Confidence is such an important skills for young people to be able to demonstrate as they grow up and start entering the job marketing. But like any skill it is like a “muscle” that needs to be worked. A young person’s ability to stand out and come across as confident in what they can bring to a company is one thing that sets them apart from their competition.

I worked as a camp director for 10 years and I interviewed hundreds of youth and young adults for summer jobs. When someone showed confidence in a job interview it stood out. I can honestly say that less than 10% of candidates demonstrated that skill.

I wanted to find out exactly how the arts is instilling confidence in young people, so I reached out to music educator, Erica Troy to find out what she is doing in her classroom that is developing confidence in her students through music.

Lisa’s Question: Do you find that your students are already confident or is it something that needs to be nurtured?

Erica’s Answer: I have the incredible opportunity to work closely with every student in my school – all 369 of them at last count – each week. Being their music teacher, I also get to have them in my classroom and see them grow and develop over multiple years. If I have learned anything in my 15+ years of teaching it is that every student brings different strengths and challenges to the table. I have students who have an incredibly strong sense of self and are fully confident in their choices and abilities. My job with those students is often to help them figure out how to be confident and proud of their achievements without making others feel less able in the process. I think most of my students are confident in some areas of their life but are less sure of themselves in others.

My 9-year-old daughter (who also happens to be one of my students) falls squarely into this category. She attacks some activities like she owns them and shows a great deal of anxiety about others. I also have some students who need a lot of support to develop self-confidence. I find myself thinking a lot about those students – what can I do to help them develop the confidence they will need to successfully navigate the world in the short amount of time I have them? What factors are preventing them from being able to stand tall and proud in their own space?

Lisa’s Question: So what do you think is preventing young people from being able to demonstrate confidence and be proud in their own space?

Erica’s Answer: There’s no one simple answer to this. One factor I have seen again and again, though, is adults (teachers, parents, coaches, etc.) wanting to dive in and rescue when things get hard. Adults are often uncomfortable allowing children to hang in that tough place right before true growth occurs for long enough, so they swoop in to help and in the process take away the independence and confidence that would have come with a hard fought win.

Lisa’s Question: What are you doing to develop your students’ confidence through music?

Erica’s Answer: I believe confidence is built through scaffolded, validated success. My job is to design lessons that appropriately challenge all of my students and to help them see and validate their progress, whether it is a tiny step or a giant leap. When students put themselves out there and do something brave and out of their comfort zone, I make sure their effort is celebrated. My hope is eventually my students will be confident enough to validate their own success, but know that, especially for my more reluctant students, practice in recognizing those small gains is the first step.

Lisa’s Question: Do you have a specific approach to validating their progress? Are there specific things that you do or say?

Erica’s Answer: I do have a few rules I try to follow –

  • Be specific. Children hear general praise all the time. Focus in on one thing that stood out that was an improvement or should continue.
  • Take “I like” out of the feedback. This has been a tough habit for me to break, but in the end authentic, growth-provoking feedback has absolutely nothing to do with me and what I like or don’t like. Giving feedback about what I like implies that the ultimate goal of learning/growth is to please someone else and undermines the transition to self-reflection and self-validation.
  • Ask the student to articulate what they did differently or how it made him feel. Our goal in giving feedback is to help children become self-reflective and to give them the tools they need to validate their own effort and progress.

In practice it sounds something like this in my classroom –

“You hit that low D in Ode to Joy without slowing down the tempo even a little bit. That was hard for you last time. What did you do differently to make that happen?”

“It took a lot of guts to get up in front of your class and sing a solo. You showed confidence in the way you were standing tall and projecting your voice. How did that make you feel?”

Lisa’s Question: When you are lesson-planning do you think about how a particular lesson will enhance your student’s confidence?

Erica’s Answer: I can’t say I think specifically about developing confidence when I am designing a lesson – in that stage of planning I am more focused on developing activities that enhance and advance whatever musical target we are trying to reach. I believe strong teachers teach social and life skills through whatever subject they are teaching. They constantly weave social learning into academic activities. They create classroom communities where social and academic learning are recognized as equally important.

Lisa’s Question: How important is it for them to perform to develop this skill? What results do you see from your students after performances?

Erica’s Answer: I have been a performing musician for as long as I can remember. There is nothing quite like the high that comes after a great performance. One of the fastest ways to build confidence in any area is to have a great performance, especially if the performance was a culmination of lots of hard work.

Performance gives students an opportunity to have others validate their improvements in a very public way, but I don’t believe it’s the only way to develop confidence. For some of my students, performing is exhilarating. For others, it is completely terrifying. I don’t think there is a one size fits all answer to any question in education!!

Lisa’s Question: You’ve been a music educator for over 15 years, what have you noticed about young people’s confidence level. Is it going up or down?

Erica’s Answer: Tough question. I think maybe the gap between the two extremes is widening. The children I see who are confident are REALLY confident. But there has also been a huge increase in the number of children who really struggle with anxiety, and in my experience, anxiety and true confidence are mutually exclusive.

Lisa’s Question: If you had to give advice to other educators about how to develop confidence in their students what would you share with them?

Erica’s Answer: A few practical tips…

  • Be willing to put your plan aside and address what is happening in your classroom in real time. If the perfect opportunity to talk confidence arises, take advantage of it.
  • Resist the temptation to repeat what your students are saying. Student voice is important. Instead of repeating an answer so the rest of the class can hear it, ask the student to repeat it in a stronger voice.
  • Provide multiple opportunities for students to take risks. They will be much more willing to take risks in the big bad world if they have had the opportunity to practice many times in a safe classroom environment.

Thank you Erica for sharing your insights into what you are observing and living in your own classroom. For those of you who are educators, we’d love for you to chime in on this discussion. Please share your comments and let us know what you are experiencing.