By David Abrams

Susan Mitchell’s pre-K class goes a step beyond the typical story time, recess and snack routine. The students at St. John’s Lutheran School, Orange, CA, also learn how to flex their self-esteem.

Consider this familiar scenario: A student is playing with blocks and admires her work, and then a classmate walks by and knocks the blocks down. Or students are on the playground and one boy pushes another boy. The children at St. John’s are taught to respond with karate – not the physical kind but a symbolic gesture.

The child who is harmed holds out his palm and gives a swift karate chop with his other hand, exclaiming, “I don’t like that!”

“They make this little karate chop, their right hand to their open palm, and just say, ‘Stop!’ They just hit their hand,” Mitchell says. “It’s empowering for them to be able to speak up for themselves. We don’t want children to be passive in conflicts. Rather, we want them to be able to communicate their feelings, and most don’t know how to do that appropriately.”

The method defies conventional wisdom. Some parents think it best for their child to respond physically, by putting their hands on the other child. Yet others support the child telling their teacher so they can intervene. While the chopping exercise works well, Mitchell says, it typically works best in a school environment where children are forced to interact with their peers away from their parents. Educators can do their part to foster self-esteem in their students, but what about when the children are not at school? Where does self-esteem development begin?

Pointing Fingers

Many child-development experts believe a child’s foundation for positive self-esteem starts at home at a very young age, and that self-esteem can be enhanced – not built from ground zero – when a child attends school. Parents and teachers, however, express an alarming disconnect on this issue.

Jack Canfield of Chicken Soup for the Soul  reports that in a survey of  1,000 parents and 1,000 teachers, 72 percent of the parents indicate that educators are responsible for teaching self-esteem, and 78 percent of teachers say the parents are responsible.

The research is clear on this issue. The answer to the question, “Who is responsible for teaching self-esteem to children, parents or teachers?” is “both”, of course.

According to studies conducted by the California Board of Education and other researchers, children already have a well-established sense of self when they enter school, primarily due to family influences. Entering school takes that process to a new level, according to the National Center for Self Esteem. When children enter kindergarten, 89% indicate high levels of self-esteem, but that rate falls to 20% for fifth-graders, 5% for high school graduates and only 2% for college graduates.

Finger pointing by teachers and parents is quite common, whether the issue is obesity, violence or character—the gamut of problems children develop. The data clearly shows that self-esteem must be fostered early and often.

Mitchell believes parents and teachers share equal responsibility. “Parents are teachers at home, we’re teachers at school,” she says. “It’s a cooperative effort. For the success of a child you need both. If a child is not receiving support, validation and unconditional love at home, difficulties arise. The flip side is true, too. If you have a teacher who’s critical or outcome-based, such as ‘you’re unworthy because you colored outside the lines,’ that rejection is a terrible thing for a child to feel.”

Never Too Early

Building self-esteem starts long before a teacher even enters the picture. Experts say parents must start at the moment of birth.

“The first year of life might be the most important, because how we treat our baby impacts how that child first starts to take in his or her sense of value by the way we respond, even the way we look at them,” says Meri Wallace, a licensed clinical social worker in New York City. “If we smile, we become like a mirror of their self-reflection. I’m good. I’m wanted. I’m valued, and I’m valuable. That’s where it all begins.”

Wallace, a blogger for Psychology Today and author of two books including “Birth Order Blues,” offers several pieces of advice for fostering feelings of self-worth in infants: Give the baby plenty of your time and hold her, praise accomplishments as often as possible, and use positive words more than negative words. Other tips from experts include establishing a routine to build comfort and security, encourage and facilitate play, and help your child work through problems without solving them for her.

There is little debate of nature versus nurture when it comes to self-esteem, Wallace says, because she believes that positive reinforcement and love given unconditionally will lead to a stronger child when it’s time to enter nursery school or kindergarten.

In fact, communication is vital to healthy self-esteem in the years between birth and starting school. According to a University of Iowa study, the average two-year-old hears 432 negative statements each day and only 32 positive statements. Of course, sleep-deprivation and stress can lead to parents being negative at time, but the goal is to use positive as much as possible.

“The way we communicate is either laden with self-esteem enhancing words or words that make a child feel bad,” Wallace says. “Simple things like, ‘What did you do that for? What’s the matter with you?’ Parents say these things to kids not because they are bad, but because they’re not stepping into the shoes of the child and hearing the words. When these words come at you, it makes you feel bad.”

She says these deflating words can start early. “A baby might be in the high chair dropping things to the ground over and over,” Wallace says. “The parent can get frustrated and say, ‘I told you not to do that! Why are you doing that?’ Parents have to understand that it’s a natural developmental issue. The child has discovered gravity and is just figuring it out!”

The Hand-over

Once school begins, the parent’s role in building self-esteen now becomes slightly smaller than the teacher’s. There are new challenges for the child: leaving mom and dad for the first time, interacting with other kids, dealing with adversity, measuring up against your peers.

“When a child goes into elementary school, they’re going to be bombarded by a bunch of external factors,” Mitchell says. “Their self-worth and value turns from ‘I’m good at something,’ to what others say or think or feel about them.”

She says if the child doesn’t have a positive self-image when he comes into elementary school, it’s going to be really hard to filter out some of those negative thoughts and words and actions that come their way. “They become trapped in ‘Why try because I’m going to fail anyway?'”

The first step in the new world, whether it is nursery school, pre-K or kindergarten, is dropping your child off on the first day of school. Experts and teachers agree that this can be an emotional experience for both the parent and the child ¾ perhaps more nerve-wracking for the parent. Mitchell says she often calls mothers later in the day to reassure them that their child is doing well.

Mitchell calls the survey results, showing parents think teachers are responsible for teaching self-esteem and teachers thinking just the opposite, “disturbing” because she spends time coaching parents as much as the children.

“I think half of my job is teaching parenting skills,” she asserts. “Parents struggle with how to parent their own children. I think it’s a sad trend in our society. They have good intentions, but they are clueless when it comes to teaching their child to have both authority and respect. They need to have the tools in place so they can really be the parent and teacher.”

Agree to Disagree

Differences of opinion will likely continue between teachers, psychologists, social workers, parents and researchers regarding the perfect way to mold a child.

Wallace does not like the fake karate chop tactic used in Mitchell’s class. She says it allows children to direct their anger inward, which is not what therapists advise. However, she and Mitchell do agree on some basic beliefs: self-esteem is about process more than outcomes; teachers and parents need to work together; children need to learn to express themselves verbally rather than with physical conflicts; and, by the way, stars and stickers are not always the best way to encourage kids.

Mitchell says she used to employ the star system, but quickly witnessed the young children in her class starting to compare themselves, and those who struggled felt badly about themselves when they saw classmates with more stars on the board than they had. She now uses a treasure chest and allows children to pick something from the chest periodically if they do something good. Often, the goals to receive treasures are related to class achievements rather than the individual student.

“There’s a visual in front of the classroom where kids compare themselves,” Mitchell says of the star system. “They know who’s doing what, this is mine, this is yours. ‘Look, I have 12 stickers. You only have two.’ It starts that young, the comparing. ‘I’m better than you. You’re not as good as me,’ blah, blah, blah. Parents were bad at it, too. They would come to the class and look at the chart and say, ‘M-hm-m, looks like you’re not doing what you are supposed to be doing. You don’t have enough stickers on your chart.’ It’s not the best system.”

The common theme throughout the research and classroom experience with children is to think and speak positively, and do it early, and do it often. That goes for teachers and parents, and in fact everyone who wants to help foster empowered and independent children.

We don’t need to shower them with unrealistic impressions that everything they say and do is gold. We just have to care.  ♦

When Homework Works

~ Janice F. Booth

OK, Mom and Dad.  It’s time to talk “homework.”

Let’s see: You’ve got to pick up some groceries. That leak has to be fixed in the bathroom sink. The laundry won’t wait another day…  Oh, and did I mention getting Jane to her soccer practice?

Are you feeling a knot in the pit of your stomach about now? Are you instinctively dreaming up excuses for why at least one of those tasks has to wait?

Well, you’re experiencing the feelings many of our children get every afternoon when they arrive home from school, hopping off the school bus or waving good-by to the car pool gang.  As they toss down jackets and backpacks, Mom or Dad asks, “So, what’s your homework look like?”

Robbie wants to bolt; Jane is on the verge of tears.

Of course, this reaction is not true for all children.  Perhaps you’re among the lucky families whose son can’t wait to get back to that book he’s reading for next week’s book report.  And maybe your daughter reminds you that she has to go right home from school so she can do her daily measurements for her botany project for next month’s science fair.

But for most of us, homework is a task that must be done, even when we’re tired, feeling ill, or sad. That recognition, that we often must meet responsibilities even when we have good reasons not to, may be one of the important “take aways” from homework. Sometimes homework feels useless, busy work with little or no real significance. You’ll just have to empty the dishwasher again tomorrow.  Michelle will just have to do ten math problems again next week. Brian will have to practice his clarinet for 30 minutes again tomorrow. But life’s like that, and we all have to learn to carry on.

If we can acknowledge these feelings of dread or frustration on the part of our children, we can begin to lighten the burden or at least commiserate with them as we ease them into the homework mode.

Perhaps some of the techniques we use to get through our own homework can be adapted for our children? Here are three essential devices many of us, grown-ups, use to meet our responsibilities. These same tools may be taught to our children and applied to their tasks.

  1. Make lists:  Help your child make her own homework list so she can feel she “owns” the tasks ahead.  Most teachers provide lists of the upcoming assignments, an overview of homework.   Megan’s likely to more easily remember the assignments if  she’s copied them down in her own words. And Megan may discover that being able to cross out items as we accomplish them is gratifying for us all.  You might even compare lists and share a joke about trading tasks, “I’ll do your five math problems, Megan, if you’ll balance my checkbook.”
  2. Prioritize: This can be a little tougher for elementary children, but it’s an important way of thinking about the tasks we face.  If you can teach David to think about what needs to be done “first” and why, he might feel more in control of his work.  “What do you think, Davey, should you make that rain meter for your science project now, before it gets dark? It’s supposed to rain tonight. You can read that chapter in your book later.”  Three valuable lessons are being offered here: David sees the logic you’re applying to the process.  He is prioritizing and noting that one thing needs to be done so something else can be accomplished later.  And, you’re subtly reminding him that there is more than one task ahead.
  3. Self-discipline: While your child is learning math and history, how to comprehend what she reads and measure volumes, homework too becomes a learning process, figuring out how to cope with life’s demands. The more we can help our children take charge of their lives in small ways, the better prepared they will be to take charge of the big things in their lives.  If Ryan can choose whether to study at the dining room table with you or at his desk in his room, Ryan feels more in control of his life.  He’s spent the entire day at school being told where to go, where to sit, which book to open and what paper to pass in.  He may enjoy choosing between the camaraderie of working with you, side-by-side. Or, he may have had enough of people today and want to hunker down at his own desk, in his own space, with his iPod playing and his homework list pinned to the cork board over his desk.  Whichever he chooses, you could ask him to check-in with you when he’s got that first assignment done. Maybe there’s a yogurt cup or some carrot sticks waiting.

Whether we’re eight or forty-eight, we have tasks to accomplish and responsibilities to meet.  Our children learn from our examples how to cope and how to function in this complex world.  Making lists, prioritizing and exercising self-control are skills well worth teaching and well worth mastering, no matter what our ages!

OK, now who’s picking up the cleaning and who’s getting the dog to the groomers?


The Mental Health Parity and
Addiction Equity Act
will make a difference.

–       Janice F. Booth

Many of us who are parents and educators experience first-hand how mental illness threatens our children’s self-esteem. According to the Center for Disease Control (CDC), between 13 and 20% of children in the US suffer from mental illness in a given year.

January, 2014, marked a sea change in our nation’s treatment of mental illness.  The Mental Health Parity and Addiction Equity Act was signed in law in 2008.  But it has taken five years for the Obama administration to implement enforcement regulations. Now, insurance companies must provide the same services and expenditures for the treatment of mental illness as they provide for traditional, physical illnesses and injuries.  (Similar federal regulations have been implemented for Medicaid and Medicare since 2008.)

Finding help for an ill child is always stressful. And securing competent, affordable care when that child’s illness is of the mind has been difficult or impossible… until now. But parents need no longer struggle against their insurance companies’ inequitable limitations on services to help children suffering from mental illness.

Autism, attention deficit disorder, clinical depression, anorexia and drug abuse are only some of the mental illnesses that children endure. As with any childhood illness, the parent has the responsibility for seeking help. Finding and engaging the best medical attention is vital, but in the mental health field that search-and-engage process has been far more difficult than finding medical help for a child with asthma or diabetes.

The American Psychiatric Association President, Dr. Paul Summergrad noted in a recent New York Times article that the implementation of the Parity Law regulations will end “the uniquely discriminatory form of prior authorization and utilization review” demanded before emergency care could be provided for patients suffering from mental illness.

Children suffering from mental illness are particularly vulnerable and under-served in our nation’s health-care system.  For these children, approximately seven million based on the 2010 census, self-esteem and self-control are tough attributes to acquire.

Physical and mental disabilities can hinder and even halt a child’s ability to mature.  Healthy children spend their days learning control – control of themselves and of the world in which they find themselves.  Children who are ill find their bodies and minds are beyond their control. Brian Tracy, author and motivational speaker, points out, “We feel good about ourselves to the exact degree we feel in control of our lives.”  Self-esteem and self-control are often beyond the grasp of ill children.

If you suspect that your child or a child you care about is struggling with mental illness get help. In addition to traditional psychiatric and social work services, one resource is the Nation Alliance for Mental Illness.  NAMI is the “largest grassroots, mental health organization dedicated to building better lives for the millions of Americans affected by mental illness.”   NAMI lobbies “for access to services, treatment, supports and research…”  Local chapters and the NAMI web presence are resources that can help you and your child get treatment for mental illness.  ( )

Another resource for families dealing with mental illness is Mental Health America (MHA).  This organization advocates “for the improved care and treatment of persons with mental and substance use conditions…” ( )

Sometimes discovering your “inner awesome” takes some added effort.  The implementation and enforcement of the Mental Health Parity and Addiction Equity Act gives a big assist to children suffering from mental illness and their families.  ♦

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