I wear many hats in a day: sister, friend, confidant, colleague, and educator. And although I wear my educator’s hat for over eight hours a day, I always place my most important hat on first: mother. This is the hat that keeps me grounded, empathetic, sympathetic and always assessing what is best for my child—and for 900 other children.
My mother hat helps me reduce any anxiety and fears my students’ parents have about school or their child’s performance. As a parent myself, I know firsthand the concern—and sometimes even worry—that your child is not performing at the so-called ideal level. With my mother hat on, I am able to bring parents’ attention back to the importance of providing kids the confidence that comes from knowing their parents are going to always love them and be there for them, cheering them on along their educational journey, regardless of what any test says.
If you’ve ever had a chance to observe a kindergarten or first grade class, you know that the excitement and enthusiasm for learning is almost contagious. Hands are high in the air. Children are bouncing in their chairs in hopes of being called upon. There is even the occasional blurting out of the answer! Yet, if you were to visit the same group of students a mere five years later, there would be a significant difference. Hands are no longer high in the air, and the students don’t race to answer the question first. There is even a possibility that only a third of the class will be paying attention. What happened to that enthusiasm? Where is that confidence in their ability to answer correctly?
In the early years, children are not fully aware of their strengths and weaknesses. In their wonderful minds, they are just as qualified to take on a task as anyone else. However, after years of being in a structured environment where they are continuously compared to others, placed in quartiles, grouped based on performance, included or excluded in social groups, teams or lunch tables, the feeling of “not being good enough” begins to emerge. Some children begin to develop a sense of hopelessness and disinterest in things for which they once had enthusiasm because they no longer believe in themselves. These early school years represent such a critical time in their development; and the things that are said and done to them can negatively impact their self-esteem and image of themselves.
So, what can parents do to counteract this? Helping to build your child’s self-confidence is the best all-around plan, and there are many ways you can do this. Children look to us for guidance on how to deal with feelings of inadequacy or incompetence. They haven’t been in this world long enough to know that things said by others do not define who they are.
A poor performance on a class assignment, or not being chosen by a group or a team, should be met with your praise on their attempt to succeed, followed by questions about their action plan for next time. An effective action plan begins with the vision of success they have for the next test or try-out and includes the steps they’ll take to get there. Appoint yourself the plan’s official blueprint architect; with your child, outline the areas where they are lacking confidence, the activities they’ll undertake to build those skills, and the timeframe dedicated to mastering each skill.
As their parent, you can be their greatest cheerleader. Offer ongoing words of encouragement and support. Ask your child periodically how things are going with their action plan. This lets them know you are paying attention to their progress and gives them a sense of accountability.
It is also useful to teach your child self-advocacy skills. For instance, if they are having difficulty in school, rehearse with them effective ways they can communicate their needs to their teacher. Children are oftentimes intimidated by the appearance of their peers’ success; as a result, some kids are too nervous to verbalize their needs. If that’s the case with your child, show them how to write the teacher a quick note to turn in at the end of class, letting the teacher know which topics were not understood. Self-advocacy is such a wonderful skill to teach your child; it empowers them as well as demonstrates the importance of communicating their needs.
It is also very important that children are taught about how we all differ in our strengths and weaknesses, while reminding them of their own strengths (especially if they are not academically strong). This will help them appreciate the wonderful parts of themselves that are not as visible in school as they are in other settings. Know the power of influence that you have over what they believe. Use that power to create confidence and assurance, even if their grade point average says something different. You are their first teacher; because of this, you have first dibs on how they see the world and themselves.
So shower them with well-deserved praise and highlight what is special about them, while also making them aware of what is looked for in school regarding performance and behavior. Most importantly, help them fully understand that they are not a test score, and that your love for them is always 100%.