating arrangement or environment will ever meet the needs of all students. Consider creating a classroom filled with micro-environments, which not only differentiates the room for various types of learners, but also provides a facet of student choice. Students gain confidence both from making the decisions that are right for them and from the support a teacher demonstrates in allowing them to make that choice.
However, if you are going to give the options, be sure to follow through. If you present options and then ignore feedback and proceed on your own, your students may believe that they do not have your trust and that you do not value their decision-making processes. Give your students a choice and be sure you can live with the results.
4. Reconsider Your Approach to Feedback
Many schools are moving away from traditional alpha-numeric scoring systems in favor of standards-based grading. While this change does address particular problems, such as tying grade reports to more concrete learning objectives, it does not solve the larger issue with feedback. Regardless of whether a score is reflected as an 88%, a B average, or Meeting Expectations, students receive little indication of how to improve.
Without direction, goals and guidance, students can become unconfident or frustrated. They begin to believe they are simply a “B student” rather than someone who has demonstrated some skills but not others. Due to this, some schools have moved to completely gradeless systems, though they are clearly in the minority.
Even with this, though, the main problem is not addressed. How does your feedback system give the student confidence that they understand their successes and shortcomings?
Do the Grades Really Matter?
The key, especially in the classroom, is to realize that grades can help to improve student motivation and confidence, but only when coupled with direct feedback from the teacher.
This is where educators attempt to bridge the gap. In a Results Only Learning Environment, feedback incorporates two important traits to bolster student confidence.
First, any evaluated material receives a streamlined form of direct feedback, including summarization, explanation, redirection and resubmission if the product requires revision. In this way, a student receives insights on their strengths and areas of need. Compare this to a typical exam, which simply tells the student that their assignment was a 78%.
Second, feedback only focuses on the qualities of the work, not evaluative statements. For example the statement “you wrote a good introduction,” tells the student little aside from the fact that the teacher approves of the writing in this piece. Alternatively, a description that notes the student included elements that enhance the piece — a hook or a clear thesis — allows the student to see which elements are working and which ones are not.
Through these types of informative feedback, students can gain confidence and understanding about their work. Instead of a vague description of a “B-level writer” or a subjective “good” or “bad” writer, the students form an understanding of their work — and your feedback — based on concrete traits.
On your next major assignment, consider not only what the student knows about the assignment you will return, but how your comments and grading will help the student better understand how you arrived at your conclusions.
Most Importantly, Care About Your Student’s Esteem
We all know that there isn’t one magic fix that is going to change your students’ self-perceptions. But through small changes and a desire to see real change in your students, you can certainly employ strategies that will foster growth and confidence in your students.
As students engage with the strategies you implement — and as they see you model your own organization and growth mindset — your classroom will be a space that enriches students far beyond state testing and report card scores. Ultimately, building students’ belief in themselves comes down to listening to their needs and supplying the appropriate tools for success, which is why we always have helpful staff prepared to help you find the right tools to empower your students.