Building children’s confidence

Confident children are motivated to engage in more experiences, more able to build positive relationships, and become happier, successful adults.
Student smiling in classroom

How does confidence develop?

Babies are born curious

They want to touch, see, hear and taste everything within their reach. Toddlers and preschoolers demonstrate their need to understand their world by asking many ‘why’ questions. From their repeated experiences of seeing their actions affect their world and the people in it, young children begin to see themselves as capable and having control. This helps them to feel good about themselves and builds their self-confidence.

When they begin school, children typically start out with high expectations 

But when they see how they do things compared to others, their view of their own abilities often changes. They learn that they’re good at some things and not so good at others. They also see how other children and educators respond to what they do. These things influence children’s confidence in their abilities. They also influence how willing they are to have a go in situations where they feel unsure.

Your response

The way adults respond to children as they explore their place in the world is their template for solving many challenging and difficult problems later on. For young children, it helps strengthen their sense of self when significant adults nurture their natural curiosity and demonstrate patience and interest. In primary school years, children who are suddenly less sure of themselves may need extra support and encouragement to build a functional sense of confidence they can take with them into adolescence.

  • Confidence and resilience

    Confidence provides children with the skills needed to cope with life’s ups and downs.

    These include:

    • trust that the world is safe and that there are caring people to help them
    • belief in their ability to do things for themselves and achieve their goals
    • feeling good about themselves and feeling valued for who they are by their family, educators and peers
    • knowledge that things generally turn out well
    • regulation ability to manage their feelings, thoughts and behaviours.

    Children initially develop these skills and qualities by learning to cope with small stresses with help from supportive adults. When bigger stresses come along, even though at first it can be distressing, children can draw on what they have learned about helping themselves to cope and feel better. 

    Children’s resilience is enhanced when they:

    • feel they are loved by someone unconditionally
    • are praised for doing things on their own
    • can count on their family being there when needed
    • believe things will turn out all right
    • are willing to try new things
    • feel that what they do makes a difference in how things turn out
    • like themselves
    • can focus on a task and stay with it
    • have a sense of humour
    • make goals and plans, both short and longer-term.

     

    Be You Professional Learning

    Learn more about social and emotional learning, and teaching resilience, in the Resilience Fact Sheet and in the Learning Resilience domain.

  • Confidence and praise

    As they grow, it becomes more important for children to gain approval from the adults in their lives. Families and educators can help improve children’s confidence and sense of self by giving them regular encouragement and praise.

    Praise is most effective when adults are mindful of how and when they use it.

    When praising children, focus on their efforts and achievements. Praise that’s specific and acknowledges the processes of completing an activity or solving a problem helps develop children's learning and motivation. For example, you might say “You put away your toys so nicely” or “You've used so many bright colours in your painting.”

    Praising children for their efforts is motivating as it teaches them what they're doing well.

    They can then use this learning when they have similar experiences in the future. For example, an educator might say, “I noticed you were really trying hard at building that block tower” or “Wow, look how smoothly you're rolling out that playdough.” This kind of praise is effective as it refers to the process of completing an activity. 

  • Confidence and motivation

    Self-motivated children tend to stick at things for longer 

    They feel a sense of control over what they’re doing and are more likely to take on new challenges. When children feel they can achieve their goals, they feel good about themselves which benefits their confidence.

    Children can be more curious about some things compared to others

    Their level of confidence can also vary depending on what they’re doing and how they’re feeling. Like adults, they can be motivated to do some activities more than others. Sometimes children can be less motivated because they feel tired or unwell or because of their temperament or personal style. This tells us motivation is complex and can be influenced by many factors.

    There are many ways families and educators can support children's developing motivation.

    You can provide an inviting and safe environment that can be explored in the presence of warm, caring and trusted adults. You can scaffold children's learning and gradually reduce involvement over time. You can ask children questions, talk them through activities, and praise their efforts. 

    Remember, motivation doesn't always need to be facilitated by adults – children can be very good at motivating each other too.

  • Confidence and optimism

    Self-esteem is an important part of confidence

    Having good self-esteem means accepting and feeling positive about yourself. Confidence is not just feeling good but also knowing you’re good at something. 

    Helpful ways of thinking include:

    • believing that if you try, you can succeed
    • finding positive ways to cope with failure that encourage having another go
    • enjoying learning for its own sake by competing with your own performance – not with others
    • making sure that goals are achievable by breaking down large tasks or responsibilities into small steps
    • knowing you can ask for help if you need it.
    Confidence involves dealing well with disappointment

    Everyone fails to achieve their goals sometimes. And this isn’t a bad thing. Families and educators can build children’s ability to deal with challenges when they:

    • respond sympathetically and with encouragement
    • help children focus on what they can change to make things better, instead of thinking that the situation is unchangeable or that there’s something wrong with them
    • challenge “I can’t” thinking by showing and saying you believe in them and reminding them of what they’ve achieved.

    Optimism recognises what has been achieved more than what is lacking. It looks at the glass as half-full rather than half-empty. Adults can help children focus on their own effort and on achieving personal goals as the best way to measure success.

  • What can I do to help?

    Building children’s confidence allows them to have a go at and try new things

    It allows them to develop social and emotional learning skills and tackle new tasks – even when they might be daunting or completely new. Confidence improves through building on small successes. 

    You can support children when you:

    • explain that skills develop with practice
    • make sure that goals are achievable by breaking down large tasks or responsibilities into small steps
    • scaffold their learning and help when necessary, without taking over
    • encourage them to persist when they don’t succeed straightaway
    • praise effort, persistence and individual improvement
    • acknowledge what they’ve done well and not so well
    • arrange safe and interesting spaces where they’re free to explore and see the effects of their actions
    • answer their questions appropriately – sometimes you won’t know the answer, and that’s OK
    • ask them questions to help them solve problems and promote further learning
    • help them experience that learning is fun
    • use rewards and praise selectively, focusing on the child's effort rather than the outcome.
  • References

    Beaty, J. (2014). Observing development of the young child (8th edn). New Jersey: Pearson Education.

    Mann, M. M., Hosman, C. M., Schaalma, H. P., & De Vries, N. K. (2004). Self-esteem in a broad-spectrum approach for mental health promotion. Health Education Research, 19(4), 357-372.

    Marshall, S. L., Parker, P. D., Ciarrochi, J., & Heaven, P. C. (2014). Is self‐esteem a cause or consequence of social support? A 4‐year longitudinal study. Child Development, 85(3), 1275-1291.

    Ricci, M., & Lee, M. (2016). Mindsets for parents: Strategies to encourage growth mindsets in kids. Texas: Prufrock Press.