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Last reviewed on 6 April 2018
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How can we boost pupils' self-esteem? This article looks at guidance on promoting pupils' mental health and wellbeing, and ideas and resources you can use in school. We also link to advice on helping parents boost their child's confidence and supporting pupils to improve their own self-esteem.

Promoting positive mental health

School culture

The Department for Education (DfE) has published guidance on mental health in schools.

Suggestions include having an ethos of setting high expectations of attainment for all pupils ... including clear policies on behaviour and bullying

On pages 11-12, the guidance looks at ways that cultures and structures within a school can promote good mental health in pupils. Suggestions include:

  • Having an ethos of setting high expectations of attainment for all pupils, with consistently applied support, including clear policies on behaviour and bullying
  • Putting in place continuing professional development for staff that informs them about the early signs of mental health problems, what is and isn’t a cause for concern, and what to do if they think they have spotted a developing problem
  • Working with others to provide interventions for pupils with mental health problems that use a graduated approach to inform a clear cycle of support

It adds:

Schools with these characteristics mitigate the risk of mental health problems in their pupils by supporting them to become more resilient and preventing problems before they arise.

Pages 19-28 of the document look at interventions that schools can use to promote mental health. These include:

  • Positive classroom management and small group work
  • Developing social skills
  • Peer mentoring

Pupil mental health: 2017 survey findings from The Key

Findings from The Key’s 2017 State of Education survey, completed by more than 1,000 of our school leader members, highlight concerns about pupil mental health and wellbeing issues.

More than three-quarters (78%) of primary school leaders, for example, have noticed an increase in cases of stress, anxiety and panic attacks over the past 2 years. A similar proportion (76%) has seen an increase in fear of academic failure, and 55% say that the incidence of depression among pupils is higher.

Case studies

A case study on page 13 of the DfE guidance looks at how one school used feedback boxes to promote mental wellbeing. Pupils could share a problem anonymously in the 'bullying box', or a comment about something good another pupil did in the 'praise box'.

The boxes were managed by the personal, social, citizenship and health education (PSCHE) co-ordinator. Teachers then led discussions of issues during weekly 'circle time', encouraging the class to think together about the issue without identifying individuals.

The case study also outlines how another school teaches pupils that mental health is as important as physical health. It uses the personal, social and health education (PSHE) curriculum to promote self-esteem, independence and personal responsibility.

Teachers at the school are also supported to deliver practical sessions on mental health issues and relaxation techniques.

Tackling specific mental health problems

Annex C, on pages 38-50 of the guidance, features advice on supporting pupils with specific mental health needs, including:

  • Anxiety
  • Depression
  • Eating disorders
  • Self-harm

Another article from The Key contains guidance on supporting a pupil with more complex mental health needs

We also have an article that links to tools for monitoring pupils' wellbeing. 

Developing confidence

Targeted questions activity

HandsOnScotland, a toolkit aiming to encourage children and young people's emotional wellbeing, explains that teachers with high confidence in their own teaching ability create confident pupils.

Teachers with high confidence in their own teaching ability create confident pupils

It says that to increase pupils' self-confidence, teachers must improve pupils':

  • Belief in their ability to do things
  • Sense of worth
  • Sense of responsibility for their actions

More detailed information is provided for each of those three areas.

There is also a "growing confidence trees" activity to carry out with children, which will encourage them to reflect on their confidence levels. Targeted questions to discuss during the activity include:

  • What areas are you most confident in?
  • How did you get to be so confident in this area?
  • How can the ways your confidence grew in another area help you grow more confident in the area you wrote on your tree?
  • How can you help other people grow more confident?

Positive approach

An article on the Great Schools website, which is based in the United States, says teachers can only foster self-esteem in pupils if they have a positive attitude to their pupils and themselves.

It advises teachers to bear in mind that:

  • Pupils want to learn and be successful in school

Behaviour such as giving up, not trying or misbehaving in class may be used to mask feelings of vulnerability

  • Behaviour such as giving up, not trying or misbehaving in class may be used to mask feelings of vulnerability. Rather than imposing punishments, teachers could consider how they can minimise these feelings
  • Teachers must adapt their teaching style to enable children with learning difficulties to adopt a more positive, optimistic approach to their work

Another article from The Key relays guidance and a case study on running a nurture group in primary and secondary schools.

Younger pupils

The teaching resources website Teaching Ideas outlines strategies for developing pupils' confidence.

One suggestion is to introduce a "feel-good box" into the classroom. This involves every pupil writing something positive about another pupil each day. The teacher tells each pupil who to write about, and then collects the notes afterwards. The notes are handed out at the end of the week so that the pupils can read them and glue them into their books.

Other strategies can be found on the page linked to below. You may need to click the 'load more' button to see the full set of strategies.

Another article from The Key features information and examples relating to PSHE schemes of work for primary schools.

Tips for coping with exam stress

Dr Fiona Pienaar, director of clinical services at mental health charity Place2Be, offers a few tips for supporting pupils experiencing exam stress: 

  1. Make a plan – sit down together and break down the workload into manageable chunks to help it feel less overwhelming, and don’t forget to set aside some dedicated time for relaxing too
  2. Boost self-esteem – if a child is struggling, take the opportunity to talk about all of the things that they are good at and that they enjoy. While exam results are obviously important and we always want our children to do the best they can, you can remind the child that they are so much more than their test results 
  3. Two heads are better than one – the chances are that other children in the class are feeling exactly the same way about exams. Encouraging them to talk to other children and support each other can help them to feel less isolated 
  4. Set an example – talk openly about how you cope with your own stressful situations, whether it’s by having a relaxing bath, or writing a week-by-week plan to manage your workload. This will set a fantastic example that children can learn from

Body image issues

The Self-Esteem Project from the cosmetics company Dove has teaching resources to help teachers run in-class workshops, with the aim of helping pupils to learn more about self-esteem and body confidence. The workshop material is designed for pupils aged between 11 and 14.

You can download material condensed into one single session, or expanded into a series of five sessions.

The sessions include material about:

  • Unrealistic appearance ideals
  • The impact of social media, celebrity culture and advertising
  • How to reduce appearance-focused conversations and comparisons

The sessions can be taught through discussion, small-group activities, videos and worksheets.

Enabling parents to support children

The charity Family Lives has information on how parents can help their children build self-esteem. It suggests tips such as:

  • If you feel your child is struggling with the way they look or feel, acknowledge their feelings and ensure that your child feels listened to
  • Pick your moment carefully as having a one to one chat might be a little forceful. Try not to make things too intense to begin with
  • Try not to label, criticise or blame your child which will give them negative messages which can stick. This can have a detrimental impact on their emotional wellbeing later on in life

The guidance also helps parents to consider why their child might have developed low self-esteem.

You could share this information with parents so that any work you do to boost self-esteem at school will be complemented at home.

Supporting pupils to boost their own self-esteem

ChildLine has suggested 'top tips' for children seeking to boost their own self-esteem.

It suggests that children could, for example:

  • Act as if they already have the personal quality they want
  • Try something new every day
  • Listen to music
  • Eat healthily

This article was written in response to a question from a deputy headteacher at a medium-size urban primary school in the east of England.

More from The Key

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Pupil mental health: deepening understanding

Are you looking to deepen your staff's understanding of mental health, including anxiety, depression, self-harm and suicidal ideation? Safeguarding Training Centre has the resources you need.


Evidence-led training courses that make it easy to upskill staff, anytime, anywhere.

CPD Toolkit is the most effective way to virtually deliver evidence-led training and support the professional development of your staff. Downloadable courses and online 5-minute summaries provide flexibility for training, whether staff are participating as skeleton staff in-school, via video call or individually at their own pace.

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