Appropriate Practices

Optimum Self-Esteem

The research of Cassidy (1988) suggests that the foundation of self-esteem, whether high or low, is laid very early in the context of interactions with primary caregivers. It continues to be influenced throughout development in the context of relationships with significant adults and peers within a particular culture. The criteria against which estimations of the self are made are learned early within the family and modified in the course of participation in institutions like schools and the larger society.

In the halls of an elementary school, a large banner was displayed that read, "There's no such thing as too much self- esteem!" Regardless of the fact that the intended recipient of the message was not clear, the message is misleading, if not incorrect. Given the prevalence of messages such as this, it is useful to keep in mind the general principle that, even though something (whether a characteristic, an experience, or an object) is generally good for us or desirable, it is not necessarily true that the more of it we have, the better it is for us. Rather, the value of a generally beneficial characteristic may be best realized when it is present at an optimum rather than a minimum or maximum level. Thus a more appropriate suggestion would seem to be that no one needs maximum self-esteem, if indeed such a thing is possible: it would limit one's ability to read feedback accurately. Rather, it would seem wiser for parents and teachers to help children achieve optimum self-esteem. Given that some ups and downs in behavior, competence, and feedback are bound to occur, self-esteem should fluctuate within a narrow and optimum range.

Esteem for Children

While there is little doubt that many children arrive at preschool and school doors with less than optimum self-esteem, telling them otherwise is unlikely to have much effect. Feelings cannot be learned from direct instruction. Furthermore, constant messages about how wonderful one is may raise doubts about the credibility of the message and messenger.

Self-esteem is most likely to be fostered when children are esteemed. Esteem is conveyed to them when significant adults and peers treat them respectfully, consult their views and preferences (even if they do not accede to them), and provide opportunities for real decisions and choices about events and things that matter to them. Young children's opinions, views, suggestions, and preferences about relevant activities and events should be respectfully solicited and considered seriously.

For example, a kindergarten teacher watching her pupils build a model school bus in her classroom had noted that their efforts were hampered when more than about six children were working on it at the same time. She shared her observations with the children and suggested that they try to work out a schedule so that no more than four or five of them at a time were working on the project. The children accepted her challenge eagerly and developed a schedule that was not very effective. They soon realized this and then sought her advice and fashioned a more workable one, to their great satisfaction. To be sure, on such occasions some children will come up with wild or silly notions, and their peers may quickly tell them so. However, in the course of discussion, teachers can gain insight into how children understand the matters at hand and can make sound decisions about which children need help and what kind of help would be most appropriate. Unless adults treat children as sensible, their dispositions to behave sensibly cannot be strengthened.

Similarly, a first grade teacher reported that, during a daily creative writing time in her class, one boy was unable to generate more than half a sentence. She acknowledged his "writer's block" appreciatively and suggested to him that he return to the task later in the day when he might have more ideas. At the end of the afternoon, his ideas flowed into two-and-a-half pages about which he expressed real satisfaction. Adults are likely to have difficulty producing creative stories according to a time schedule. It is therefore surprising that children who have yet to attain real fluency are often expected to produce creative writing during fixed time periods!

Self-esteem is unlikely to be fostered by easy success on a series of trivial tasks. Young children are more likely to benefit from real challenge and hard work than from frivolous one-shot activities. In a report on the work of her first grade children's weather project, a teacher complained that it took four children three days to create a working anemometer (a horizontal device for measuring windspeed). Their first few attempts were flawed by their use of so much masking tape to attach the four vanes to the center that a gale force wind was needed to make such a heavy instrument revolve. The children refused to give up their attempt even though their persistence interrupted the teacher's schedule of work. Their eventual success was a source of real satisfaction to them, to say nothing of the learning it provided. The device was much appreciated by their classmates, and ultimately by the teacher as well.

This example illustrates not only the benefits of hard work to children's self-esteem, but also the benefits of mutual cooperation. Educational practices which foster mutual cooperation are likely, therefore, to also foster self-esteem. Such a practice is mixed-age grouping, in which the teaching and other kinds of assistance older children can give younger classmates provide opportunities for children to see clearly their real contributions to others (Katz, Evangelou, & Hartman, 1990). Most of the tasks offered to our young children in early childhood classes provide for individual effort and achievement. However, educational practices such as mixed-age grouping, which encourage mutual support and cooperation, recognize that interpersonal processes that foster healthy self-esteem require that the amount of individual work be balanced with ample opportunity for the kind of group work in which each child has a chance to make an individual contribution to the total group effort through cooperative work.

Praise and Appreciation

Early childhood practitioners are rightfully assiduous about encouraging children by offering frequent positive feedback in the form of praise for their efforts. However, the distinction between praise and flattery is often blurred. Gushing over a child's finger painting may be accepted by the child with pleasure, but it is difficult to know when praise becomes so frequent that it begins to lose its value and to be dismissed by children as empty teacher talk. If children are accustomed to frequent praise, its inevitable occasional absence may be experienced by some children as a rebuke, even though the latter is not intended. It is also difficult for adults to maintain a constant flow of meaningful praise. Furthermore, if a child's sense of self-worth can be raised by simple flattery from one person, it probably can be just as easily deflated by the absence of flattery or criticism from another.

A large body of evidence indicates that children benefit from positive feedback. However, praise and rewards are not the only types of positive feedback. Another kind is appreciation, by which is meant positive feedback related explicitly and directly to the content of the child's interest and effort. A teacher might, for example, bring a new reference book to class in response to a question raised by a child, or share with the children the ideas generated from her reflections on the problems they had raised concerning procedures to try in a project under way. In this way, the teacher treats the children's questions and concerns with re-spect, deepening interest in the issues raised and providing positive feedback without deflecting the children from the content at issue.

The important point here is that the teacher shows in a positive way that she appreciates their concerns without taking their minds off the subjects at hand or directing their attention inward. When children see that their concerns and interests are followed up seriously and respectfully, they are more likely to raise their concerns in the next discussion and take their own ideas seriously. In this way, teachers can strengthen children's dispositions to wonder, reflect, raise questions, and generate alternative solutions to practical and intellectual problems. If rewards and trophies are to be effective, the aspirer has to keep at least one eye on them much of the time, thus becoming less able to be absorbed completely and wholeheartedly in the topic, problem, or task itself. Certificates, stars, stickers, and trophies also provide children with positive feedback, but their salience is likely to deflect the children's and the teacher's attention from the content of the work at hand.

In their eagerness to reinforce cooperative behavior, teachers often praise young children's efforts by saying such things as "I was really glad when you used your words to get your turn," or "It made me happy to see you share your wagon with Robin." Such strategies may be useful when first introducing children to using verbal strategies for conflict resolution. But like all other strategies, they can be overdone, especially as children reach the preschool years. At issue here is the hypothesis that frequent praise of such behavior may be taken by children to mean that the praised behavior is not expected, as though the unspoken end of those kinds of elliptical sentences is "...because I never expected you to." It may be that children sense our unspoken expectations of them and, indeed, frequently live up to them. Furthermore, such teacher responses may imply that the rationale for the desirable behavior is merely to please the teachers.

It seems more appropriate for teachers to exercise a quiet and calm authority by stating clearly and respectfully what behavior is expected as occasions arise. When children squabble about toys and equipment, the teacher can calmly and firmly suggest phrases to use if they have not yet acquired them, or remind them in a low-key authoritative manner to use appropriate verbal approaches they already know. Because young children are in the early stages of acquiring interactive and conflict resolution skills, teachers may have to use this strategy patiently for several months.

Often well-meaning teachers, in addressing inattentive young children, will encourage them to "put on your listening ears" or "put on your thinking caps" or "zip your lips." One teacher, in urging a resistant child to assist in cleaning up the housekeeping corner, was heard to say, "Put the puppets in their bed. It will help them. They like to be in their bed." More to the point would have been a simple suggestion to put the items where they belong. Perhaps many children see these common teacher behaviors as fun or cute, or perhaps as talking down to them. But it is difficult to imagine that such word games can create an intellectually vital ethos in the classroom. It is also difficult to imagine that frequent exposure to such childish and phony talk can engender real respect for teachers. Furthermore, such teacher talk is dishonest. How can children who are spoken to in these ways perceive their teachers as models of thoughtful and intellectually alert adults? On the other hand, when parents and teachers address children as young people with lively intellects, and appeal to their good sense, clearly assuming that they have it, children are more likely to be intellectually engaged and to respond sensibly.

When teachers in early childhood classrooms have been asked to list those adjectives which they believed their pupils would use to describe them, the adjective lists frequently relate to their appearance, clothes, voice quality, kindness, firmness, and other nonintellectual characteristics. These lists produced by large numbers of early childhood teachers have rarely included any intellectual qualities such as "she's smart," "knows a lot," "has good ideas." Several teachers have asked their pupils to describe them and have become aware of the lack of reference to the teachers' wisdom and knowledge! When teachers make their own intellectual attributes evident to their pupils, the children are more likely to benefit from the teacher's appreciation and praise of their efforts. The positive feedback they receive is more likely to be valued by children when they can perceive the person who offers it as someone they can look up to and respect.

Children's Own Criteria of Competence

The practice of giving positive feedback to young children in the form of gold stars, smiling faces, and decorative stickers is unlikely to make an enduring contribution to the development of self-esteem, especially if such feedback is very frequent. Rather, children can be helped to develop and apply their own evaluation criteria.

For example, rather than have children take their work home every day, they can be encouraged to collect it in a special folder or portfolio for a week or more. Then at some point the teacher can encourage children to select an item they wish to take home and discuss with them some criteria they might use for selection. The emphasis should not be on whether they like a piece of work, or whether it is good versus bad. Instead, the children can be encouraged to think about whether a piece of work includes all they want it to, or whether they think it is clear or accurate enough, or whether it shows progress compared with the last item they took home, and so forth. At first, parents might be disappointed when the flow of paintings, collages, and worksheets is interrupted. But teachers can help parents to engage in fruitful discussion with their children about the criteria of selection used, thus encouraging the children to take their own evaluations of their work seriously.

Similarly, when children are engaged in project work with others, they can evaluate the extent to which they have answered the questions they began with and assess the work accomplished on criteria developed with their teacher concerning the accuracy, completeness, and interest value of their final products (see Katz & Chard, 1989). The children can also be encouraged to discuss what they might do the next time they undertake an investigation, thus strengthening the disposition to vary their strategies and use their own experience as a source of data from which to improve their next undertakings. Applying such criteria to their own efforts also helps children to engage their minds in their work, and in their growing understandings and competence, rather than to draw attention to themselves or to the image they project to others.

Coping with Reverses

When children are engaged in challenging and significant activities and interactions, they are bound to experience some failures, reverses, and rebuffs. Parents and teachers have an important role to play not in avoiding such events, but in helping children cope constructively when they fail to get what they want, whether a turn with a toy or success at a task. In such incidents the teacher can say something like "I know you're disappointed, but there's tomorrow, and you can try again." As long as the teacher accepts the child's feelings and responds respectfully, the child is not likely to be harmed by the incident and is more likely to learn from it. Children are more likely to be able to cope with rebuffs, disappointments, and failures when adults acknowledge and accept their feelings of discouragement and at the same time indicate that they can try again another time.

Another approach is to teach children to use what they have learned from their own previous experience as a source of encouragement. A teacher might, for example, help a child recall an earlier experience when he or she struggled with a task or situation and eventually mastered it.

Worthwhile Activities

Healthy self-esteem is more likely to be developed when children are engaged in activities for which they can make real decisions and contributions than in activities that are frivolous and cute. The danger also exists that some activities which might be worthwhile can also become frivolous if carried to an extreme. For example, in many early childhood classrooms, time and effort is given to activities related to holidays. While festive occasions alleviate the routine of daily life and can be opportunities to teach children about other cultures and about their own history, if such festivals are celebrated excessively the learning opportunity becomes lost in triviality and frivolity.

Early childhood educators have traditionally emphasized the fact that play is children's natural way of learning (Isenberg & Quisenberry, 1988). Indeed, a large body of research and years of practical experience attest to the powerful role of play in all facets of important learning in the early years.

Besides play, however, it is just as natural for young children to learn through investigation. Young children are born natural scientists and social scientists. Like anthropologists, they devote enormous amounts of time and energy to investigating and making sense of the environments into which they are born and in which they are raised. Teachers can capitalize on these in-born dispositions during the preschool and early school years by engaging children in investigations through project work, investiga-tions that are in-depth studies of real topics, environments, events, and objects worthy of children's attention and understanding (see Katz & Chard, 1989; Shores, 1992; Chaille & Britain, 1991).

In the course of such investigations, children negotiate with their teachers to determine the questions to be answered, the studies to be undertaken, and ways of representing their findings in media such as paintings, drawings, and dramatic play. Project work provides children with ample opportunity for real discussion, decision making, choices, cooperation, initiative, joint effort, negotiation, compromise, and evaluation of the outcomes of their own efforts. In this way, children's self-esteem can be based on their contribution to the work of the group, and to the quality of the group's effort and its results.


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