Ready to fly: Developing confidence in students

Ask most teenagers about an issue they struggle with and underneath it all, ‘confidence’ will be what’s there.

Sometimes it is overconfidence bordering on arrogance but most often it’s a lack of it, resulting in insecurity. You could even argue that an over show of confidence can be a sign of the exact opposite. Both overconfidence and lack of it, have their consequences at whatever stage of life you are at, but especially if you are a teenager.

When we see toddlers learning to walk, we accept that the balance of confidence and insecurity is part of the deal; we are patient with it, we even find it charming. We encourage, guide, model, celebrate and comfort when a toddler takes those first steps and falters, wobbling and falling to the floor in tears. When a child learns to ride a bike without stabilisers, we do the same; this time we hang on to the back of their seat, running alongside them, shouting instructions as they gather speed until we feel they have momentum and then… we let them slip away from our guiding hand.

We watch them fly.

We know this. We have always known this. Yet do we adopt the same principles when they reach a different stage of their lives? Confidence is not just a feeling you either have, or have not, got. It is not something that stays the same across your life, it doesn’t even stay the same from moment to moment. Although it can peak, and trough, it can be helped, understood and developed but we have to be more deliberate about doing so.

Teach what it really is

If we want to develop students’ confidence, we need to be clear what we are talking about. The word ‘confidence’ can mean nuanced things. The Oxford English Dictionary defines confidence as ‘the feeling or belief that one can have faith in or rely on someone or something’. Self-confidence is defined as ‘a feeling of trust in one’s abilities, qualities, and judgement’.

The definitions are not enough, there is a lot more than needs to be defined and we must teach it. Students need the knowledge before it can become their reality; where does confidence come from? How can it help and hinder? What do we know about how it is created and maintained? What are the dangers in having too much of it? How can we check out our own ideas with others and get feedback?

We may of course be very confident or self-confident but that does not mean that our judgement is right. We need to teach young people how to navigate these choppy waters. It is not as simple as encouraging a person to ‘be more confident’. There is a lot more to it than that. Let’s teach the knowledge that will empower and illuminate.

Define your language

The notions of confidence and self-confidence are tied up with so much other vocabulary. It is impossible to talk about these concepts without talking about arrogance, humility, insecurity, shame, inferiority, assertiveness, agency, pride or hubris. As we explore these words, their etymology and our own understanding of the terms, we reveal important things. From this springboard comes discussion and understanding.

If we want to develop confidence, we must help young people choose the right vocabulary to explain what they are feeling. Are they insecure or are they humble and what is the difference? Are they confident or arrogant? There is a difference. We must explore language. Vocabulary unlocks understanding.

Re-frame ‘mistakes’

In this journey from wobbly rider to free-wheel-flyer, mistakes are inevitable. The way we talk about mistakes is important so that we develop, and don’t destroy, confidence. Every mistake is a chance to learn if we are open to what it teaches us. It is not a failure. It is what learning means. In a world that can be intolerant when it comes to mistakes, we need to show young people how they can re-frame, learn, change and get up and go again.

Confidence can sometimes be misplaced, in themselves and in others, but it is important to learn the lessons and use it to fuel their progress. A mistake shouldn’t lead to a crushing loss of confidence if we help them frame it in the right way.

Care and challenge

Developing confidence in young people is a delicate balance between care and challenge. If we want to give them false confidence, we will praise them for anything they do, tell them they are wonderful and leave everyone feeling great. That isn’t helpful.

If we want to DEVELOP their confidence, we must care deeply but we must also challenge and question and give them feedback. We must. It is hard but it is important. It is a balance: too much care without challenge can falsely inflate confidence and too much challenge without the care can destroy it. We must be sensitive about how we do it. We need to give the agency to them by asking questions like; ‘how would you feel if I gave you some feedback?’ or ‘would you like to know the ways I think you could get even better?’ or ‘can I really challenge you now, are you open to that?’. If challenge is underpinned by care, confidence grows.

Celebrate WHO and not just WHAT

It is easy to celebrate what young people DO. It is important that we continue to do so but real confidence comes not just from what you can do, but from who you know you ARE. If we want to develop confidence in young people (and indeed anyone!) we need to encourage them with who we can see them becoming. None of us ever stop learning, growing, changing.

When we see resilience, determination, enthusiasm, organisation, leadership and self-confidence emerging we should tell them we have seen it and we should celebrate it. Sometimes confidence is developed when someone else can see in you, what you can’t always see in yourself.

Confidence is something that we need to continue to develop in ourselves long after the teenage years. We can play a huge part in getting the foundations right, to offer the support, the guidance, the challenge and the running alongside them so that when we let go, they are ready to fly.

Rachel is the CEO of PiXL, a network of 2500+ schools, colleges and APs spanning KS1-5 – collaborating, sharing best practice and equipping leaders in schools. We’re proud that PiXL is a supporter of The Future Leaders Project, resourcing students to thrive in work and life – and empowering them to become the next generation of leaders.

By Rachel Johnson, CEO, PiXL
22nd September 2021

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