Building Childrens’ and Adolescents’ Self-Esteem

Youth with positive self-esteem have learned to trust their talents and coping skills.  However, some children and adolescents struggle with academic and social situations and tend to underestimate their gains.  For them, building self-esteem is a complex process that requires ongoing reassurance, both at school and at home.

Self-esteem relates to self-evaluation of competencies and the assessment of one’s qualities in a range of areas including physical appearance, academic functioning, autonomy and interpersonal relationships.  An individual’s perception of self-worth develops gradually and relates to one’s achievements, positive outlook and interactions with others.  It is influenced by developmental factors, personal characteristics, family dynamics, school and community supports. Past experiences are often linked to an individual’s sense of belonging and security and tend to impact one’s activities, opinions, communication style and decisions.

Although it would be inaccurate to assume that top students always feel secure, or that all children with academic or adjustment problems suffer from low self-esteem, one should keep in mind the notion that self-evaluation is often dependent on comparisons.  When children or adolescents perceive a discrepancy between their performance and expectancy for their reference group, they are more likely to develop a negative self-concept. The converse holds true as well: students who do not perceive a discrepancy between themselves and their reference group are more likely to develop optimism and a positive self-image.

Educators and psychologists have both emphasised the impact of pupils’ attitudes towards school and towards themselves as learners on academic achievement and social adjustment.  The goals of curriculum and educational outcomes for students include the development of self-worth, adaptability, self-regulation skills, self-reliance and a realistic self-appraisal.  These goals are particularly important for youth prone to feeling easily discouraged or less competent than others.  Negative views of the self often result in a tendency to exaggerate negative aspects of daily events; may lead to dependency on others or result in stress reactions.

What then are the components that family members, educators and caregivers should keep in mind?

  • Self-esteem is subject to change in negative or positive ways.  Overcoming a sense of failure and exclusion takes time and ongoing support from significant others.
  • Listening with empathy and understanding is likely to enhance communication and constructive feedback.  Judgment and perceived criticism, on the other hand, are likely to stifle communication and increase stress/anxiety.
  • High self-esteem is a result of feeling capable and able to achieve in a variety of areas.  When supporting or assessing a child, ask and learn the answers to the following questions: What skills do I have?  In what areas do I value my skills?  What is easy for me to learn?  Do?  What can I teach someone else?
  • Feeling significant enhances self-esteem and leads to increased connections with others.  In order to feel important one must receive feedback which indicates that who we are and what we do or say matters to others.
  • Feeling powerful refers to the sense of control over one’s life.  Helping youth make decisions and exercise choices leads to more positive self-evaluation.
  • Feeling worthy is central to the development and maintenance of one’s resilience and positive identity.  There are multiple verbal and non-verbal messages in which we indicate to others that they are valued in ways that are unconditional upon our expectations for their accomplishments.  One should never underestimate the incremental feedback which consolidates high self-esteem for individuals and for groups.

Intervention Strategies for Consultation:

* This summary is based on publications over the years including those by NASP, CJSP, APA, CPA, and the Canadian Register of Health Service Psychologists. Consultations with and psychologists, and school communities continue to enhance our understanding in this realm, and are acknowledged with thanks.


Dr. Ester Cole

Chair, Canadian Register of Health Service Psychologists Board of Directors

Former President, Ontario Psychological Association