Three steps to building confidence in and outside the classroom

How can we best help children grow in confidence and self-esteem, creating a healthy learning environment? Therese Hoyle shares three crucial steps and games to try

Author details

Thérèse Hoyle is an educational consultant and executive coach with over 20 years’ experience. She advises schools and teachers on aspects of behaviour management, anti-bullying, social, emotional and mental health needs of children and teens,...

There is no doubt that the period of lockdown with home-schooling, uncertainty and change has impacted our children’s lives.

With public playgrounds closed over lockdown and one in three children rarely leaving the house, many children have found their play opportunities reduced. In fact, a Save the Children poll found that more than nine out 10 children (92%) felt the way they play had changed since the Covid-19 pandemic.

  • 51% said they were playing outside with their friends less
  • 34% were playing alone more
  • 23% were playing less sport than before.

What can we do?

We need to support children in developing strategies to grow in confidence and self-esteem, both inside and outside the classroom, creating a healthy school and learning culture.

Let’s also be mindful of the worries and concerns that come with a new classroom, new teacher and staff, new pupils and a change in academic expectations, curriculum and play opportunities.

So, how can we build confidence both inside and outside the classroom?

Step 1: Let children play

When children and young people are asked about what they think is important in their lives, playing and friends are consistently at the top of the list.

Play England’s Charter for Play states that: ‘Play is an essential part of every child’s life and is vital for the enjoyment of childhood as well as social, emotional, intellectual and physical development.’

Through play children develop and build relationships, learn social skills, de-stress, let off steam, exercise, and most of all, they have fun.

With this being the case, it seems even more imperative that we make play and outdoor learning a priority as children return to school. 

Some simple playground solutions to encourage outdoor play and learning include:

  • creating an imaginative play area
  • having a dressing up box
  • tea sets
  • small world play equipment
  • sandpit and water play
  • loose parts play
  • making dens in the woods
  • mud kitchens
  • drawing with chalk on the playground
  • outdoor collages
  • bear hunt in the nature garden
  • scavenger hunts.

Zoning your playground

Now we are out of bubbles I’d also suggest creating a variety of zones in your playground to meet all your children’s needs and support diversity and inclusion. Here are some ideas!

  • Playground Games Zone
  • Imaginative and Creative Play Zone
  • Performance Zone
  • Ball Games Zone
  • Construction Zone
  • Craze of the Week
  • Free Play Zone
  • Quiet Zone

Step 2: Play games inside and outside the classroom

Games have the capacity to be hugely inclusive of all children, no matter what age, culture, race, creed or ability. They offer opportunities for everyone in the school playground or classroom to get involved.

With primary school children spending up to 20% of their school day in the playground, playing games supports those children that may feel lacking in confidence and socially isolated.

Create a playground games zone

Encourage lunchtime supervisors and school staff to teach and play games with the children.

Traditional playground games such as ‘In and out the Dusty Bluebells’, ‘What’s the Time Mr Wolf’, ‘Grandmother’s Footsteps’ and ‘Mother May I’ are a great place to start. (If you’d like a reminder of how these games work, you can request a free extract from my playground games book.)

Through playing games children develop their social and teamwork skills

Why not try introducing a ‘game of the week’? Each week, introduce one of the games in assembly, and laminate and display it in the playground, so that the children can learn and practise it at playtime. Include it in the weekly newsletter too – many parents will remember the games and be keen to play them at home.

As time goes on, I suggest creating a ‘games menu,’ which has a selection of pupils’ favourite games on and can be played over the term.  By the end of the school year the children will have a bank of thirty-nine games to play!

Games have been found to be of major importance for children’s physical and mental development and wellbeing. Through playing games children develop their social and teamwork skills, they run around and exercise, but most of all they have fun, which is particularly important at the start of the school year.

Step 3: The power of praise

Over the last 20 years I have studied the benefits of creating cultures of appreciation and celebration, although of course there are various schools of thought on this subject!

Praise can be defined in various ways and in this context includes encouragement, compliments, appreciation, affirmation, acknowledgement, valuing others, commendation, celebration, and gratitude. The Oxford English Dictionary defines it as: ‘to express warm approval or admiration, commendation’.

Praise that acknowledges us as individuals and for our strengths and personal qualities is the most powerful

There are a few praise methods to boost children’s confidence that I recommend.

a) Use ‘you’ not ‘I’ and engage in discussion.

When you praise, remember that the encouragement you are giving is for the child. When you say ‘I’ love your work, the focus is on you and what you think, as opposed to the child.

Try to use ‘you’ statements such as: ‘you have worked so hard, tell me what you have done… You must be very proud of yourself?’

This statement engages the child in discussion, and rather than using evaluative praise and having a brief interaction, you can spend some quality time, listening to that child. 

b) YOU – your own uniqueness: praise them for who they are being, not just for their accomplishments.

We all need to know that who we are is ok and that we are good enough, liked and loved enough for just being ourselves.

Praise that acknowledges us as individuals and for our strengths and personal qualities is the most powerful. For example: ‘You are so kind Amira, I saw you letting others in to play your game at playtime.’

c) Use rewards and encouragers for specific pieces of work, positive behaviours and achievements.

Use stickers and certificates that tell the child and anyone reading them exactly what they have done to earn them.

You may like to make your own.

  • I am a great speller
  • I was a good friend in the playground
  • I was kind today
  • I can recognise numbers to 20

Please avoid the generalised stickers and certificates that just say well done, terrific and so on. 

Sticker talking points

When a child wears a sticker which is specific, everywhere they go people comment upon their sticker and what they did to earn it.

For instance, a teacher gives Jadon a sticker for being a kind friend in the playground. When dad picks him up he might say: ‘Well done Jadon, who were you kind to today?’ They stop off at the corner shop and the person serving behind the counter also comments on his sticker; then they go to see grandma and she asks about it and so on.

By the end of the day Jadon could have had 10 people comment and appreciate him for being kind.

d) Circle times – let’s appreciate and celebrate

In many schools circle time is used as an ongoing programme for building social skills and embedding values. It’s also a time where children can play games, have fun, discuss challenging issues, support one another and work together as a team.

I am a huge advocate of circle time after having a very challenging class early in my teaching career – it was the one system that really made the difference, and I believe in this post lockdown world weekly timetabled circle times can really support our children by giving them a voice, helping them come up with solutions to problems, and develop empathy.

This exercise – Let’s Appreciate and Celebrate – can be used at the end of a circle time, to encourage children to genuinely praise and appreciate one another and develop a vocabulary of encouragement and acknowledgement. It’s also far more powerful for a child to receive praise from their peers than it is from us!

How: The circle time leader says: ‘Is there anyone in this class you are pleased with today?’

Be specific. For instance: for being a good friend, for being honest, for listening and concentrating and so on.

E.g.  Is there anyone in your class who your pleased with because they were a good friend at playtime today?

Children then raise their hands.  If they are chosen, they cross the circle and stand in front of a peer and use one of the below appreciation stem statements, following through with the appreciation.

  • Thank you …….
  • You are someone who……
  • I’m pleased with you because….

E.g. I’m pleased with you because you let me join in your game at playtime when I had no one to play with.

The child receiving the praise then says, ‘thank you.’

The delight on the receiver and the givers face is always heart-warming.

Over to you!

I hope I've given you with some simple steps to support the social, emotional, mental health and wellbeing of your students in the upcoming year.

Which step will you start with?

Further reading

Looking for more inspiration? Read about incorporating movement into the curriculum and ask what's the point of breaktimes?


Last Updated: 
05 Aug 2021