Every day, students come into our classroom spaces from their own life experiences the day before. As educators, we do our best to make students feel welcomed and engaged every time they cross our thresholds.
I work hard to make sure students feel safe, cared for, and loved. To do this there are several activities or spaces in our classroom that build students’ self-esteem. I encourage other educators to try a few of these and see the impact it has on their own students.
Build your students’ self-esteem all day, every day
1. Greet every child at the door with a smile and say his or her name
I started greeting students at the door a year-and-a-half ago. I stand in the doorway, awaiting students each morning. I greet them with a handshake, teaching them to look someone in the eye and have a firm grasp. I also call each student by name and ask how they are doing. Students now do not even come into the room before saying hello to me. If I am absent, I leave a note for my guest teacher to do the same routine.
2. Ask a question of the day to kick start your morning and touch base with every child
For morning work, students answer a question of the day. I make the questions up, but they could be anything from ‘What makes you happy? Sad? Annoyed?’ to ‘If you could change a color in the Crayola crayon box, what would it be and why?’ Their answers allow me to get to know each student and have a brief conversation with everyone before the business of the day gets hold of us.
3. Encourage students to advocate for themselves
If students need to reach out to me for any reason, I tell them to email me—rather than their parents. I want the student to tell me when he or she is upset or has a question about an assignment. I also have a bothering box in our classroom where students can express things that are bothering them in a safe place. If children want me to talk with them, they write their name on the bothering box slip. If someone wants me to just be aware of a situation, no name is needed.
4. Provide opportunities to give feedback to students—not just grades
I once heard when you put a grade on a paper the learning stops. Therefore, I decided to go gradeless in 2015 and instead provide feedback to help students grow in their strategies and skills. Our 5th-grade students write reading letters twice a month to me, expressing their thoughts about books and ideas they have about author’s craft. I respond to each individual child. Responding to children makes them feel heard.
As students begin to trust me, we end up sharing about our lives, our weekends, and things we enjoy. I am also able to ask questions and push students to meet their potential as readers through these letters. I invite students to share their work with the class, which is another great way to build self-esteem. Students also blog twice a month, which provides an authentic global audience for their writing. They write a draft in a Google Doc that is taken through the writing process before being published. Their post is shared in Google Classroom with parents and on our social media accounts. This is a great way to build critical- and creative-thinking as well as communication skills.
5. Let students fix mistakes
I used to hand back math assessments for students to see their performance, get it signed by a parent, and place it in their portfolio. Now students take an assessment, get feedback on it, and have two weeks to correct mistakes should they choose to do so. The real learning takes place while fixing these mistakes, and our students feel great when see a point total increase.
Recently, scores were dismal due to a poorly written assessment. I turned the class into a game where they could buy hearts, magic wands, phone a friend, use a computer, use the math book, use the Google Home, or ask a clan to help them. I gave them a budget and the option to work collaboratively to build their math skills. If they went into debt, they had to work that off by solving extra math problems. Turning assignments into games excites and engages them in their own learning process.
6. Attend one event outside of school for each child who asks
Every year, I am fortunate enough to do something outside of school for each child who invites me. Students feel I want to know the whole child and not just their school identity. I have been to robotics tournaments, sports activities, recitals, dinners, and family celebrations. I also attend events long after students have left me, fostering deeper relationship building.
7. Offer experiences for students to show off their talents
Sometimes, we have to look beyond the four walls to provide experiences to build student’s self-esteem. Peter Reynolds, esteemed children’s author, provides Hutch magazine as an option to inspire our writers and artists. I submit all kinds of student work (with parent permission) throughout the year. A few students become his magazine staff and are invited to the publishing party of their magazine issue. Students from all over the world can submit work. You should see the magic in a child’s eyes when she learns she is the cover artist!
MIT’s Curiosity Challenge is another great way to inspire students to think big! Students can submit artwork or writing on what they are curious about and have a chance to be celebrated during Science in the Street Week in April.
I also take students on the road with me. They have presented for MassCUE’s Annual Fall Conference and Alan November’s Building Learning Communities (BLC). They began to internalize the power of their own words.
8. Learn from students
Every month, each student goes on a Discovery Quest. They start with a BIG question and research the answer, teaching our class about their learning journey. This puts the student’s in the driver’s seat, running a mini lesson for classmates. I have learned more from my students than I do anywhere else. They develop a sense of pride and public-speaking skills that they will carry for a lifetime. Students in the audience sketchnote what their classmate is teaching them. Allowing students to think visually is another great way to build their self-esteem.
9. Celebrate student success
We have a success party every year. Students and their parents are invited to celebrate individual success. Parents who cannot attend are invited to participate by creating a paper heart at home and inscribing it with the success they have seen from their child. At school, students make their own heart and reflect upon their own success. They write about where they have seen themselves grow. These hearts greet us on our door frame for about a month.
At the end of our school year, students write a letter to their future self to be opened when they graduate high school. In the spring of their graduating year, we meet together as a class one more time to open the time capsule over dinner. The laughter and memories from this event are worth waiting 10 years for.
10. Grow with your students
I have an open-door policy. Students know that no matter how old they are or where they might be, they always have a home to come back to. They might be with me for only 180 days but I tell them they can have me for a lifetime should they choose. I’ve had students return looking for help with college essays because I always said I would help with anything. Some come back seeking emotional support; others want to see how the classroom has changed. Just the other day, a student wrote to me on Instagram that a project we did in third grade had him reflecting on his own life.
Using strategies to help build self-esteem connects you to the heart of your students. Establishing a foundation and building relationships with them are keys to creating a bridge where students can cross over and flourish, feeling great about who they are.
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