A Question of Confidence
It’s a truth universally acknowledged that confidence can be a big factor in achieving success. Confidence is also a trait that most parents work hard to instil in their children. Indeed, as an educational consultant, I frequently hear that the student in question needs a ‘confidence-boost’ in a subject they find tricky, or wants to ‘recover confidence’ after a disappointing result or a stressful term.
But what exactly is this confidence? My dictionary tells me it’s ‘the feeling of belief that someone can rely on someone or something,’ or ‘a feeling of self-assurance arising from an appreciation of one’s own abilities or qualities.’
Sounds good, right? Yet reports of an increasing prevalence of anxiety, stress and depression among children as young as eight indicate that many kids are not feeling confident at school - not a bit. The NSPCC, Childline and the National Union of Teachers have all suggested that this is likely due to the proliferation of testing and the growing burden of homework on youngsters. So how do we get the balance right? How do we encourage children to fulfil their potential and achieve their ambitions, without knocking their confidence, piling on the pressure, or provoking undue worry?
I have always firmly believed that a private tutor should never increase stress by criticising, chastising or pushing. If anything, the tutor should feel like an ally for the child - a secret weapon, perhaps, who can talk them through any struggles and show them how to keep calm and centred, whatever assignment is thrown at them. Here are a few ideas for parents and tutors alike, to make sure confidence blooms in their young learners:
Start with the positives
I feel strongly about this one. I know there is nothing worse than producing a piece of work - be it an essay, a spreadsheet or a home-cooked meal - only to be instantly bombarded with criticisms. So much better to start with the positives, and say them in the form of proper compliments (“I love that simile!” or “This answer is spot on!”). It’s a good idea for teachers to write their compliments in red pen for all to see, as well as their corrections - these provide an incentive for the pupil to try harder and harder. If you’re a tutor, do also let the parents know when their child has done something really well. A generous helping of parental pride is a great reward for good work, and sometimes Mums and Dads need encouragement too.
Let the student identify his or her own mistakes
An array of red-ink crosses is always a confidence killer, especially at the start of a lesson. Of course, mistakes do need to be identified. It’s useful to start by asking the child if he or she can spot their own error, or puzzle out why they only got three marks out of five. Very often, they can do it right away. Perhaps they made the mistake in the first place because they didn’t trust their instincts - or perhaps they were rushing, or misread the task. Whatever the cause of the slip, you can say “See, you can do it,” or even, “Look how many marks you’ve gained by just checking your work!” Empower the pupil by demonstrating that they already have most of the skills they need.
Don’t move too fast
Children often learn certain skills fairly slowly. It’s tough for us grown ups to-understand; by the time you reach your 20s you’re pretty well-versed in absorbing and applying instructions instantaneously, so if you’re asked to write a five-point-plan, that’s precisely what you’ll do. But kids are new to all this. Patient repetition - going over the same topic numerous times, without showing any flashes of boredom or frustration - is the best way to let techniques sink in. Don’t be tempted to set a child work that’s two years ahead of their level! It will only make you panic if you sit your eight year old down with an 11+ paper. You might be feeling the urge to plan ahead, but two years is an awfully long time for the under-10s. Their brains and ideas will change and develop very rapidly, so don’t flap about something that’s way off in the future. Focus on what they’re learning now, and help them to perfect it. Get the foundations strong, and the rest will follow.
Strategies, not problems
I recently heard a friend lament the clichéd ‘business-speak’ mantra of referring to problems as ‘challenges’ or even ‘opportunities’. But it’s true, ‘problem’ is a horrible word. It’s so easy to put the kibosh on a potentially great idea with the phrase, ‘the problem is…’. A problem sounds troubling, it sounds irreparable. And the word 'problem' is most negative of all when it’s non-specific - a ‘problem with Maths’ or a ‘problem focusing’ sounds like some sort of disorder to be concealed and worried about. Children will lose confidence if they hear, or overhear, such language used in relation to them. I prefer to come up with strategies whenever a trouble-spot or uncertainty is identified. For example, if a child consistently forgets particular aspects of creative writing, you could give them a tick-list to guide them through their tasks. If they can’t maintain focus, create a timetable of 20 minutes on, 20 minutes off, and let them build their concentration gradually. If times tables are the issue, find a game which makes them fun, and play it regularly.
These are just a few ideas - I’d like to get a counsellor to contribute more thoughts about what to do when lack of self-esteem becomes a real sticking-point. But I certainly believe in the prime importance of confidence for all children. Recognising that issues like apparent ‘laziness’ or ‘bad attitude’ often stem from nerves or anxiety is an important first step. If a child is throwing tantrums, they might be finding the pressure at school exhausting. They might be feeling so panicked by SATS/11+/13+ or GCSEs that they think: ‘I know! I’ll stop trying, then I won’t care so much if I get low marks.’ Berating a student who’s feeling that way won’t help. Give them work that’s within their reach; help them with strategies for difficult tasks; praise them like crazy when they make steps forward. Confidence can be a game-changer.