Confidence and self-esteem: an in-depth look

Confidence and self-esteem may be linked but they are different. Confidence is about having faith in your ability to succeed in a task, while self-esteem is about recognising your own intrinsic worth or value. Susan Wallace explores key attributes that can make so much difference to a student’s performance.

Someone pointed out to me the other day that I tend to talk and write much more about building up learners’ self-esteem than about building their levels of confidence.

This got me thinking about whether there’s a distinction to be made between the two and, if so, how an understanding of this might be useful to our practice as teachers. What struck me first of all, on reflection, was how that word esteem has so firmly established itself in the vocabulary of those of us working in and for the post-16 sector. This is perhaps unsurprising after decades of promises, from all points of the political compass, about parity of esteem for our learners, our institutions and the qualifications they offer. And we all recognise that, for some learners in our sector, their previous experience of education has led them to feel they have little going for them. But are we talking about two different things when

Susan Wallace is emeritus professor of education at Nottingham Trent University. She is an author and expert in behaviour management.

we refer to self-esteem and confidence? I want to argue that perhaps we are. Self-esteem, I would suggest, is about recognising one’s own intrinsic worth or value, while confidence is about having faith in one’s ability to succeed in carrying out a specific activity or task. Certainly, the two are linked, but they are not necessarily synonymous. Learners’ lack of self-esteem presents us with the necessary task of encouraging them to think well of themselves in a more general sense than achieving set objectives to do with skills or understanding. We might offer this encouragement in a number of ways.

Building self-esteem • Making time to talk with learners, one to one (for example, by planning activities which allow for this).


• Showing that we’re interested in them. There are lots of ways to do this, whether it’s demonstrating an interest in their ideas and opinions, for example, or even the design of their phone case.

• Asking their advice about something we know they have an interest in, whether it be Aitch (a rapper), motorbikes or veganism.

• Conducting ourselves in a way that shows we’re pleased to be there teaching them (even if some days this requires a degree of acting skill).

• Finding things to praise them for. It doesn’t even have to be lesson-related. Maybe they held a door open or helped someone who was having difficulty logging on.

These acts of generic encouragement – although

important and, in some cases, essential – are not aimed at the achievement of specific learning goals. They build self-esteem but not necessarily confidence. We may find ourselves making too many allowances in seeking to build self-esteem, which could create difficulties for us when applying or enforcing college regulations, or the rules we’ve agreed on with the learners about what constitutes appropriate behaviour. But this is less of a problem when we are also

employing strategies to build learners’ confidence. Unconfident learners will often resort to uncooperative or disruptive behaviour when faced with a task or activity they suspect will defeat them. If they’re convinced they can’t succeed, why bother? Better to go for the tried and tested avoidance strategy of non-compliance. Perhaps it ‘worked’ for them in school.

By contrast, experience tells us that the learner

who feels confident that they have a good chance of at least some success is much more likely to engage with the task in hand, and with the processes of

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