Ways to Encourage Confidence in the Classroom from Home

Teacher with children in kindergarten

Build a broad base of knowledge – When the teacher talks about a new topic in class, it’s helpful if your child has a fund of related knowledge. There are several ways to build this.

  • Focus on building your child’s vocabulary – A child’s vocabulary scores are often reflective of their overall cognitive scores. A rich vocabulary supports confidence in the classroom and reading comprehension.
  • Lots of outings – Everywhere you take your child, you are exposing them to new vocabulary and information. While museums, art galleries and nature walks are great, the beach, pumpkin patches and sports outings also count. Be sure you are answering questions and talking to your child about all they are seeing and doing at each.
  • Read aloud everyday – Aside from being cited as the single most important factor in building successful readers, reading aloud builds a child’s vocabulary and broadens their base of knowledge.

Play school – You might play school at home and encourage your child to be the teacher. During this game they can teach you about any topics they are learning in school.

Playdates with classmates – The more they know and are comfortable with classmates, the more likely they are to be comfortable speaking in front of them. It can be helpful to arrange playdates with a wide range of children from their classes.

Challenges in play – If your child is building a tower, you might challenge them to build it taller or think of two new ways to build the base. When children have a lot of practice at taking on challenges in play, they are more likely to do the same in the classroom. When the teacher says, “who can do this problem on the board?” they are a little more likely to raise their hand and try.

Encourage risk taking in moderation – Children have to take risks to learn to ride a bike. It can be a risk to stand up in front of the class and speak. Encouraging a healthy level of risk taking in play and in life can help them feel confident to participate in class. This might be jumping off something at the park that’s a little higher than the last time or holding just one hand not two for balance.

Ask about school – It can be helpful to shake up the questions you ask after school. If everyday you ask, “how was your day?” Kids tend to give the easy answer, “fine.” There are hundreds of other questions you could ask. Here are a few related to participation and confidence:

  • “Was there anything really hard to do today?” and, “how did you figure it out?”
  • “What did you learn about in science class today?” and, “did you already know anything about that or was it all new?”
  • “Did you have to work in groups today?” and, “how did it go?”
  • “Did you raise your hand and answer any questions today?”

School skills in real life – If your second grader is learning how to count money, carry cash and let them be your banker. Let them count the money to and from cashiers. For a seventh grader learning to calculate percentages, have them figure out the tip at restaurants.

Teach flexible thinking – Flexible thinking includes teaching kids to brainstorm ideas or solutions and think about the range of related outcomes. This might be encouraging children to come up with a plan B when their first plan doesn’t work. You might practice plan A vs. plan B for small issues often. You can also teach flexible thinking by playing games like Gobblet, Connect Four and Labrynith which require players to make new strategies often.

Encourage persistence – When a child is stuck, you might give a bit of empathy and ask them questions or give them hints to help them move forward. You might help them break the task down into smaller pieces. I’d also highlight the benefits of practice and that the more they try, the more likely they are to solve and the easier it may seem the next time.

Focus praise on effort, process and progress more than outcomes – When a child gets a good grade, it can be helpful to focus your language on how much they studied and how hard they worked. When they win a race, focus on how often they practiced and how much they’ve improved their time.

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Giving Challenges Builds Self Esteem

Portrait of a beautiful liitle girl close-up

A foundation piece of self-esteem is a child’s growing sense of skills and abilities. Are they being challenged? Are they learning new things?

An easy way to build this in is giving challenges in play. If they are building with blocks, challenge them to build it taller. If they are climbing, challenge them to do it in a new way. If they are playing with play-doh, challenge them to make some new creation. As they rise to meet the challenge in play, they are learning to take on challenges in life.

Another way to provide this is to enroll them in classes that provide new levels of challenges as they progress. This would include sports, musical instruments, cooking classes and foreign languages.

For self esteem, it can be helpful to focus most on their individual progress and their skills rather than the competition.

Once they are school age, a version of this would be to have them teach you one new thing they learned in school each week. This is a challenge to remember something and be able to explain it in detail to you. For challenges to be beneficial in this way overtime, they don’t have to be big. These can be small challenges given regularly.

Helping Kids Speak Up for Themselves

This post is for parents whose children lack an assertive voice. When Alicen was a toddler, if someone took a toy or did something she didn’t like, she would just stand there or cry. When she was a preschooler, she would sadly walk away or come bury her face against my leg. She didn’t have an assertive voice. She didn’t readily stand up for herself.

There is a series of steps to teaching children an assertive voice. Again, this is not a quick fix. We started this process with Alicen six years ago, and we continue to work on it in small ways. Clearly she has made great progress, but we are still addressing the issues. If you have a child who lacks assertive voice, you’ll have to make a decision about which steps are necessary depending on age and comfort level.

The first thing I ask any child, whether they are at the first step or the last, whether they are two or seven years old, is, “did you like that?” It gets kids turned around. They stop thinking, “oh, poor me. I am so sad,” and they start thinking, “no. I didn’t like that.” They start to think about standing up for themselves.

For the remainder of this example, let’s assume another child took a toy your child was playing with. After you ask, “did you like that?” the entry step is to then go with the child and do the talking for them. Take their hand, walk with them to the other child and say calmly, “they weren’t done with that. they’d like to finish their turn.” You are modeling the language that you hope the child will some day take as their own. Eventually, you want them to say, “I wasn’t done with that. I’d like to finish my turn.”

Once they are comfortable with that, you can move to the next step. After asking whether they liked that, go with them and provide an example of what to say on the way. You might take your child’s hand and say, “when we get there, say, ‘I’m not done,’ or, ‘I want that back.’” Hopefully, you arrive at the other child, and your child will try out the language you suggested. This step may take several attempts. It took many exchanges before Alicen actually spoke up for herself. For quite a while, I would give examples, we would arrive at the other child, and Alicen would just look up at me blankly. If this happens, continue to model the language.

Once they are comfortable speaking up when you provide examples, think about stepping out a bit more. First, you can give examples, and then, stay back while they go over alone. After you ask if they liked that, you can say, “ok, I’m going to stay here; when you go over, you can say, ‘I want to finish my turn.’” Or, you can go with them and prompt them to come up with the language on their own. You can say, “I’ll go with you. What are you going to say to them?”

Whichever path you take, the next step is to have them come up with the language and go over on their own. This is the last step, and this is where Alicen continues to be today. She’ll run up to me at the playground and say, “she took that from me!” I’ll ask, “did you like that?” She’ll reply, “no, I didn’t!” I’ll ask, “what are you going to say?” She’ll reply, “I’m going to tell her that I want to finish my turn.” I’ll say, “okay, go try that,” and off she’ll go. I’m not really doing much. She is just rebounding off me. I am there providing support. I assume that when she is away from me, she is handling much of this on her own.

What if your child uses their assertive voice, and it doesn’t work? You coach them, and they bravely walk over and say, “I wasn’t done with that. I’d like it back please.” The other child rolls their eyes and says, “so what? I’m playing with it now.” As a parent you have choices. I think any of them are fine, just think about it ahead of time. Be prepared.  You might mention it to their parents and hope for support. You might go over and reiterate for your child. Another child might be more willing to listen to you than to your child. You might let your child know that they did the right thing. They used the right language, but sometimes things don’t work out as we plan. This is true in life. As adults, we might ask another in a restaurant, “could you light that in a few minutes? We’re about to leave.” The other patron rolls their eyes and say, “So what? I’m smoking it now.” Sometimes things don’t work out as we plan.

Then, I think of Claire and other children who fall at the opposite end of the spectrum.  Even as a toddler, she told people what she thought when she thought it. I have seen other children who speak out a bit too loudly when they are assertive. As long as no one is getting hurt, I want children to keep their assertive voices. Rather than disciplining a child for being too loud at this, parents should coach and model other ways for children to better express themselves.

Ask Them How They Want to Be Helped

Whether your four-year-old is working on a hard puzzle, or your fourth grader is struggling through math homework, when they ask for your help, start by asking them how they would like to be helped. If you swoop in and give them your brand of helping, you may be doing too much, which discourages independent problem solving or frustrating the system.

I learned this the hard way. When my older daughter was learning to read, she asked me to please just give her the word when she got stuck. I explained that, if I just gave her the word, she wouldn’t learn how to best sound out words on her own. Her valid point back was that when she was reading and had to stop to sound out words, she would lose the storyline and be confused going forward. She also said she was getting plenty of practice sounding out new words at school, thank you very much. So, I started just giving her the words when she was stuck. This lasted a few months as she was gaining skills at school and then it tapered off.

When my younger daughter was learning to read, and she would get stuck on a word, I just gave it to her. We went on like this for the first several months. One day after I gave her a word, she stopped and said, “please stop doing that! If you keep giving me the words when I am stuck, I will never learn how to read them myself.” She was right, I was slowing her progress and should have asked her how she wanted to be helped.

Soon after they are old enough to ask for help, they are likely old enough to explain how they would like to be helped.

Nurturing Independence

Dear Dr. Rene,

My, just turned three years old, son knows his alphabet, colors, shapes and dinosaurs. He is beginning to spell and can manage 48 piece puzzles by himself. He is very interested in learning and listens intently and soaks information up like a sponge when interested. My concerns are when he has to do things for himself such as turning a doorknob, getting dressed or playing independently. In these situations, he always fights it. He resists and exaggerates his attempts. Sometimes he doesn’t even try, he will just lay down and say he is “resting” until I am able to help him. I try to give him more play time alone, but he has a hard time occupying himself. How do I encourage his independence in situations he isn’t interested in?

Sincerely,

Cynthia

Dear Cynthia,

There really are two issues here. The first is learning to play independently. The second is learning to do for yourself and being able to move forward taking on greater responsibilities rather than continuing to rely on others to do so for him.

To build independent play skills there needs to be adequate downtime. Downtime is truely unstructured, go play time. This may be indoors or out, alone or with you and any siblings available. The idea, though, of downtime is you are not organizing for the child, you are not providing entertainment. The child is left time to entertain themselves. They can also be unproductive if they choose. Real downtime means they can watch the clouds or play with dripping water at a sink if that’s what occupies them. To get good at this, most children just need more practice. This means, stop entertaining them. A little boredom here is a good thing as it prompts play.

To encourage independent play, you might also give them things to do that are like or nearby what you are doing. Meaning if you are cooking, give them pots, pans and spoons with a bit of water. If you are on the computer, give them a leap-pad on the corner of the desk, so they can do their work beside you. You might also give them things you start together such as a big puzzle. Sit together for the first few pieces, and then make trips away.

Encouraging a child to take ownership and increasing responsibility for life tasks is a harder thing. I think the first thing to do is focus on teaching them to do for themselves. If they struggle with parts of getting dressed, which may sink the entire effort, sit and practice that piece. Give them ample practice when you are there to help. Once you know they are capable, move back and give them space to work through. This may mean you are out of the room to avoid doing for them. Think of each challenge as opportunity for them to master the task and to at least learn from the experience.

When they are frustrated, give hints and suggestions to get them back on track. Avoid doing for them. Be sure to give lots of empathy for the frustration and encouragment for the task. Focus your praise on their effort and process rather than the outcome. Notice the hard work and the additional attempts, comment on the time and energy required to get it right. When available, give them opportunity for decision making. Children are much more likely to buy into doing if they are in charge of the process.

Sincerely,

Dr. Rene

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