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How to Build Confidence into the Self-Conscious Student

Jordan Catapano


Students often look to their teachers not just as sources of knowledge, but as sources of confidence. A teacher’s compliment can skyrocket a sinking heart, and a scowl can keep a student awake at night wondering if they can cut it or not.

What we want to recognize as educators is that we can potentially have an enormous impact on how students feel about themselves. We don’t want to do the disservice of giving them an over-inflated, entitled vision of who they are, but we do want to determine how to build confidence into them. While we can input a great deal of knowledge into a student’s head, it’s how we impact their heart that may just make the biggest difference.

Here’s how to build confidence into the self-conscious student. Try these methods out, and add your own tried-and-true ideas to our comments below!

1. Take Special Notice of Students. At a certain point in the year, we know our students well enough to recognize when something is different about them. It’s important to show students we recognize these differences. The differences might be superficial – like a new haircut or new shoes – and these alone are worthy enough to compliment. But sometimes a student will walk in with a tear in their eye, a surprisingly yawning demeanor, or an extra bounce in her step. When you notice these emotional cues, it’s important that you respond appropriately as well.

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When students recognize that we acknowledge them as people – not merely students – they feel like they have had some special attention bestowed upon them. Just like children need individualized love and care from their parent, another adult providing individualized positive attention helps students feel much more comfortable and confident.

2. Call Home for a Good Reason. Most of the time teachers call home for bad reasons. When I make phone calls to parents, they often sigh and say “What did he/she do now?” and assume the worst. But we don’t have to call solely for bad reasons. We can also call parents and tell them something positive and extraordinary about their children. This will go beyond merely a classroom compliment; students parents’ will now be part of the praise team of their child’s work, and your student knows that you are proud enough of them to brag to other people. This will make students – especially ones who do not consistently demonstrate proficient academic performance – more confident in their abilities and more likely to try harder moving forward.

3. Use Their Work as a Model. Teachers often give back individualized feedback on students’ assignments. However, if you want to breathe confidence into some of your students, find aspects of their work that you want to use as a model for the class. When a student sees all or even some of their product displayed or discussed in front of the class, it gives them the confidence to feel like they have done something extraordinary, and they are more likely to believe in themselves when working on the next task. (Of course, make sure that you clear it with a student before displaying their work to others).

4. Give Them Encouraging Words. The easiest thing to do for a student is simply to give him encouraging words. Notice something about their effort, performance, or behavior, and compliment them on it. Make it specific – when you say something they feel to be true, it confirms their confidence and helps them focus on that strength even more knowing that it has been validated by a trusted, knowledgeable adult.

Along with this comes the reverse: Avoid judging or disapproving. We can give honest feedback to students, but need to display how we “always believe” in their ability to succeed. The moment we stop believing in a student, they stop believing in themselves.

5. Allow Them to Make Their Work Public. Traditionally, students give their work to the teacher, and the teacher gives it back to the students. And that’s all who sees the work. While this is still a powerful way for students to practice and gain constructive feedback, it can be advantageous to also allow students opportunities to share their work with others.

Students can share work with classmates through discussions or presentations. They can even have their work hanging in the classroom, hallways or the cafeteria. Or try setting up a collaboration with the local library or park district for students to display or present their efforts. Plus, with digital opportunities available, having student products posted on blogs, YouTube, and social media can show students that their ideas are worth the attention of the world.

Building confidence into students can go even further than simply building knowledge into them. Take time to identify what students need, how you can build a relationship with them beyond course content, and use your words and position to make students see how powerful and special they truly are.

How do you help students feel more confident in themselves? Tell us about your ideas and experiences in the comments below!

Jordan Catapano is an English teacher at Conant High School in a Chicago suburb. In addition to being National Board Certificated, he also has worked with the Illinois Association of Teachers of English and currently serves as a school board member for a private school. You can follow him on Twitter at @BuffEnglish, or visit his website

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