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Why ‘Self-Belief’ is the Gift all Students Should Receive from Teachers by the Time they Finish School

As a child crosses the divide between primary and secondary education, the timing is perfect to deliver this gift. But this ‘crossing’ can be fraught with many obvious and hidden threats

Ross McWilliam
by Ross McWilliam
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What’s the best gift every teacher can give every pupil before they leave primary school?

The short answer to this question is a gift of belief in themselves. The longer answer revolves around a gift of evidenced progress in this self-belief, linked to resilience and emotional intelligence, but with practical preventative mental health strategies.

This gift will yield exponential personal growth with a lifetime return on investment at this crucial transition period.

The Problem

As a child crosses the divide between primary and secondary education, the timing is perfect to deliver this gift. But this ‘crossing’ can be fraught with many obvious and hidden threats.

Whether we admit it or not, we are clearly in an age of increased academic pressure, employment pressure, appearance pressure, the apparent need for digital approval, multi-media perceptions and mis-perceptions, even blatant bullying, and sadly, increasing mental health issues.

Place2Be is a leading national children’s mental health charity and it is concerned with the mental health data it is receiving:

  • One in 10 children aged between 5 and 16 years (three in every classroom) has a mental health problem, and many continue to have these problems into adulthood
  • Over half of all mental ill health starts before the age of 14 years
  • Children are less likely to suffer from serious mental health difficulties in later life if they receive support at an early age, providing a cost saving to adult mental health services

Young Minds, another children’s mental health charity, quotes similar data:

  • 1 in 10 children have a diagnosable mental health disorder – that’s roughly three children in every classroom
  • Almost 1 in 4 children and young people show some evidence of mental ill health (including anxiety and depression)

The Mental Health Foundation are in agreement and state that 70% of children and young people who experience a mental health problem have not had appropriate interventions at a sufficiently early age.

Schools are also appearing to have less emphasis on PSHE, as SAT’s are increasingly seen as the ultimate gold standard of primary school success. This ‘quest to test’ has come at the expense of child emotional development. Overall, teachers are less confident about teaching PSHE and are not trained sufficiently to do so (Ofsted 2013).

Ironically, there is academic data by Sklad, M, Diekstra, R, De Ritter, M, Ben, J and Gravesteijn, C (2012) clearly suggests that improvements in social and emotional education will increase academic attainment.

If Her Royal Highness The Duchess of Cambridge is right, and we do need to prioritise, above all else, the emotional needs of our young people (2016), then this is where timing and opportunity come together for anyone who has the interests of young people at heart. So, what can be done to disarm this ‘ticking timebomb?’

We need to prepare our children in a way that not only insulates them from these negative influences, but also allows them to thrive and reach their full potential, in school and in life. So, given that we know emotional development is crucial, how do we tackle it given the constraints mentioned above.

The Solution

Factors outside school like a loving family support unit that is stable with routines and structures, positive role models and opportunities to engage healthily with the environment, all provide a solid foundation upon which to deliver a complementary and effective school strategy.

Within school, there is a clear need for dedicated lesson/non-lesson time involving a coordinated programme from Year 1 building language, depth and meaning as the child progresses up to Year 6. At Year 7 there must be an intervention nurturing type mechanism that allows pupils to grasp the tools needed for emotional development.

The initial focus should be on self-belief/self-esteem and emotional confidence as this is the platform from which pupils become aware of their capabilities and the needs of others.

This can take the form of identifying personal qualities and achievements or using the ginger bread exercise, the negative influence of comparison, role play of difficult situations and one to one or group discussion about how we feel about ourselves and our capabilities.

The connection between self-esteem and confidence can be compared to a handle and cup ie we must have self-esteem (handle) before we can gain emotional confidence (cup).

More contemporary strategies revolve around mindfulness techniques for calming ie the Mindfulness Hand as pupils breathe in and out while tracing the hand outline and keeping their thoughts clear.

Breathing control as in the 3-6-5 exercise of breathe in for 3 seconds, hold for 6 seconds and breathe out for 3 seconds can be very powerful to calm pupils, especially if linked with simple neurolinguistic programming anchoring techniques.

Writing down thoughts and feelings, as part of positive psychology, are a powerful way to take negative thoughts out of the head and interrogate them methodically and in an unbiased way with a teacher or practitioner.

I use the Today Result/Tomorrow Promise routine ie at night write down three things that went well today (Today Result) and then write at least one thing that will go right tomorrow (Tomorrow Promise).

The following night the exercise is repeated and it is amazing how many more positive incidents occurred as our mind is searching more for positive outcomes.

Linked to the above is the Chimp and Jessica, a good and bad role model approach. The Chimp (The Chimp Paradox by Dr Steve Peters 2012) talks about the bad effects of negative self-talk while Jessica is a powerful young child who uses affirmations to instil a real sense of belief in herself.

This preventative approach, which I document in the CUPPA book series, can give a solid formation of self-worth, active demonstrations of emotional confidence, an acquisition of implicit growth mindset values and various mental health strategies – all of which allow potential to be realised.

As a final reminder as to the importance of the transition years, the following statement on ‘missing talent’ should serve as a warning to all those involved in the educational development of young children (Allen, R The Sutton Trust, June 3rd 2015).

“Every year there are high achievers at primary school, pupils scoring in the top 10% nationally in their Key Stage 2 (KS2) tests, yet who five years later receive a set of GCSE results that place them outside the top 25% of pupils. There are about 7,000 such pupils each year, 15% of all those we term as highly able. We call these pupils our ‘missing talent’”

Ross McWilliam is a freelance speaker with over 30 years of educational experience and is the author of the acclaimed CUPPA mindset books for children ages 9-12. Email him at and find him at

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