Boost Your Students’ Self-Confidence by Danielle Rhodes
Every youth group has one of two students—or both. The first craves attention. He rolls his eyes at videos you find moving, interrupts your talks with rude jokes, and corrects other student’s answers with his “profound” insight. The other student sits in the back. She avoids eye contact, shrinks off to the bathroom during participatory activities, and refuses to talk in small groups. At first glance, these two students couldn’t be more different. But in truth, they are both dealing with the same issue: lack of confidence.
These days, bold and high-energy individuals appear self-assured, while quieter people are labeled as insecure or incompetent. But this has more to do with personality type than confidence level. As you can see from the students above, lack of confidence can show up as a nonstop need for peer validation or a stubborn refusal to participate.
Confidence is a realistic belief in one’s power and abilities. It is found in quiet assurance, in a peaceful demeanor, and in a listening ear. Truly confident people don’t seek the spotlight—they don’t need to. They’re just as comfortable leading as they are following. A truly confident leader is, above all, humble.
Developmental theorists agree that the most pivotal period of confidence development lasts from birth to around age 12. That’s unfortunate for youth workers—our influence in students’ lives begins towards the end of this formation period or later. So how, after these first 12 years, can we help our students build confidence?
1. Encourage risk taking.
Regardless of a student’s past, lack of self-confidence is rooted in fear, usually the fear of failure. In order to build confidence, gently encourage students to first face their fears. I learned at a young age to “do it afraid.” The more I would do what I was afraid of, the less afraid I became. Eventually the fear was gone. Second Timothy 1:7 says, “God has not given us a spirit of fear, but of power and of love and of a sound mind.” This verse became my mantra when I found myself afraid. Before a big presentation or performance, when my heart threatened to pound out of my chest, I would breath deep and say those words over and over until my heart calmed and my mind cleared.
2. Encourage positive self-talk.
Emphasize your students’ strengths while minimizing their weaknesses. Trust me, students are more aware of their faults than their strengths. Encourage them to stay positive and, as cliché as it sounds, think positive. In Matthew 14, Peter stepped out of a boat and walked on water toward Jesus. Only after he was distracted by the wind did his mind fill with uncertainty. Peter’s self-doubt caused him to sink; Jesus’ encouragement kept him afloat. Before discussing where improvements can be made, insist that your students first say what they have done well. Finally, help students set realistic expectations for themselves. The more realistic the goal, the more likely they are to accomplish it and increase their self-confidence.
3. Discourage comparison and encourage hard work.
When I was five years old, my older brother and I began learning to play the piano. He excelled, while I stumbled along at a slower pace. That was only the beginning of years of comparing myself to those around me. I cannot emphasize this enough: there is no value in comparison. One of the greatest lies our students believe is that if something does not come naturally, then it’s not their gift. I have known many artists, musicians, and speakers who honed their skills through hours of practice. I am pleased to say, I am a much better pianist than I was at age five for this very reason.
4. Encourage leaders to truly lead.
Leadership, like playing the piano, is not something that always comes naturally. It must be practiced. As I mentioned earlier, confident leaders do not have to prove their right to lead through aggression and intimidation. A true leader listens, protects, and respects those who have been put in their care. A true leader is a servant above all. A true leader puts the needs of the group above their own. In the same breath, a leader isn’t afraid to go against the grain, to confront, and to right wrongs. Placing students in positions of leadership and walking them through the process of leading is the most effective way to develop confident leaders. Remember, every student is different—encourage those differences. Only after students realize they are okay will they grow in self-confidence.
There is a young man—we’ll call him Sam—who I have known since he was a child. The youngest of many siblings, this student struggled both with comparison and with finding his gifting. Each of his older siblings excelled in many areas, and he frequently spoke of the pressure he felt to preform. Throughout the course of middle and high school, he fell further and further into frustration and despair.
I remember Sam sitting down with me and going through the laundry list of his inadequacies. I was so surprised that Sam felt this way about himself. You see, Sam was loved by all! He was charming, engaging, and a talented vocalist. His peers looked up to him. He was a leader and didn’t even realize it. Meeting after meeting, I examined Sam’s gifts with him. Slowly, something within him began to shift. He began noticing what others saw, and recognizing his own ability. Now in college, he is excelling in areas where he previously struggled. His journey is far from over—there will be moments when he doubts himself. But I know that with every fear he faces, his confidence will continue to grow.