Classroom Personalization and Young Children’s Self-esteem

Recently I wrote about how much it matters for pupils to see, from environmental cues, that they are important in school and how it can affect their academic performance. And, no doubt about it, many teachers do their best to make learning environment cozy, interesting and stimulating for their students.

photo by Kathy Cassidy

However, sometimes when we’re doing something for the children we often tend to do things instead of them. For instance, if you let your toddler choose their outfit, or let your teenager decide on decorating their room, it can be hard not to interfere, and not to push choices that seem better to you. Yes, it’s good to let children know what you think are good choices for them, but there needs to be some space in their lives where they can practice freedom of choice, and consequences and responsibilities that come with it. To do their own mistakes, and learn from them. To leave the trace of who they are at the moment. That’s why teachers might do well by sharing responsibility for environmental adjustments in classroom with their students.

photo by Betchaboy

In classroom, children leave traces of who they are through personalization of the space. Personalization is territorial behaviour where we alter our surroundings in order to display expressions of our identity. We like to have some things around us that remind us of who we are or who we want to be and to show others that we belong there.

photo by knittymarie

Cooper-Marcus (1992, according to Maxwell and Chmielewski, 2008) noticed that parents and educators sometimes misguidedly try to create a personalized environment for children rather than letting children create it for themselves. Why do we do that? Like with many other things we do instead of children, I suppose we just prefer our way better. Plus, we can do it neater and faster. There’s the downside to it, though. The message we send could we verbalized in “Decorations I make are worth being seen, and yours are not.”, or “If you can’t do a bulletin board as neatly as an adult, then don’t bother trying.” (I should accentuate that here I refer to things children are able to do on their own, and not the things they need help with or things  aren’t able to do at all.)

photo by cayoup

So by doing things instead of children we tell them we care about them and that we do things better than they do.  That’s why it’s hard to reject that message. We all trust people who care about us and children are particularly sensitive to feedback they get. If the loved ones act as we’re incapable of something, we belive it, too. It’s much easier to reject an underestimating appraisal of oneself if it comes from somebody we’re not attached to.

photo by Kathy Cassidy

On the other hand, we can turn this dynamic into more positive direction. By placing children’s work and other materials that relate to the uniqueness of each child (photographs, birth dates) throughout a classroom, we can provide environmental clues that children matter (CooperMarcus & Sarkissian, 1986; Weinstein, 1987; according to Maxwell and Chmielewski, 2008), which can contribute further to their sense of being valued. Such reasoning inspired Maxwell and Chmielewski (2008) to investigate potential role of personalization displays on children’s self-esteem.

photo by Kathy Cassidy

Their study included kindregarteners and first graders and employed a classroom intervention (increasing environmental personalization). Children’s self-esteem was measured by their teachers and by themselves. On both measures of self-esteem, there was a significant positive effect of classroom personalization for first graders (self-esteem scores improved, while in classrooms without intervention they remained constant). However, for kindergarteners there was a significant positive effect for only one measure, teachers’ appraisal of their self-esteem.

photo by Patrick Q

Research about effects of physical classroom environment on the socio-emotional development of children are, surprisingly, quite rare (or rarely published?). That’s why it’s hard to find (much needed!) support to these findings from other authors, even though I expect that to change in near future. Maxwell and Chmiewski give us enough material to belive that it’s possible to enhance students’ notion of self-worth by allowing them to personalize their classrooms, and to make other researchers curious about this phenomenon. While waiting for more to be discovered about it, I’d like to share exact projects Maxwell and Chmiewski offered to teachers in order to increase classroom personalization.

photo by Kathy Cassidy

Reference(s)

1. Maxwell, L.E. and Chmielewski, E.J. (2008) Environmental personalization and elementary school children’s self-esteem. Journal of Environmental Psychology 28, 143–153.


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