Helping children gain self-esteem and confidence is a fine art, explored at length in a book whose reputation is fast growing. Justina Hart speaks to its author
Martin, aged nine, has difficulty with long division, so his parents support him by doing domestic chores near to where he sits, working on his maths homework. His mother patiently tries to elicit the correct answers, but her temper frays. The boy blushes and starts to cry. "I don't understand a word you're saying," he replies. His father instructs him to listen but Martin bursts out: "I'm listening, but I don't understand. I'm just stupid. I can't do this."
The scene is taken from The Confident Child, a book by American social psychologist Dr Terri Apter aimed at helping parents raise motivated, confident children. "I thought this story was so practical," says Dr Anna Baldwin, an English teacher at Hills Road Sixth Form College, Cambridge.
"Terri has been a novelist, so she gives you a scenario, an analysis of what people are actually like, and it really does come to life. She shows the parents getting it wrong, followed by the child's tears and gives you tips on what the parents ought to have done instead."
The Confident Child is one of those texts whose reputation has been spread by word of mouth. Thus it happens that a book now out of print in the UK has crossed the Atlantic and dropped into the laps of British teachers working with primary and junior children, teenagers and even adults.
In bullet points, Apter shows how to help children unlearn their fears by "re-conceiving" rather than condemning mistakes. Instead of labelling an answer as wrong, teachers can help a child's self-esteem by using mistakes as a starting point for solving a new problem.
They can also help by adopting a particular physical attitude when dealing with a frustrated child like Martin: they should sit quietly by his side and speak in a low voice to ease anxiety.
Apter, at present based at Cambridge University, says the book came to attention after it won an international educator's award in 1998. Though primarily aimed at parents, the book was prompted by her concern that the notion of self-esteem had been "co-opted by schools in a very ineffective way".
She adds: "There's an assumption that if you feed a child a sense of their success, it gives confidence that will enable them to persist. Let's change our concept of self-esteem. Instead of this monologue that says 'I'm a wonderful person', let's think of it operationally as a set of skills, which mean you're unable to tolerate frustration in learning."
In other words, children who are taught how to diminish anxiety when faced with a new task will persist in learning new things. "We see every day that there's a real correlation between how hard you try and what you can achieve," says Apter. She employs a technique called "emotional coaching" to help children develop emotional intelligence - the positive use of emotions to control behaviour - which, in turn, is confidence-building.
Emotional coaching involves talking to children about their feelings, showing acceptance of them and helping them find useful ways of expressing their emotions. Abilities are seen as malleable. "What I hope is that the book highlights the changeability of children's views of themselves, how their self-esteem is not simply high or low but varies during the course of each day, and is different in different contexts."
Newly qualified teachers will find chapters three (helping a child overcome low self-esteem) and six (success and failure at school) essential. These set out key precepts for changing low self-esteem in practical ways.
First, a teacher can show a child that working at something makes a difference to his or her ability. Teachers and parents often try to build self-esteem with a steady diet of praise, but far more effective is helping a child to experience how effort leads to improvement. "In one sense, the message is the simple one: hard work pays off. There is also another message to the child: you have some control over your abilities," says Apter.
Second, setting clear and manageable goals can ease the anxiety that accompanies low self-esteem. A child might be haunted by the conviction that they can't spell, or aren't clever enough to pass a test, but the teacher can focus them on a single task.
"When a student does poorly, explain as clearly as possible what went wrong," says the author. Specific failings - "You didn't organise your work properly", "You made a mistake here" - can be corrected, but very general criticisms - "This just isn't good enough", "This is wrong" - reinforce self-doubt rather than improvement.
When a child performs well, a teacher should explain clearly why they succeeded, since understanding success is as important as understanding failure.
Apter uses one example of a perfectionist girl, Tessa, who destroys the painting she has made because it doesn't meet her impossible expectations. She can be helped through encouragement rather than distracting "over-praise".
Observing a child's reactions at close quarters should lead teachers to tailor a specific response. A teacher could help Tessa by encouraging her to clarify her goals, discussing whether these are achievable or not, and then getting her to work towards a specific goal in a specific time period. Teachers must always give children the freedom to express negative feelings about themselves, at the same time as working toward revealing those feelings to be unrealistic.
Apter admits it can be hard to give unconfident children the attention they deserve. They need a calm environment and "tend to ask loads of questions because they can't believe they're on the right track". They can act impulsively or see themselves as the class clown, and so must be disciplined and encouraged.
Teachers should look for improved self-control and concentration as signs that the approach is succeeding. "When a child is no longer overcome with anxiety, or when a child stops disrupting the class in order to avoid work, then self-esteem is building up," Apter explains.
Baldwin agrees: "One thing I learnt was that when students have got these feelings, it's no good carrying on educating them because they're not listening. They're paralysed, so you have to deal with this catatonia."
At a high-achieving college like Hills Road, some students become anxious that they are failing to match their peers. If left unattended, such intense feelings can lead to problems such as eating disorders or neurosis.
Baldwin says the stories and tips about depressed or perfectionist students, and those suffering from low self-esteem, are very helpful. "The section on depressed children gives all the symptoms, such as lack of concentration. When you're talking to someone who's depressed, you can't expect them to remember what you're saying." Teachers can guide depressed children by helping them set and work towards realistic goals. Such children need to be understood and listened to.
They should be allowed to admit to failure but encouraged to discuss what went wrong.
"Today I had a low self-esteem student with whom I was using techniques from the book," says Baldwin. "I was trying to help her plan her essay, but she kept crying and giving silly answers. So I asked her simpler and simpler questions, and every time she said anything at all. I said, 'that's right, that's right.' Terri says you shouldn't jolly students out of their anxieties because you'll make them feel a failure for crying as well. I thought that was sensitive: the idea that you don't tell them what they're doing wrong, but what they're doing right. And you don't compare them with others."
After frustrated efforts at intervention, Baldwin decided to leave another student who cries - this time, because she is a perfectionist - to work entirely on her own. Unprompted, the student produced two essays.
"One has never got enough time," concludes Baldwin, "so this guide, which is really a handbook with recipes you can dip into, is so useful. It gives you confidence as a teacher."
The Confident Child: Raising Children to Believe in Themselves by Dr Terri Apter (Bantam, ISBN 0-553-37986-0) is available from Amazon.com or Barnes and Noble (www.bn.com) priced $10.36, or can be ordered from bookshops.