Improving the Self-Esteem of At-Risk Students

                                IMPROVING THE SELF-ESTEEM OF AT-RISK STUDENTS

            Maria Paula Ramirez, M.Ed. and Maria Diana Gonzales, Ph.D.

We have too many students who are at risk, and as teachers we need to help them improve their self-esteem whenever possible.  Sometimes, we just do not know how to make students feel good about themselves.  This article provides eight tips that we can use to help at-risk students improve their self-esteem.

#1 Smiles – Sometimes we get so overwhelmed with the responsibility of teaching that we forget the easiest thing that will help our students feel better about themselves….A SMILE. We start believing that we have to frown until Thanksgiving to help discipline.  But, when we don’t smile students think that we don’t enjoy our jobs and that we do not enjoy having them in our classrooms.  Many times, a smile will make our students’ day and will make them feel like someone cares how they feel.  At-risk students will feel like the teacher with a smile is approachable.  They will feel comfortable about approaching this teacher when they have bigger problems or are feeling all alone in the world.

#2 Part of the Group – Many of our students who are at-risk have learning challenges, can’t speak English, or can’t sit still, but we can make them feel they are part of the group.  How can we do this?  If these students have problems keeping up with assignments, find a buddy for them who will help make sure that the students understand what is happening in the classroom.  You can assign a different buddy every day, or have students volunteer to be a buddy.  Teachers can also provide tutoring time to help these students keep up with learning in the classroom.  Don’t forget that students will be more successful with learning if we provide differentiated assignments.  Yes, it takes a lot of precious time to provide differentiated lessons, but our students and their self-esteem are worth it.

#3 Meaningful Assignments – Too often we think we are doing at-risk students a favor by providing them easier assignments than the rest of the class.  At-risk students want to learn what the other students are learning.  Maybe, they need a differentiated assignment for them to learn, but they can do it.  You may have to provide at-risk students with additional notes or sometimes an assignment with a different language.  Easier and different assignments is not the answer.  An example of a meaningful assignment is giving students an opportunity to write about their childhood.  You can provide students with Childhood Stories and Activities written by Creative Expressions for secondary students.  These stories are about a young person making the right choices to make her feel better about herself and her culture. 

#4 Resources – Students need tools to make them successful in the classroom.  Many times, we have these resources in our classrooms already.  Do they need a special dictionary to help them complete their assignments?  Provide them with one.  Do they need a bilingual student to help them understand an assignment?  Provide them with a buddy who speaks their language.  Maybe, they need a special visit to a counselor who will provide that special student with some special information during a fifteen minute discussion.  Refer them to the counselor.  I’ve seen teachers sit students at their desk so that they can monitor their work and eliminate distractions for the student.  If this is what it takes, why can’t we do it?

#5 Self-Esteem Activities – All activities can be connected to learning, and sometimes, we need to have our students participate in something that is going to make them feel better about themselves.  There are some easy to follow activities that can help students feel better about themselves.  A good example is what I call the Compliment Circle.  I have students form four or five circles with 5 students in each.  Each student gets an opportunity to give the student to his right a compliment.  There is no such thing as a bad compliment as long as it is sincere.  I allow students, especially at the elementary level, to tell a student that he likes his shirt or her dress.  I prefer more in depth compliments at the secondary level, especially when they know each other pretty well.  A more in depth compliment is when a student tells another student, “When students have a problem, we can always depend on you to be a good listener.”  Another example of a good self-esteem activity is Sombrero Sentences developed by Creative Expressions on Teachers Pay Teachers.  Students get the opportunity to decorate a sombrero, and they get the opportunity to tell their classmates and teachers information about themselves in English and/or Spanish.  

#6 Consistent Praise – Many at-risk students will say negative things about themselves.  Teachers can turn these negative comments into positive ones.  They can constantly praise the students and remind them that they can achieve and learn.  Teachers can consistently praise students about their strengths so students believe they can be successful in spite of their challenges.

#7 Role Modeling – Teachers can role model by discussing their own strengths and challenges.   Students sometimes see teachers as being perfect, but they should see and hear teachers describe and explain how they have succeeded in spite of their challenges. Teachers can also provide activities related to other successful role models from various cultures who have achieved great things in spite of many challenges that they faced. Role modeling of this type can help students believe in themselves.  We think students might understand this concept if you have them read, The Geometry Lesson, a Narrative of Unconditional Love, written by Creative Expressions.

#8 Believe – Teachers should believe that every single student can learn and be successful.  Educators need to avoid talking to other teachers about the students with behavioral issues.  When we talk about other students, it is easy to label students negatively.  Sometime students behave negatively because they are desperate for attention. Believing that students can succeed means that we have to engage in reflective thinking ourselves to identify misconceptions and stereotypes we might hold. Identifying those beliefs allows us to change them. Once those misconceptions and stereotypes are changed, we firmly believe that every student can achieve to their utmost potential. Guess what….they do!
Self-Esteem activities are important in the classroom. There are many great self-esteem activities to help students improve in this area.  Teachers can definitely help students improve their self-esteem by smiling at students and making them feel part of the group.  Providing students with meaningful assignments and resources are very important to help students feel better about themselves. However, if we don’t believe in their ability to learn and succeed, then how can we expect them to achieve their dreams? Hopefully, you will find these eight tips useful in your classroom so that improving students’ self-esteem can become a daily activity in all of your classes.