Accentuate the Positive:

Fostering Your Child’s Self-Esteem


December 2010, By Cheryl Gedzelman


Most students have some weaknesses in school, be it math, reading comprehension or organization. Children and parents address these weaknesses in various ways, but students often end up feeling stupid or incompetent. However, every student also has strengths. If someone asks you what your children are good at, can you easily come up with one or two areas of expertise? By focusing on strengths, students can improve their self-esteem and, consequently, their weaker areas.

Strengths Outside of School

Eric was having trouble with his schoolwork. He found some of the material confusing and had difficulty focusing. His report card had mixed grades, B’s and C’s and one D. He and his parents were used to seeing better grades. While school wasn’t going well, Eric looked forward to baseball, where he excelled. Unfortunately, after his mom saw his report card, she said that his grades had better improve or baseball had to go. Eric ran to his room in frustration.

Many parents have the perception that time spent on extracurricular activities is time that could be used for studying, and therefore, taking away these activities will improve grades. However, research has shown that students who excel in school also participate in extracurricular activities, even more than students who don’t do so well. Baseball helps Eric in many ways; it provides a diversion from school, which takes up most of his day; it gives him exercise, which research has shown improves brain function, and it gives him high self-esteem because he is good at baseball. In addition, it is unlikely that Eric will spend his enforced new-found time on studying. So how can he improve his grades? Talking with the teachers about expectations, providing a tutor, shifting homework time to a different time of day, getting Eric tested for a possible learning disability or ADHD, and many other strategies may help get to the root of the problem, but baseball is what keeps him going.

Andie is a busy 6th grader, dancing on a dance team and playing cello in a regional orchestra. She enjoys, and is successful with both activities. She was always good in math and is now taking a compact math class, which moves quickly because it combines 6th and 7th grades. Suddenly, the math is hard, very hard. The problems are challenging. However, she works hard and asks a friend or parent for help when needed. Eventually, she solves the problems.

Andie has high self-esteem, due to her accomplishments in school and with dance and cello. She believes in herself and believes she can solve hard problems, so she perseveres. Sometimes, her new cello pieces are hard at first, too, but she works on them until she catches on. If she doesn’t get it, she gets extra help from her teacher. She doesn’t feel stupid because she is accustomed to succeeding, even if hard work is required.

Students who have a difficult time with school must develop a can-do attitude. If they believe they can succeed and know how to find support systems, they will succeed. If one or two areas are resistant to change, other areas can still improve. Attitude and confidence go a long way.

Academic Strengths

Is your child good at math? Talk to her teacher about getting enrichment or helping classmates. Is your child a good writer? Encourage her to write stories, poems or movie reviews—perhaps a blog. Does she love history? Help her find supplemental books and articles on her areas of interest. Don’t forget field trips. Enhancing your child’s strengths will give her the confidence to work harder in the more difficult subjects.

Organization and Planning

If a student has difficulty with organization and planning, she may end up with poor grades just from losing things, forgetting to hand in assignments or doing her homework inefficiently. She should definitely get some help and accommodations to enable her to shine in her strong areas. You can talk with her teachers and counselor about ways they can help keep her organized in school. At home, you can work with her to develop systems, or hire an academic coach.

Different Types of Intelligence

In 1983, Howard Gardner, a psychologist from Harvard University, developed a theory of seven types of intelligence (that he since upgraded to nine). While all are important, only the first two are usually measured at school. These are, in a nutshell:

Linguistic Intelligence: using language effectively
Logical/Mathematical Intelligence: solving problems with and without numbers
Musical Rhythmic Intelligence: consider playing an instrument
Body/Kinesthetic Intelligence: think athletics and performing arts
Spatial Intelligence: think navigation, chess
Intrapersonal Intelligence: understanding yourself and your strengths and weaknesses
Interpersonal Intelligence: understanding other people, reading social cues
Naturalist Intelligence: having a relationship with plants and animals
Existential Intelligence: being philosophical about life

A child who has excellent spatial and kinesthetic intelligence may be able to take anything apart and put it back together. She should be told about the many careers that will be available to her with these skills. However, in school she may have difficulty with spelling and math. A good teacher or tutor can use games, physical exercise,or music to help her with these subjects.

Another child may easily understand concepts but get bogged down in details, resulting in poor grades. She should be taught to appreciate her ability to see the big picture. She may grow up to be a leader and innovator. Society clearly needs big-picture oriented people as much as detail-oriented people. A parent can help her memorize facts for a history exam by pointing out their relationship to the overall event.

If your child is having difficulty with school, find out what she is interested in and good at. See if she can use those skills to help with the weaker areas. If your child has a reading disability, you may be able to use recorded books. Once the reading disability is addressed, you may find out that she is very knowledgeable and excited about history or science. If she struggles with writing, her teachers may occasionally be able to evaluate her differently, perhaps through an oral report, poster or DVD. You may find out that she has thoughtful and innovative ideas.

Be an advocate for your child by working with her teachers to appreciate and capitalize on her strengths while simultaneously taking measures to help her with the weak areas. The goal is for her to feel smart and successful, at least somewhere. If she does, this will give her the confidence she needs to work on those tough areas.

Let Your Child Shine

Students need the opportunity to shine. If you feel your child has deficits that are holding her back, it is important to talk with her teacher(s) and arrange a screening meeting to discuss possible accommodations, such as extra time on tests.

Parents should help their children find their talents and work to excel in those areas, be they academic, mechanical, athletic, musical, interpersonal or artistic. Praise your children for their strengths and, ideally, offer them the opportunity to help others. This will increase their self-esteem and make them realize that they are smart and capable. They can thus gain the motivation and confidence they need to work on those challenging areas without becoming too discouraged.