Research has repeatedly shown that programs claiming to increase a child's or teen's self-esteem have failed to do so. These programs have opted for activities full of superficial affirmations, rather than activities that discover the underlying causes of self-esteem and target interventions there.
Think of it like this. Say you run over a nail with your tire. Your tire now has a leak. Instead of removing the nail and patching the tire, you regularly just add air to the tire instead. You haven't fixed the problem. Self-esteem is like that. We can say all the positive things, but unless we fix the underlying issue, it isn't going to get better.
Psychoeducation about Self-Esteem
Once I have established a rapport with a student, my first counseling session usually focuses on psychoeducation. Informing and talking with the student about their struggle helps normalize what they are going through and gives them a vocabulary for what they are experiencing.
With self-esteem, I give the following definition:
Your self-esteem is how you see yourself or your skills at something you think is important.
We talk about different skill domains (e.g., academics, behavior, social relationships, appearance, athletics), and how they see their own competence.
I've used surveys like the Piers-Harris 2 Self-Concept Scale or the Harter Self-Perception Survey to help students better understand how they see themselves and what is important to them. This also makes for great pre/post assessments.
I have also created my own simple pre-post assessments to go along with lessons and activities using this approach.
How is Self-Esteem Affected
Self-Esteem isn't just thinking you don't look right or are worse at something that others. It is also whether you think those things are important.
For example, I can't do a split or a handstand. I never could. When I was a kid, this was important to me and I felt bad about myself that I couldn't do it. Other kids just seemed cooler or more athletic because they could.
As I got older, handstand skills became less important to me (and everyone else). I stopped feeling bad about my poor skills. My self-esteem in this area changed. Not because I did anything to change it, but because it became less important.
If students understand the way their self-esteem increases or decreases, they will have more control over improving it. It is empowering to know you can change something and it isn't permanent.
Target the Causes
When you determine the underlying cause of a student's self-esteem, target your intervention there. This is where real change is going to happen.
If you have a seventh-grade girl presenting with body dysmorphia, target the obsessive comparison thoughts, help her develop an accurate self-perception, and let her make plans that improve things in this area.
I had a fifth-grade student who was overweight and obsessively talked about how other kids thought she was fat. I took a multi-prong approach. We used CBT strategies to work on reframing the negative thinking and take the perspective of other students. We also made some goals regarding eating and physical activity that were reasonable and healthy.
A student has struggled with reading is acting out in class and refusing to try comprehension questions. You suspect the student has a low self-esteem related to reading. What do you do? Recommend additional reading interventions or boost the student's self-esteem with positive thinking activities?
Make a Plan B
Another key component for intervening is to discuss worst-case scenarios and make a plan for self-acceptance.
What if you are always slightly overweight or reading is something you always struggle with or you aren't popular? What if you never learn to do that headstand?
Although these are hard conversations, it is invaluable for students to learn to be kind and honest with themselves. Keep the focus on accepting themselves and everyone else as works in progress.