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July 12, 2022

Teaching Self-Compassion and Self-Confidence

My friend, Anne, is a second grade teacher.
Anne and I became friends at our gym, and we always take the time to catch up when we see each other. Last week, I asked Anne how the school year was going, and she responded, “Today, teaching was like having a birthday party for 28 seven-year-olds…six times in a row.”
No wonder she sleeps in on Saturdays.

In Sheryl Sandberg’s book, Option B-Facing Adversity, Building Resilience and Finding Joy, she talks about stress experiments where loud sounds are broadcast as participants work on puzzles requiring focus. The loud noises distract the participants and cause so much frustration, many give up. Others, who were given a button they could push to stop the noise, were able to persevere. Even though they never pushed the button, knowing they could if they needed to, helped them manage their stress.

Anne’s “button” is going to the gym.

Sandberg wrote Option B after the unexpected death of her husband. In her writing, she shares her thoughts and what the research says about overcoming hardships, perseverance, and her personal fear that she would “never feel pure joy again.” Sprinkled throughout Option B are heartfelt references to the work of teachers, and encouragement for each of us, regardless of our profession, to manage our stress in healthy ways, to practice self-compassion and to have self-confidence. Sandberg’s voice is bathed in vulnerability, as she describes the tragedy of her husband’s death and how it erased her self-compassion and robbed her of her self-confidence.

Because we are humans, the majority of us will experience trauma at some point in our lives. The National Survey of Children’s Exposure to Violence found that over 60% of children surveyed “experienced some form of trauma, violence, or abuse within the prior year.” So many of our students have experienced trauma, that it is difficult for them to focus on learning. Describing how we can move from trauma to post-traumatic growth, Sandberg uses the term “bounce forward,” and identifies self-compassion and self-confidence as two necessary characteristics to help us heal, grow, and “bounce.”

Psychologist Kristin Neff describes self-compassion as offering the same kindness to ourselves that we would give to a friend. And, psychologist Mark Leary says self-compassion can be an antidote to the cruelty we sometimes inflict on ourselves.

A lesson in self-compassion is significant for our students, as well as ourselves.

“Self-compassion is associated with greater happiness and satisfaction, fewer emotional difficulties, and less anxiety. Both women and men can benefit from self-compassion, but since women tend to be harder on themselves, they often benefit more.”
-Sheryl Sandberg

How can I help my students and how can I practice self-compassion?

  1. Use the right words.

One of the effects of trauma is shame. Dr. Brene Brown, a social worker, teacher at the University of Houston, and self-described “shame researcher” discusses the differences between shame, guilt, humiliation, and embarrassment and encourages us to use the appropriate word when talking about our feelings. To help us understand the differences in our emotions, Dr. Brown assigns phrases. For shame, the phrase is “I am bad”—it focuses on the person, not on the action. On the other hand, she explains, guilt emphasizes the behavior, as in “I did something bad.” Humiliation is different from shame, as it stresses the event, “What happened to me was bad, I didn’t deserve it.” Lastly, embarrassment is when we know what happened to us has also happened to others—and has an element of empathy to it, “That was bad, but this has happened to other people, too” or “others have made the same mistake.” In talking about elementary and middle school students, Sandberg notes those who felt shame (“I am bad”) were often antagonistic and destructive, while those who experienced guilt (“I did something bad”) were better at conflict resolution. By understanding what each of these words mean, we learn to correctly identify our feelings. When we can correctly identify our feelings, we learn to have self-compassion.

  1. Read.

Reading is another way we, and our students, can learn self-compassion. Recently, my colleague created a webinar called Independent Reading: Re-energizing the Reading Culture in Your Classroom. In the webinar there are a number of strategies, including how teachers can use their own love of books to spark a love of reading in their students. Some strategies are as simple as reading a passage or a book aloud to create a connection. Once a connection happens, a reader is created! Reading books about life’s struggles, teaches us we are not alone and builds empathy. As Plato so eloquently put it, “Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a harder battle.” Yes, we must remember to be kind to others, but to ourselves, too.

  1. Write. Another way we can learn self-compassion is through writing.Journaling has been proven to be particularly beneficial in generating self-compassion. For our students who have experienced trauma, putting our feelings into words can be a powerful way to identify and express emotions, and to work towards healing. Writing a letter to yourself can be helpful if we are seeking our own forgiveness for a mistake we have made. In an experiment where people were asked to remember a time when they made a mistake or failed, and then wrote themselves a letter of forgiveness, those who showed kindness were 40% happier and 24% were less angry.
    What can I do to encourage self-confidence in my students, and myself?

“Self-confidence is critical to happiness and success. When we lack it, we dwell on our flaws.We fail to embrace new challenges and learn new skills. We hesitate to take even a small risk that can lead to a big opportunity.”
-Sheryl Sandberg

When struggling with self-confidence, one of Sandberg’s strategies is “The List of 3.” To use this strategy, start by writing down three things you did well each day over a period of time. For Sandberg, who was in survival mode after the loss of her husband, some days her list would be as simple as:

  1. returned emails
  2. made tea
  3. focused at work for most of one meeting

What would your list look like?

Creating a list of three daily accomplishments is known by psychologists as “small wins,” and sets us on a trajectory of positivity and success, which helps build confidence. As teachers, we can start a list of small wins when working with a student with special needs, or a student who has been difficult to reach. We can start a list of small wins when introducing a new lesson, subject, or strategy in the classroom. At the end of the semester, we can go back and review our lists to see how far we, and our students, have come! The List of 3 is a place to begin, and sometimes, that’s all we, and our students, need.

Sandberg goes on to describe research studies that demonstrate how work that gives us a sense of meaning and purpose helps to protect us from burn-out, helps us feel more adept at managing difficult situations, gives us more energy, and helps us grow.

“…work can be a source of purpose.The jobs where people find the most meaning are often ones that serve The roles of clergy, nurses, firefighters, addiction counselors,and kindergarten teachers (and other grades, too!) can be stressful,but we rely on these often under-compensated professionals for health and safety, learning and growth.”

-Sheryl Sandberg

Self-compassion and self-confidence—two characteristics we must nurture in ourselves, and in our students, to manage trauma, tragedy, and to ensure we all bounce forward.


  • Brown, B. South by Southwest Conference (2017). Daring Classrooms [Video File]. Retrieved from
  • Grant, A. & Sandberg, S. (2017). Option B: Facing Adversity, Building Resilience and Finding Joy. Random House. NY, NY.
  • David Finkelhor, D., Turner, H., Ormrod, R., Hamby, S., Kracke, K. Retrieved November 2017. The National Survey of Children’s Exposure to Violence. Office of Justice Programs.

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