The world feels like it’s spinning out of control. Although we all feel this way, our kids are likely experiencing this moment with more fear and anxiety than we are. Now more than ever, it is important for kids to feel empowered. Kids need to feel that they have control over something in their lives. They need to feel a sense of purpose and meaning. And, above all, kids need to feel competent.
All of this brings us to the notion of self-esteem. Most of us are quite familiar with this concept and associate self-esteem with resilience and confidence. However, what we aren’t so familiar with is actually how to ensure that our children have it. How do we ensure that our kids are self-assured, self-reliant, fearless, confident and determined?
The dominant belief, which has been promulgated by modern psychology, is that these are personality traits that some people are just born with. Otherwise, these traits must be fostered through unconditional love, support and encouragement. Unfortunately, despite the best efforts of the most loving and supportive parents and teachers, many children fail to achieve high self-esteem. It is these children who are the most vulnerable during times of uncertainty, such as the one we are all facing now.
As a scientist-educator who has been accelerating academic and cognitive skills with children for more than 20 years, I can tell you that self-esteem is actually a by-product of effective instruction. When kids receive the kind of instruction that enables them to actually master essential skills, they experience a total transformation – not only in their academic abilities but in how they view themselves. They become confident, perseverant and willing to tackle more difficult challenges. I have experienced this kind of transformation with thousands of learners throughout my career.
Unfortunately, the way schools are designed does not lead to mastery of essential skills. More than 60% of American students graduate below proficiency, and more than 75% of entering college freshman require remedial courses in reading, math and writing. Less than 10% of American students achieve the advanced level in any academic subject. Schools are not producing academic competency with a majority of students.
As a result, most students actually do not feel confident in their abilities – not because of the way they were born but because of the ineffectiveness of the instruction they receive. Students are constantly walking on eggshells wondering if they are going to be able to execute whatever is required of them during the day. Constantly worrying whether you may or may not be able to perform well doesn’t lead to confidence – it leads to anxiety and self-doubt.
Effective instruction requires that children be given the time to practice essential skills to fluency – a measure of mastery that combines accuracy and speed. Being fluent is synonymous with being an expert. Fluent performers can engage in the rapid, accurate, effortless and automatic performance of skills whenever and wherever they need to. In other words, fluent performers know that they are masterful and never doubt their ability to execute a skill when required to do so.
Unfortunately, effective practice isn’t built into the school day. To the contrary, school involves exposing kids to lots of content, testing that content, and moving on to a bunch of new content regardless of how a student performs. Mastery doesn’t work this way. Competitive athletes, musicians or chess players didn’t become masterful at their craft via exposure to information about it. They became masterful through lots and lots of practice. And, more important, effective practice of the essential component skills that make up the complex repertoire.
Now is a crucial time to help your child truly master something. Whether it be decoding words, computing math facts or dribbling a basketball, during this time of uncertainty, help your child feel certain about something – that they are competent. Help them pick a skill that they want to get really, really good at. Start with something small and help them set goals to practice it multiple times throughout the day. Use a timer and figure out how to count the correct execution of the skill they are practicing during timed periods. For example, if they want to master computing math facts, time how many facts they can complete in 1-min. Then, set a personal best goal with them to beat that score the next time. See how much faster they can get each time – you will be surprised at how rapidly kids can perform skills when they have the opportunity to practice to fluency.
Competence isn’t inborn – it’s trained. Self-esteem isn’t inborn either. Self-esteem is a byproduct of becoming competent. The only way to become truly competent is through repeated, reinforced practice of skills to fluency. Schools have been slow to evolve and haven’t changed their practices in relation to what science has discovered about human learning. But you don’t have to wait for schools to evolve to help your children become competent. Get them practicing. Get them mastering skills. Help them feel confident and empowered in themselves so that they can persevere amidst the chaos going on in the world around them.