Saturday, June 21, 2008

Properly Building Self Esteem

Self esteem.

We are told, at every turn, that our children need to have self esteem. You want that for your children. I want that for my children. I want that for your child when he/she is a student in my classroom.

Question: How do we build self esteem? Or better, How do we build proper self esteem? Well, I'll tell you how NOT to build self esteem. Give your child NOTHING to do that requires effort on his/her part. And then, tell him how wonderfully he did it!!!!!

Here are some examples:

Give your 5th grade student 2nd grade spelling words
Have your upper grade student work a 1st grade math story problem.

You get the idea.

Will he succeed? Of course, but you have required no effort on his part. You've guaranteed that he will succeed, yes, but you've really required nothing from him.

Why am I mentioning this? One of the trends of modern education is to "dumb down" everything. It is pervasive in all subject areas, but I'm particularly addressing math in this post. They feel they need to make math less stressful and so the tests are made extremely easy or students are given art projects, on which children are given inflated grades, all in an effort to "even out" the grades.

A primary aim of these educators is to have a completely noncompetitive environment in the classroom. It must be, according to them, a place where all students are judged equal, and judged to be equally successful. And the only way to make all children equally successful is of course, to set the bar so low that no one appears better/smarter than others. All students can then feel good about themselves because no one is better. And this is supposed to give each student "self esteem" -- good "self esteem".

We see this effort all across the country when math teachers do not grade homework. Getting the correct answer on a problem is not required. In fact, if students don't know how to solve the problem, all they need to do is show an effort, just try to solve it. Everyone gets the same credit.

Let's back track to when your child was very young. Remember how he/she loved to help with little chores such as unloading the dishwasher, or putting the silverware on the table, or taking the folded clothes to each bedroom. Why? Because it showed that he/she was able to do a "big" person's job. And then, Moms, what did you do? Perhaps you said to your husband, "Daddy, look at the table. Guess who helped Mommy put the dishes on the table!" And then you and Daddy, made a big "to do" and praised your child for his efforts.

I remember teaching my daughter how to use the dust mop up and down the tile hallway to get all the dust. It took several trips down and back, but she quickly learned to do it without missing a speck of grass or dirt. She was really little and it wasn't easy for her, but she learned it and was so pleased that she had done it properly and well!!

Now back to the classroom. How do we build a student's self esteem? We DON'T give them assignments that are below grade level and tell them how well they've done. We give them something hard to do, something that is a challenge for them. And then when they do it, we praise them for it. This is what builds self esteem. And this is what makes them feel successful.

We need to set high goals and push them to reach those goals. Tell them that you know it won't be easy, but that all other 5th graders have been able to do it and that you know they can do it too, and that you will help them till they get it.

Dr. Wickelgren, in his book Math Coach, A Parent's Guide to helping Children Succeed in Math, confirms this approach. And it is the lack of high goals which causes "new math" methods to be so harmful, according to him. The new way doesn't encourage students properly. It certainly doesn't encourage a student who has put forth an effort to do the work and to solve a difficult problem.

I have seen first hand some of these methods used as my own children came through school. They were discouraged when students who had done no work got equal credit as students who had worked hard. What incentive does that give a diligent student to work hard next time? (We all grew to hate group projects where all students got the same grade, regardless of the effort put forth by each student.) Rewarding a student for no effort does damage, not only to that student, but to the entire class.

Dr. Wickelgren also believes that judging all students the same can have "deleterious psychological consequences for children." Why? Because it isn't the truth and it can cause those children to "have an unrealistic view of their abilities." According to Dr. Wickelgren, this can mislead children "to think they have skills they lack" because they have acquired the reward without doing the work. "Such children may not do the hard work necessary to succeed later in life." They have been trained to believe they will be rewarded irregardless of the work or effort.

So giving students hard tasks is important. It builds self esteem because the children know they have succeeded at something difficult. They know the difference. They know when they have worked hard and when they have not.

It also develops in them the character quality of perseverance, which they will need later in life, not only in high school, but also on the job.

Will all children be able to be successful on all of the work I assign in class? Maybe not. Probably not, because there will always be some things that are hard for some children. There are problems and concepts that I know some children struggle with.

I consider it part of my job to know what each student finds difficult in math. And I must be careful to praise, praise, praise when I know they have worked hard and solved a problem that was difficult for them. I need to give verbal praise immediately. In addition, I also like to write words of praise on a paper as I grade it -- "Good for you!" or "Wow! This is wonderful!" or "Yeah!!! You got it!" This is something that a parent will later see and gives them an opportunity to add their own praise

Even if a student fails to get the correct answer, if they remembered and used the proper procedure, I will write, "Thank you for working so hard on this." or "Keep trying. You'll get it." or "Come see me. I'll help you." This provides encouragement to the struggling child. It tells them they you are noticing their efforts and that their effort has not been wasted.

Every child needs encouragement. They also need to be challenged and rewarded when they have worked hard. Students can be/ should be recognized for excellent and perfect math work. They should also be recognized for improvement.

For a struggling child, recognition for improvement is HUGE. And it can build self esteem because the child knows the task wasn't easy for him. And it gives him hope. Hope that things are getting better and hope that he can do it and hope that he will succeed.

That builds self esteem. Proper self esteem.


Anonymous said...

If you want to teach math, you need to understand math and how students think. See the new book on "Teaching and Helping Students Think and Do Better".