Replacing Negative Self-image with Confidence

During a recent EdCampSTL, one of the teachers spoke of a student who had such a low self-image that he consistently rated himself with the lowest possible score. Her repeated attempts to praise the student had no effect at all. The question is “When praise doesn’t work, what do we do?”

Ask, don’t tell

When dealing with people a with low self-image, our natural tendency is to tell them that they are mistaken…that they’re better, brighter, more talented than they realize.  Or we praise what they do in hope that it’ll change their perception.  Neither of these approaches work.  Why?

One reason is that we resist being told what to do, what to think, what’s right and what’s wrong.  This attitude surfaces around age 2 and only gets stronger with age and experience.  You don’t have to trust me on this, you’ve seen it with your kids. 

If you’re truly honest with yourself, you know that you resent people telling you what you need to do. Who among us doesn’t resent the fact that someone reminds us that we said wanted to lose weight as we’re sitting there with a big, juicy burger in one hand and fries in the other.  Or when our boss tells us that the work we just did was for naught…that “management” has decided to go a new direction.  Or that we’re expected to work this weekend when our daughter is having a recital and we promised her we’d attend.

None of us likes being told anything.  We prefer to discover it on our own.  For it’s through the process of discovery that it becomes our idea…an idea that we validate with our own prior experiences.  Once we reach a conclusion, we’re more likely to act upon it because it is our idea, fully-validated and actionable.


Let’s revisit the situation of the teacher whose student had an extremely low self-image.  She indicated that she had tried asking him questions, but that his responses were:

  • I’m not very good at this
  • I suck at this
  • I know that I’m not very bright
  • I know that I could do better

None of these responses are helpful…they lack specificity. The responses are so vague that we don’t have a clue how we can help this young person.

For our kids

As parents, educators or friends of the person, we need to drill down with our questioning deep enough to learn what they’re thinking.  In this situation, the teacher needs to ask follow up questions like:

  • What makes you say that you’re not very good at this? 
  • There has to a reason why you feel that way, what is it?

If the student persists in being vague, it’s time to switch gears and ask:

  • Would you like to feel that you’re better than you are now?
  • If so, what would make you feel better?
  • If not, why do you feel that you don’t deserve to feel better about your capabilities?

If this second approach still doesn’t elicit the information you need to help, say “Let’s compare notes, how do you…”

  • List each of the criteria that you use in grading a student’s work…emphasize the fact that you use the same criteria for all students.
  • For each criterion, ask “How would you rate yourself on this criterion?”  Then share what you saw in their work without telling them how you arrived at the grade.
  • Then ask the student to rate themselves again.
  • Do this with each criterion.
  • Then ask the student to rate their overall performance again.

As you go through this process, you’ll gain the specificity you need to help your kids discover, on their own, that they are judging themselves too harshly. If you were to tell them this, they’d dismiss it immediately.  But if they discover it on their own, they’ll begin to look at themselves and what they do more positively. In the process their confidence will grow.

Follow dfurtwengler:

Latest posts from

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *