How to build confidence in kids

Children’s Mental Health is in Crisis. Here’s How to Help Develop Your Child’s Self-Esteem.

Prisma Staff
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October 6, 2022

A crucial part of child development, building confidence is about finding a sense of self. For young children, this means learning to say ‘no’, to share toys and take turns — the kinds of skills that they develop by playing with peers under the supervision of loving caregivers.

For adolescents, however, the variables that impact self-esteem multiply so dramatically, that it can be hard to know how best to help your child, especially when their behavior may change quite dramatically over short periods of time: One moment they might seem like the neighborhood mayor, and the next moment they might be sulking solo in their room.

At Prisma, we find that building confident kids with healthy self-esteem is one of the things we do best. We’ll share how we do that, but first, here are signs your child might need a confidence boost.

Signs of low-self esteem

The child sitting alone at the cafeteria, who won’t make eye contact, mumbles when they speak, and never cracks a smile. When we think of signs of low self-esteem, certain behaviors and characteristics immediately come to mind: being self-critical, having trouble accepting praise, withdrawing socially or appearing overly sensitive.

But signs of low self-worth can include a broader array of behaviors that caregivers might miss:

  • avoiding tasks or quitting at the first sign of frustration
  • cheating or lying to avoid losing a game
  • acting intentionally in an immature way, or being controlling, bossy or inflexible
  • blaming others
  • declining grades
  • moodiness
  • susceptible to negative peer pressure

How to help build your child’s self-esteem

Sometimes the things parents do to help develop their child’s confidence— like unconditionally praise them or sugarcoat criticism — can have the opposite effect.

Here are ways to help build your child’s confidence in a healthy manner:

1. Create a hierarchy of needs

Confidence truly is the foundation to any accomplishment. If a child needs to build up their social self-confidence, make that the priority, before tackling any challenging academic areas. At Prisma when we get a new student who has lost their confidence, we let them take a step back academically and encourage them to work on what they really need to work on, before we push them to approach new challenges.

2. Let them work at their level

Kids rarely develop their skills at an even pace, so trying to mold someone to exact grade level standards is likely to create more tension and frustration. If a kid who doesn’t understand fourth grade math gets pushed into fifth grade math, they fall even further behind. More confused and discouraged, they’ll only come out of that situation hating math and thinking they’re “bad” at it.

At Prisma, we use MAP testing to figure out the last level where the kids truly grasped certain concepts. We find it’s better to put them back a grade to where they can be successful right off the bat, and then build them up from there.

When you let kids work at their level, you can move away from the feeling of being “behind” or “ahead,” which creates a fixed mindset that ultimately undermines self-esteem. Instead, when you say, “This is where you are today, and this is what we’re working towards tomorrow,” you reinforce a growth mindset that is the foundation of success.

3. Use their interests as a confidence boost

Kids tend to work harder and more persistently when they have skin in the game. They’ll even be more willing to learn new skills if they’re motivated by the project — for example, a kid who has a hard time in writing but loves animals might be more willing to sit down and fill up a blank sheet of paper to build their pet-sitting business.

4. Encourage them to take ownership

When a kid is stuck in the middle of a task, it can be hard to suppress the instinct to lunge over and resolve it for them. However, that response makes the child feel that they can’t do it. Over time, that kind of helicoptering over-involvement can do serious damage to a child’s sense of self. Next time you see your child stuck, encourage them to brainstorm solutions, take another try, or walk the process back to the last place where they were confident it was on track. It’ll take them longer, but ultimately they’ll be proud they did it on their own.

5. Look for supportive environments

You know that nightmare where you stand up in front of a crowd and nothing comes out of your mouth? When that happens in real life, the thing that matters most is who is sitting in the audience. Thanks to the rapport between learners established by our cohort model, when a kid in the spotlight freezes, they know they have a group of peers cheering them on, from the other side of the screen.

6. Consider one-on-one support

Kids with low self-esteem will want to hide themselves in a large group setting, making it challenging for them to receive help. A mentor, coach or tutor who gets to know a kid individually over a period of years, learns what makes them tick, what gets them excited, what makes them scared — in short, a trusted adult who knows what a kid is capable of and how to encourage them to achieve their best — is an amazing way to build confidence. You may find that person in a school setting, like our coaches at Prisma, as part of a tutoring center, or in a community mentorship program.

7. Show an interest in their work

One of the best ways to build a child’s confidence is when you let them be your teacher, giving them an opportunity to take ownership of their learning. At Prisma, we incorporate this kind of celebration at the end of every cycle, in our Expo Days where kids take center stage, and coaches, parents and peers all celebrate their learning.

8. Model confidence yourself

We spend so much time thinking about how to help our kids’ confidence, sometimes we forget to look at ourselves as their role model. It’s not easy to break old habits, but try to be mindful about the way you act when you “fail” at something or “mess up,” especially if you have a tendency to beat yourself up. When they hear you use positive self-talk, you set a good example for them. Even if your immediate reaction is negative (“I can’t believe I did something that stupid!"), it’s never too late to show them you’ve learned something too: “Wow, I really was frustrated with myself, but now I’m going to figure out how to get things back on track.”

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