child smiling with medalBy guest blogger Joann Wasik from

Last spring, a high school teacher from Massachusetts made international headlines when he told the graduating seniors that they were “not special.” In his address, David McCullough, Jr. told the graduating class that despite their “pampered, cosseted, [and] bubble-wrapped” lives, “You are not special. You are not exceptional.” Taken out of context, some excerpts of McCullough’s speech raised eyebrows.


Read or viewed in its entirety, McCullough’s speech resulted in huzzahs from a public who appreciated that – gasp! – someone finally dared to voice the idea that for every “exceptional” student, there are thousands of others who have the exact same credentials. McCullough’s overall message, of course, was really to remind students that good citizenship and success on a personal and professional level requires hard work, dedication, and a certain amount of personal sacrifice. His speech was very well-received by students and parents alike.

I mention this story because it underscores the sometimes uncomfortable dichotomy that some teachers face when handling the topic of self-esteem in the classroom. Many school wellness programs now include units on self-esteem and individual “specialness” at all grade levels. The subject of nurturing self-esteem in students is fraught with challenges – what methods actually help students, and which methods actually backfire? For example, does awarding trophies to every team member really boost individual self-esteem, or does it send the message to kids that they can expect rewards regardless of their effort and performance? Do mass accolades cheapen the experience and negate the value of achievement, or do kids really feel that they’ve earned recognition that they deserve?

There is no doubt that self-esteem is a vital component to student success, both in school and beyond. Lessons and activities to discuss and nurture self-esteem in students are certainly important facets in a well-rounded school wellness program, especially during the tween and teen years when student self-image typically plummets. It can be difficult, however, to find teaching materials that aren’t overly invasive or touchy-feely, yet still engage students and prompt them to think about how to develop a healthy self-image. This week I’ve highlighted three resources on self-esteem from the Gateway’s collection, and will be featuring many more lessons, units, and activities throughout the week on our Twitter and Facebook pages. Please read my colleague Peggy’s companion column (linked below) for additional resources and ideas on self-esteem lessons and activities.

The Myth of Self-Esteem
Subjects: Health, Language Arts
Grade: 3-12
Should every kid on the team get a trophy just for showing up, regardless of effort or performance? Or, should kids actually have to put forth effort, or accomplish a goal or behavior, before parents and other adults offer praise? This guide examines how parents praise their children, and offers various ways to approach praise without building false self-esteem. It also contains tips for parents, as well as lesson plans for grades 3-5, 6-8, and 9-12. This guide was produced by Connect with Kids, a multimedia company focused on improving student behavior, staff development, and parent engagement.

Chalk It Up: Self-Esteem
Subjects: Health, Language Arts
Grade: 6-12
This series of exercises asks students to think critically about and to explore the concept of self-esteem. The exercises use various scenarios, from the Three Little Pigs to examinations of fashion, gender, and stereotyping, for students to examine in writing and through discussion. I like that this resource addresses the notion of self-esteem in a straightforward, non-touch-feely way. By exploring self-esteem and self-worth through character-driven scenarios, students are less likely to feel “exposed” or put on the spot. This resource was produced by Talk It Up, part of the Australian Broadcasting Corporation. Talk It Up is a site for kids to learn about health, strength, happiness and growing into adulthood.

Grades: 11
Self-concept is made up of several things. People with a high self-concept and self-esteem seem to do well in the world. They are people who believe they can be successful. They are able to perform well at work, and they get along well with others in all relationships. I like that this resource prompts students to consider their strengths and positive traits, and to think about how they can continue to develop and emphasize these characteristics. This lesson is offered by the Utah Education Network (UEN) , part of a consortium of public education partners in Utah. UEN offers distance education resources, professional development opportunities, teaching materials, and more.

Peggy’s companion column: