Dek: Nurturing self-esteem in 7- to 9-year-olds
By Beverly and Annie Spell
Between the ages of 7 to 9, an amazing shift occurs in a child’s social thinking. This shift is normal and necessary, a result of brain maturation, but it comes with a pitfall. Along with environmental influences, it often creates a drop in self-esteem in children in this age group.
Development and maturation are paired in an ever-changing cycle, with increased brain activity and density creating new perspectives, knowledge bases, and self-awareness in students throughout childhood and adolescence. Through age 7, the human brain experiences exponential growth in language capabilities, reasoning capabilities, self-control, and muscle control and balance—advances that are noticeable in dance students in all settings. Toddlers move away from egocentric thinking to the broader perspective of 6- or 7-year-old children, who can perceive the needs of others and the reality of life around them.
Between the ages of 7 and 9, both boys and girls begin to see the world around them—including people, places, and events—in a more realistic and stable manner. They are also developing the capacity to view themselves as well as their peers as having stable psychological traits; “smarter, more popular, cuter, better at,” are well-used descriptions in a 7- to 9-year-old’s vocabulary. Such labels are adaptive. As humans, we need to be able to categorize and summarize events, persons, and places, otherwise our brains would be full of facts and findings that do not contribute to good decision making.
The pitfall of increased development
What is the danger in children’s increased ability to characterize themselves and others? What do adults who teach these young ones need to be aware of?
Two paths may form once children can identify themselves and their peers as having stable psychological traits. The first, and preferred, path is that of self-directed and goal-oriented children who congratulate others for their successes and have internalized the fact that their own success lies in their unique talents. The second path is that of children who are highly self-conscious, constantly compare themselves negatively to their peers, and give up quickly when learning new material, thinking that they lack the higher levels of skills necessary for this new material.
On the second path, a child’s self-esteem quickly declines. The larger danger is that this is the time of life when a basic sense of self-identity, which carries into adulthood, begins to form. This drop in self-esteem becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. Research has shown that as children lower their view of themselves, their academic, social, and extracurricular functioning also drops. Thus, their low view of themselves becomes confirmed—a vicious cycle many children experience.
Factors influencing this pitfall
Although brain maturation is the largest contributor to this predictable drop in self-esteem, adults who work with young children need to consider other factors. Another major contributor to this drop is a focus on mastery of skill. When parents and teachers focus on achievement of a pirouette or a jeté, for example, children begin to view themselves in terms of their success in this one area. Their self-view can become unbalanced and they begin to measure their worth in terms of their self-perceived ability to achieve perfection in a skill.
In addition, a high level of competitiveness within a dance studio or classroom can greatly accelerate the decline in self-esteem for many children. Even if the competitiveness occurs solely within the realm of the teen or older dancers, such an atmosphere can permeate the tone and culture of the classes for younger students.
Another factor that can contribute to decreased self-esteem is the ever-increasing exposure to media events and teen icons that may not represent appropriate values. Children often perceive these icons and events as norms, setting a bar that is much too high and raising their own expectations of themselves to an unrealistic level. When their experiences don’t match these expectations, they may doubt their true capabilities and talent. However, showing footage of ballet greats and masterful dancers is a good way to demonstrate how adults can mature into skilled technicians.
What you can do
Teachers can minimize or negate this drop in self-esteem in young children by implementing several instructional practices.
Make eye contact
Eye contact is a human interaction behavior that lets each person know that he is valued and viewed as an individual. This is true for adults as well as 7-year-olds. Making meaningful eye contact with each student may be something for you, as a teacher, to monitor for yourself in each class.
Give feedback to every student
In the same vein, each student should receive the same level of your attention and focus. This can be a challenge in a class of varied abilities; however, if you view students in terms of where they are in skill development, you can offer well-balanced feedback to each of them. It is human nature to comment on what is beautiful and well executed. However, if only one student grabs your attention based on this, then others may begin to value their skill level less, as well as their own sense of self.
In offering feedback, you should attempt to focus on effort versus mastery—not on whether dancers achieve a perfect pirouette but rather on how hard they have worked toward this goal. This behavior sets a positive tone and atmosphere that allows all children to value their own talents. Not every dancer will be able to achieve a triple pirouette, so why focus on mastering such skills? Instead, by focusing on the effort, you are acknowledging students’ varied capabilities in the dance class and contribute to the positive attitude that self-discipline is key.
Here are a few example statements that keep the focus on students’ effort versus their mastery:
- “Caroline, I see how hard you are working at pushing through the floor as you sauté,” versus “Beautiful sauté.”
- “I see how well you are applying rounded arms in your port de bras,” versus “Great arms! Perfect!”
- “I could tell you really listened to the tempo and music during the shuffle ball change segment of class,” versus “That ball change is excellent.”
Help students set goals
Another specific technique that teachers may use is personal goal setting. Since children in middle childhood can view themselves in terms of stable characteristics, helping them set work- and discipline-related goals will keep their minds centered on their own development and not on that of others in the classroom. Teachers should help the children develop these goals, which they can share in class-wide discussions.
Teachers can provide guidance, based on the end points of the curriculum, about goal achievement. They can say, “You need to be able to do [the appropriate goal for the student], so how will we get there? What do you need to focus on?” This helps students break down larger goals into manageable steps.
Each dancer is viewed for his or her talents, which include technical skills, creativity, emotional expression, or a positive attitude. Further, because technical skills vary among dancers, teachers should highlight each of these areas of talent.
Here are two techniques to carry this out:
- For 7- to 8-year-olds, have the students record their goals, whether for the month or year, on index cards. Keep these cards and come back to them later, allowing the students to review their work and progress toward their personal goal either in a private setting or in a group discussion.
- For mature 8- and 9-year-olds, allow the students to bring a journal or notebook to class in which they may record their personal goals (weekly, monthly, yearly), their progress, and their efforts toward these goals. Some examples of goals include not giving up when they can’t get a combination, working on spotting in all turns, and improving the timing of jumps.
Group and partnering activities that focus on teamwork may also be helpful in decreasing the level of comparisons your students make with one another. When students work toward a common choreographic or skills-based goal, competitiveness and comparison to others tend to drop off.
This is a well-documented phenomenon in social psychology. People who work together toward a common goal tend to support and appreciate each other, resulting in a decrease in the sense and tone of competitiveness. Try these group and partnering activities:
- Divide the class into groups of three to four students. Give each group a card with four specific dance steps. Instruct the students to choreograph 16 counts using those four steps and any other steps they may choose.
- Depending on your choreography, partnering may be used in each class. It is usually best for the teacher to assign the partners. Sometimes pairing a strong student with a weaker one allows both to learn from each other. The weaker student can pick up on the momentum and physicality of the stronger dancer. For the stronger dancer, this is a teaching moment as well as an opportunity to understand that others in the class may face more difficulty in learning and performing movement. Partnering creates a situation in which two students must work toward a common goal.
When problems persist
Students in the 7- to 9-year-old age group are at a critical time in their development of self-esteem and their confidence in the dance setting. Although teachers may be able to minimize the development of low self-esteem in these students, at times preventative techniques don’t work. If a child persistently shows evidence of diminished self-worth through slumped posture, downcast eyes, listless demeanor, self-limiting behaviors, and withdrawal from the group, then teachers should consider talking with the child and parents to investigate the child’s comfort level in class.
Armed with such feedback, teachers may be better equipped to design the class format or activities. Further, if there are serious concerns over a child’s demeanor and affect, then a talk with the parent may be warranted in order to suggest outside help.
For further reading:
Raising a Thinking Preteen: The “I Can Problem Solve” Program for 8- to 12-Year-Olds by Myrna B. Shure and Roberta Israeloff
Child Development, Third Edition: A Practitioner’s Guide (Social Work Practice With Children and Families) by Douglas Davies, MSW, PhD