Some students come to us with naturally high levels of confidence. They are accustomed to meeting and overcoming the learning challenges presented to them. They are ready to take learning risks, and they are quick to let us know when they need additional attention and support. Other students come to us with doubts and a history of struggle. They question their abilities and are reluctant to take learning chances. These students experience high levels of anxiety and frustration when confronted with learning challenges, sometimes even when we know that they can easily accomplish the tasks before them.
Notably, students who come to us with low levels of confidence in their learning capacity can present our greatest opportunities for wins. Often, with encouragement, timely support, and coaching, these students can reach new levels of self-assurance and commitment to learning. Their potential is waiting to be unleashed—and we can help them.
Of course, not all students with low confidence in their ability to learn are the same. Each student needs our attention and understanding. They need us to choose the right strategies at the right times to provide reassurance, guidance, and support. Here are ten strategies to instill more confidence in students.
Create a safe and secure learning environment. It is nearly impossible for uncertain students to build confidence in an environment that lacks clear expectations, consistent classroom management, and positive relationships. They need to experience high levels of trust and respect. Students must feel secure before they take risks.
Tell and show students that we believe in them. Students not only need to hear that we believe they can overcome the learning challenges they face, but they also must feel it. We can notice effort and progress and be ready to provide support when they need it. We also can encourage students to believe in themselves. Statements like “You’ve got this” and “I know you can do it” are good places to start.
Remind students of past progress and successes. When we remind students of times in the past when they faced difficult challenges and were able to make progress and eventually succeed, we provide evidence that has credibility with the students. We can remind students that it is the quality of their work that makes the difference. With quality work, they will succeed.
Reinforce the importance of effort and strategy. Students often assume that doing well in school is the result of being smart rather than an investment of their energy and commitment. While some students may find that academic work comes easier for them than others, it is an investment of good effort and smart strategy that can level the playing field. Coaching students to focus on the effort they will give rather than worrying about the outcome can be a good confidence boost.
Provide honest, success-focused feedback. To gain legitimate confidence, students need to know where they stand. Providing clear, objective, honest feedback helps students to understand where they have made progress and where additional attention and effort will be needed. However, we also need to help students see their next steps toward success. Some students will do their best if they can see the big picture. Others will do better if they focus on what is next.
Resist stepping in too quickly and overcorrecting. When we see less-than-confident students begin to struggle, we can be tempted to step in immediately with hints and advice. Yet, the progress and success that come from struggle is a great confidence booster. Further, intervening too early risks undermining the students’ confidence and increasing their dependence on us. The best approach is to watch carefully and step in at the time when frustration threatens to overwhelm commitment to the task.
Tap the power of “yet.” When initial attempts do not result in significant progress or success, less-than-confident students often conclude that they are not capable of meeting the learning challenge they face. We can remind them that the message is not that success isn’t possible. Rather, they are simply not quite there yet. They can still learn and succeed. The key is to have them focus on good strategy, smart effort, and persistence. All three are elements within the control of the student.
Discourage comparisons with others. Students who are not confident can become discouraged when they see other students for whom a learning challenge or new skill seems to come easily. They may not be aware of other areas where those students are struggling or where they were when they started. Students are better served when they focus on their own progress, not on how others are doing.
Treat mistakes and setbacks as opportunities to learn. Mistakes can be frightening, disheartening experiences when confidence is already lacking. We need to instill in and remind students that mistakes are key building blocks of learning. Without mistakes, little progress is probable. Rather than treating mistakes and setbacks as things to be avoided, we can help students to focus on what has been gained and what can be learned from these experiences.
Remove scaffolding and supports in response to progress. When engaging in major learning tasks or building complex skills, students often need scaffolding to guide their early efforts. Our early support may come in small increments with frequent application, but as students make progress, we need to be attentive to how much scaffolding and other supports they still need and withdraw them as soon as students are ready to be more independent. Leaving scaffolding in place too long risks stunting progress and encouraging over-reliance on external supports.
Few experiences in education can offer more satisfaction and reinforcement than helping a student to realize their potential and see themselves as a capable learner. The effort may take a while, but it is more than worth the investment.