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A City Education: The Domino Effect of Raising Students' Self-Esteem

Building one student's confidence enables him to positively influence his peers.


In our A City Education series, two City Year corps members share their experiences working as tutors and mentors in schools in hopes of closing the achievement gap and ending the dropout crisis.

Many of the students we work with at Markham Middle School are just beginning to become more aware of their actions. The students who act up in class know they are doing it. But like many kids their age, when they’re called on their behavior, sometimes they play the "victim" and say what’s going on is not their fault.


Because we’ve gotten to know our students individually, we’re often able to decipher why they act the way they do and help them change their behavior. One of my teammates, Dylan, has seen the impact mentoring can have on a student's behavior and confidence.

Dylan's sixth-grade student, Sean, was the class troublemaker from day one. He would not listen or do his work. When Dylan pushed him to complete his math assignments, Sean would respond with self-doubt, saying that he was "stupid" and "couldn't do it."

The teacher called Sean’s home about his bad attitude—his mother would reprimand him, but his behavior didn’t improve. That's when Dylan saw the root of the problem: Sean had low self-esteem. Instead of asking Sean why he wasn't doing work, Dylan changed tactics and began to build Sean’s belief that he could do it.

"You're better than this, man." Dylan would say to Sean after he got kicked out of class. "You're a really smart kid and your mother cares about you."

Dylan told Sean that he was chosen to work with him this year because he and his teachers believed Sean could improve significantly. Sean finally admitted that he didn’t participate in class because he was afraid the academic content would be too difficult. Misbehaving was simply a way to distract from his struggles with his schoolwork.

Dylan decided to take what he knew about Sean's personal life—he enjoys sports and spending time with his younger brother—and translate it into an academic plan. He took Sean to the library to check out sports books, and they agreed that Sean would practice his literacy skills at home by reading aloud to his brother. Dylan regularly repeats, "If I believe in myself, others will, too,” to Sean, and the encouragement has paid off. Now Sean is focusing on school and earning higher grades in both math and English.

The Markham staff noticed Sean's turnaround, too. Both Sean's math/science and English/social studies teachers recently named him "Most Improved Student." Sean's mother was proud to see her son recognized, and her praise has motivated Sean to continue to try to impress her. Sean also promised Dylan he will be a role model for his brother.

When one student misbehaves in class, it often creates a domino effect, and others follow suit. At the start of the school year, my team believed student behavior issues were beyond our control, but now we know that improving one student's behavior has a domino effect too, creating a positive, peer-to-peer model. We’ve seen it happen with Sean—the students at his table in the classroom are now on-task in class because he sets a good example for his peers.

Now that Sean’s self-esteem is up, he's taking responsibility for his behavior and understands that his actions today will affect his future. As Sean's mentor, Dylan will keep reinforcing this and building his self-confidence.

Photo courtesy of City Year Los Angeles

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