Self-esteem: More then Just a Buzzword
Though I have only been at TYO a short while, already I feel that I have learnt a lot about the importance of early childhood education. Specifically, this week I have striven to understand the complexities which accompany children’s understandings of themselves. I have learnt that this is a multidimensional topic where the many interrelated feelings of a child work together to create his/her identity. This week I have focused on understanding why addressing issues regarding children’s self-esteem and their conceptions of themselves is so critical to the healthy development of children’s emotions.
Though the importance of building children’s feelings of self-esteem is often downplayed, it is nevertheless one of the most fundamental aspects of child development (Hannell, 2012: 2). When a child does not receive positive reinforcement for his/her achievements, or is overlooked within the home, normal development can be hindered due to the negative feelings these actions create (Hannell, 2012: 2). In addition, in the Palestinian context specifically, the children TYO targets often live in cramped conditions and go to schools that use outdated teaching methods and corporal punishment. Combined together, these factors foster conditions in which children often crave attention, and lack access to the encouragement necessary for the healthy development of feelings of self-esteem and self-worth.
Noting this reality, TYO is striving to combat these norms using a psychosocial approach to child development. This Method is critical to TYO’s mission as it is designed to complement the pre-existing Palestinian school system by shifts curriculum and teacher focus away from concentrating strictly on children’s cognitive development, to instead deal with children’s emotional and psychological development as well (Bukatko and Daehler, 2012: 26-27).
By structuring their curriculum to focuses on weekly themes designed to foster children’s understanding of their wider community and to enhance children’s feelings of self-worth and self-respect, TYO is providing invaluable opportunities for some of the most disadvantaged children in Nabulus. For example, this week's theme being taught to youth 9-13 years old is the concept of “myself." Through the mediums of music, drama and sport children are being encouraged to explore and share what they like about themselves, their aspirations for the future, their ideal selves and to have confidence in their own unique abilities. By presenting this material in an entertaining way while also providing a safe and positive atmosphere for self-expression, TYO is able to promote the development of the vital psychosocial skills necessary for children’s future success.
I started interning with Tomorrows Youth Organization only two weeks ago, and how time flies here in Nablus! So far I have been blown away by the wide variety of programs that TYO has to offer the Palestinian community residing in Nablus. This wide variety can be seen reflected in my own class schedule. I am teaching Professional Competency and Conversational English classes at An-Najah Univeristy here in Nablus, as well as providing fitness classes to The Women’s Group. But my main priority lies with the sports classes that have started running this week with children, ages 11-13, from the local vicinity as well as the surrounding refugee camps.
In their psychosocial approach, TYO offers a uniquely effective way to engage with and care for the minds of these Palestinian children. Recently published research focusing on “Promoting Mental Health and Psychosocial Well-Being in Children Affected by Political Violence," conveys the common traits of post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and major depression disorder that affects many children who grow up within areas of political violence. At the TYO centre, the background from which these children come from, which is often displaced families who are now living in refugee camps, is taken into consideration in all the programs offered. For instance, this week in our classes we have been focusing on the importance of ‘Myself" and children were asked to consider the good qualities that they have with the aim of improving their self-esteem and helping them to build self-acceptance. These activities focus less on developing hard skills and more on the psychosocial wellbeing of children.
The theme of intern classes: “Me and My Community”, began this week with an emphasis on “Myself." Through class activities, kids are encouraged to see themselves as special with a unique place in their community. Arriving with a list of activities that I pre-determined would be “successful,” I thought encouraging these concepts would be fairly easy. Having been in Nablus for less than two weeks, I have seen many of my plans not being able to get kids out of their shell. I anticipated the struggle with not being able to directly communicate with most kids, as well as the distance inherent to having a new teacher from a foreign place. I did not however imagine the level of encouragement and inquiry that was commonly necessary to get kids to pick one thing they liked about themselves. Growing up in a refugee camp with 1 x 2 meter living spaces or coming from homes affected by conflict-related stress have profound psychosocial effects that make themselves apparent when kids have to do something as simple as picking one thing they are good at.
While this discovery was initially sad for me as I'm someone who has previously worked with sassy kids who can’t wait to jump on stage and share, it’s followed by moments of excitement and surprise that are well worth the wait. Rama, a young girl who did not participate in class discussion, colored the edges of her superhero mask, not writing future goals or aspirations like her classmates. After asking her about the potential for an Olympic appearance, or whether she liked Mohammed Assaf, the Arab Idol star my volunteers had just finished telling me about, I learned that she really likes school and loves to read. Seeing her crack a smile wiped away the moments of frustration that had occurred the previous couple days. Struggling to get students to identify what made them special was unusual and sometimes shocking, but the satisfaction of seeing them become more comfortable expressing themselves was worth it.
In the United States, children are accustomed to talking about what they want to be when they grow up. Personally, I had an extensive list that included becoming a professional figure skater and a cheerleader. Obviously, things have changed a little. But here in Nablus, where occupation puts constant psychological stress on children and families alike, young children often grow up feeling not only hopeless about their future, but unsure of their worth in the present. Some of them don’t even expect to live long enough to become anything. Many of our kids come from large families in crowded refugee camps, with next to no space to play or express their individuality. Without the individual attention and creative outlets that we take for granted, children miss an important chance to develop psychologically and to feel worthy of themselves. The kind of creative expression that is second nature to Western children is not a part of the way these kids were raised, which can have a significant impact on their self-image.
In our after-school classes this week, we’re focusing on the theme of Me and My Community, to reinforce the idea that not only are our kids special, they also have an important role to play in their communities. This week, we talked about self-image and the idea that we should value ourselves now but also hope for more for ourselves in the future. My kids did an art project so that they could show off who they are now and how they plan on growing. For some of them, the concept of self-improvement was difficult- they couldn’t imagine anything that they could change, or would want to. I asked them to think about what made them smile, and told them that if they preferred they could talk about what they wanted to be when they grew up. There are few viable career paths available to most of them and just as few outlets for their energy, and I was unsurprised to see many stereotypical occupations and skills in their lists. However, a few surprised and inspired me, such as girls who wanted to be better than the boys at soccer, and some who wanted to be airplane pilots, artists, and famous chefs. It made me happy to know that they have a place where they can express these desires, and their need to be heard was obvious from the way they pressed and crowded to show me their work and vied for the chance to share their dreams with their class. All children crave the ability to dream, and to have their dreams heard and their talents validated, and I’m thrilled to be able to be their sounding board for the next three months as they explore their places in this community.