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How to help your kids’ self-esteem

The Manor School, Abingon

The Manor School, Abingon

I had some fantastic male teachers at my primary school. Mr Rogers, on whom I had an innocent but embarrassingly potent crush. Mr Davies – the kind of Seventies beard that only Jeremy Corbyn can rival, and a superb renditionist of ging-gang-goolly on the guitar. And Mr Southall, my headteacher, very kind and approachable, like your favourite great uncle, seemingly up for everything that was fun. We took part in bee-keeping, made our own honey pots, and practised spinning old Welsh wooden spindles using the wool from the sheep that crapped all over our school fields. Mr Southall built Environmental huts and a big pond so we could ooh and ahh at the tadpoles. We all loved him.

Piers Heyworth from The Manor School in Abingdon reminds me of Mr Southall. He has a lovely manner with the kids, very inclusive and caring, and yet he also runs a school with great results. We’d briefly talked about self-esteem in children when I first went to review The Manor last year because it was becoming such a massive national issue.

Piers Heyworth, head of The Manor School

Piers Heyworth, head of The Manor School

Anyway this is an immensely long winded way of saying that with the media brimful of terrible news about children’s mental health, pressurised education and the terrors of social media, I’ve nobbled Piers for his views of the problem and – more importantly – how teachers, parents and even kids themselves can help solve the crisis. I hope you find it useful.

Have things become worse for kids over the last decade?

I’m afraid statistics would suggest so. A report from ChildLine published in October 2014*, discovered a 116% increase in Childline counselling sessions about suicide in 2013/4 versus 2010/11 – and the increase was mainly relating to girls with a 142% increase versus 32% of boys. One in three young people talking about suicide also mentioned self-harm.

It seems that English children are particularly prone to not feeling particularly happy, especially when they reach the age of 12. According to a Children’s Society report, children in England are less satisfied with their lives overall than their peers in many other countries. Researchers surveyed more than 53,000 eight to thirteen year-olds from various countries, assessing various aspects of well-being, such as those relating to school life, bullying, and, especially for teenage girls, feelings about themselves. Among 12 year-olds, England ranked 14th for life satisfaction, only ahead of South Korea.**


Why has there been this big increase in children’s interest in self-harm and suicide?
A few years ago the answers would have probably focused on the relentless pressure of exams or the waning of the support provided by families (and they are still issues for many children undoubtedly), but the main reason appears to relate to the internet and social media. Young people told Childline they’d used the internet to research painless or ‘best’ methods for overdosing or self-poisoning, others revealed that their suicidal thoughts had been triggered by graphic online material that ‘normalised’ suicidal behaviour.

Social networking sites at their worst can be toxic. Many young people use social networking sites to seek approval but so often this doesn’t happen and the very people who need support are bullied online or made to feel worthless. So the internet has created a perfect situation for an insecure child to sink into despair.

What’s the answer for schools trying to help?

Since the internet and social media are so often implicated in a child slipping into unhappiness, the first thing a school has to do is prioritise the teaching of strong guidelines to the children about how to behave and how to react online. In ICT and PSHEE lessons, in particular, there needs to be ‘rehearsals’ of the inevitable times when children have their self-esteem damaged online. Children need to be taught to report the matter to staff and parents and not try to deal with it themselves. Therefore the trust between all parties needs to be very strong so that children are happy to open up. Childnet is a superb organisation that sends specially trained staff to schools to speak to pupils, staff and parents about the internet and social media with a host of useful tips:

What can parents ask of schools to work out whether the school pays lip service to pupils’ emotional well-being or really does something significant to help?

There are quite a few things to look out for.

  • Ask if there is a Home/School agreement about the use of email and social media. Ask how proactive the school is being about keeping parents updated on the latest social media crazes as they can so easily be misused and become instruments of bullying (as well as reminding pupils of the minimum age limits of Facebook, Instagram, Snapshot, all of which are 13).
  • Ask what happens when things go wrong and a child is really distressed? Most good schools have a trained professional counsellor either on speedy standby or as a regular visitor.
  • It’s worth asking how much time of the week is spent on ‘pastoral time’. At The Manor, for example, the Form Teacher is given a great deal of time on pastoral matters. Each week the children have a PSHEE lesson (Personal, Social, Health and Economic Education – yes, the ‘Economic’ bit is a new Government initiative); a Circle Time session; two registration sessions plus a further 10 minutes at the end of every day to ensure that all is well, the children know what homework is and so on. In addition, there are of course weekly staff meetings where children’s well-being is being discussed.

What are the other main causes of childhood unhappiness that schools have to deal with?

It’s the full gamut really – the pace of life is faster and kids have less downtime than ever before. There’s more pressure generally for young people to excel from their parents, and the flipside of that is a terrible fear of failure and difference. I remember when Wellington College introduced Happiness and Well-Being lessons in 2006, it attracted national headlines as a slightly out-there hippy topic to teach. But only nine years later, it’s seen as an enlightened and prescient move as there’s so much concern on the mental and emotional well-being of children.

What does a caring school look like?

 That’s a tricky one. It’s hard for parents to see a detailed true picture of a school’s commitment to their child’s well-being on a short Open Day, but often these glimpses into school life are all a parent has to go on.

I think the most important thing schools can do is reassure children that it’s fine to be imperfect and that repeated failures are all part of the learning process. Ask staff directly how the school tackles this subject – in a good school there should be practical systems in place.

I make a point of employing cheerful, up-beat, communicative teachers as they have a huge effect in creating a classroom atmosphere where misery has no part (I remember Mother Teresa saying that the prime quality she look for in prospective nurses for her hospitals was ‘cheerfulness’). Do a bit of your own homework – ask parents with kids at the school, or even the children themselves about the teachers and they’ll give you an honest answer! If there are four great teachers and four grumpy ones, it’s not a great statistic for your child’s happiness.


  • Also, check on the amount of physical fitness throughout the curriculum and school clubs. At The Manor we take the view that a healthy mind is more likely to flourish in a healthy body and plan accordingly but there can be quite a difference in the levels of sport offered from one school to the next. (There’s a great 2014 paper from Public Health England on the subject ‘The link between pupil health and well-being and attainment’ )
  • Even if your child is not very ‘sporty’, it’s worth remembering that pupils develop strength and resilience through sport, as well as by class discussions and assemblies about ‘the ability to spring back’ (the literal meaning of ‘resilience’) in the face of setbacks. There is a brilliant YouTube video of baby pandas trying to escape from a pen and never, ever giving up

What else should parents look out for?

Check what ongoing steps schools are making to stay up to date with training and latest thinking. One of our staff, for example, is currently taking a 6 month Mindfulness course to assess if it would be useful for our pupils, and we’re also keeping a keen eye on the outcome of a £7m study on the effects of Mindfulness in Schools project. And be direct when asking about how teachers boost the self-esteem of pupils. It’s an easy sentence to say but it has to be meaningfully put into practice. So for example, at primary school level at least, carefully written plays ensuring that every child gets a proper scripted part rather than creating ‘stars’ and ‘bit players’, Head’s Certificates of Excellence given regularly, school matches where everyone is given the opportunity to represent the school, as well as extra sporting sessions are given to the keen as well as the elite.

What can parents do to help the well-being and happiness of their children?


Plenty, I’m glad to say! Keep the family atmosphere warm-hearted and humorous, so that the child feels trusting and happy to communicate. Take active steps to protect your kids by following the Childnet advice to parents about online and social media safety I’d grit your teeth and ban the iPad/mobile phone from 9pm! Remember that academic attainment is only a tiny part of a much larger jigsaw – soft skills and team work are now recognised as equally important skills for future success. Above all, make it clear to the child that it is not vital to get A-stars across the board and lay off any pressure concerning scholarships. I have usually found that, if parents go on about scholarships their child will not get one – partly because the child inwardly reacts against the unreasonableness of the parents’ demands!


*On the Edge
**The Good Childhood Report 2015 – Children’s Society 8/15

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