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  • Writer's pictureKellie Bahri

Building Strong Sense of Self

Strategies for Teachers to Help Students Build Self-Awareness and Confidence

By Kellie Bahri

A strong sense of self is the building block of success in all areas in life. Students who have a strong sense of self are able to make decisions that align to their values, future goals, and lead a more fulfilling life. A supportive teacher has a significant opportunity to help students see their full potential and help them understand their uniqueness is their greatest strength. Seeing themselves through the eyes of a supportive teacher, can empower them to open their ‘invisible backpacks’ and step into a space of not only owning their strengths and gifts, but understanding that the world needs them.

The first step in helping students fully see themselves is to first learn who they are. We must accept and honor their individuality and meet them where they are. Every day, students enter schools carrying invisible backpacks. These backpacks are filled with hidden truths, insecurities, anxiety, worries of grades, family, friends, and fears of not fitting in. Even though the invisible backpack is metaphorical, the weight of it feels all too real.

It is easy to fall into the trap of comparing ourselves to others and harboring the feeling of not measuring up. With social media selling the unattainable perfection of what we should look like, own, the perfect family, traveling, sports, GPAs, it becomes unavoidable not to play the comparison game. The pressure of fitting in can become unbearable for our youth. There is multitudinous researched evidence that supports the opinion that social media has a strong impact on mental health. Dr. Jean Twenge, a Psychology professor at San Diego State University, conducted an extensive research on the effects of social media and technology on adolescents and found that increased use is associated with higher rates of anxiety, depression, and other mental health issues in young people. Social media is a permanent part of our lives and change is unlikely, we can however, support our youth by continuing to empower them to see the beauty in being unique individuals with our own strengths and gifts. Instead of blending in, our youth needs to find joy and acceptance within themselves for standing out.

More than ever, students need mentors and teachers who will encourage them to own their uniqueness and celebrate who they are. Here are a few strategies teachers can use to help students recognize and appreciate who they are and begin to see that being unique is their greatest strength.

Build Relationships

There is a lot of discussion on whether Maslow should come before rigor or vice versa. I feel both are equally important and should happen simultaneously. That said, teachers who take the time to get to know their students and listen to their stories can have a stronger impact on the building of confidence and self-esteem. Taking the time to listen and understand experiences, challenges, and passions, teachers can create a safe and supportive learning environment where students feel valued and understood. However, what many teachers don’t realize is that their actions can greatly impact the self-esteem of their students. Too often, educators with good intentions, have a vision of what an ideal student should be and hold all students to their standard of excellence. The problem with these self created and imposed standards is that not all students will measure up to them and end up causing a life-time of feelings of inadequacy and low self-esteem. When teachers meet their students where they are, they feel seen, heard, and accepted. They are more likely to build trust to share their thoughts and feelings, which can help them develop a deeper sense of self-awareness and confidence. Additionally, by affirming and celebrating their uniqueness, teachers can help students feel proud of who they are and more comfortable being themselves.

Gain A Different View

It’s important to remind students that everyone has both strengths and weaknesses. It’s easy to place others on a pedestal, and feel we couldn’t possibly ever measure up. Knowing everyone has weaknesses can help students develop a more realistic and balanced view of themselves and others. It can reduce feelings of insecurity and increase the feeling of acceptance and self-compassion knowing they themselves have their own strengths and weaknesses. When students change the way they see the world around them, they become more empathetic to others and to themselves. A great reminder that we all need love and support.

Build on Strengths

Work with students to determine their strengths and build on them. A couple of ways to incorporate opportunities for students to explore their passions and strengths is through strength-based learning. When students are given opportunities to flex their strengths in their learning, they begin building self-esteem and trust in their own abilities to be successful. Students need to have space to explore their interests, and in doing so, they develop a better understanding of themselves and begin to see their place in the world.

Provide Meaningful Feedback

Provide personal and genuine feedback to students. Let the focus of the feedback be on concrete signs of growth and celebrate as they reach their goals. Feedback centered on a student's attempt, determination, motivation, wonder, and their optimism can help build confidence. Feedback that helps students feel acknowledged and seen needs to be specific and not generalized. Perhaps, showing them the first draft of their writing to their most recent. Pointing out their use of adjectives and how it brings their writing to life. You might also point out their contribution to classroom discussion and how it added depth to the conversation. Keep in mind, not all students enjoy being acknowledged publicly, and sharing feedback privately may be their preferred choice.

Change the Narrative

Support and model positive talk. We all have an inner voice that needs to be quieted and challenged at times. Encourage students to replace their negative self-talk with positive thoughts and affirmations. Neurologists claim that every time you challenge negative emotions and choose positive ones, you can actually rewire your brain to be more positive and loving. Winona State University created the positive self-talk technique used to identify, challenge, and change negative self-talk to self-talk that encourages self-confidence. Use this technique during morning meetings for students to have the opportunity to practice how they speak to themselves. Changing one’s inner narrative from sabotaging to one of positivity takes deliberate effort and practice. When students change thoughts such as, “I'll never understand this" with "I may not understand now, but I will with some practice” can help the way they see themselves as a learner and doer. When students are able to hear their own positive self-talk, they will begin to grow in self-esteem and self-efficacy.

A strong sense of self is essential for success in life, and teachers have a compelling opportunity to help students develop this sense of self. Teachers can help students accept the contents of their invisible backpacks and step into a space of owning their stories, strengths and uniqueness. In a world that often promotes comparison and false perfection, it is more important than ever to empower students to celebrate their uniqueness and see it as their greatest strength. Through these strategies, teachers can create a safe and supportive learning environment where students feel seen, valued, accepted, and confident in who they are.

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