INTRODUCTION:  I have been a Counselor at a community college for 12 years and have been struck by the large number of students who admit to having low self-esteem.  It seems that many students believe there is nothing they can do about low self-esteem (Victim role).  They understand that it can negatively affect their chances for success, but they don’t see it as anything they could take responsibility for improving. This activity could be used in any course or workshop or even an individual counseling session where you wanted to address students’ self-esteem. I use it in a 3-credit course called “Strategies for College Success” where we read the On Course textbook by Skip Downing.  Students in the course are a diverse group, ranging in age from 16 to 40’s, and all are brand new to the college experience.


  • to better understand what self-esteem is
  • to realize that Creators take responsibility for the level of their self-esteem
  • to identify specific ways to raise self-esteem
  • to create community


  • Student Journals
  • Video of the film Dead Poets’ Society
  • TV/VCR
  • PowerPoint slide or handout presenting various definitions of self-esteem
  • Before class, assign students to take the Self-Assessment in Chapter 1 of the On Course textbook and have a score for “Believing in Myself.”


1. Organize students into small groups of 3 or 4.

2. Show selected clip from Dead Poets’ Society.  (You may want to give a little background on the movie for those who haven’t seen it.)  Begin with the scene where Todd is in his dorm room writing a poem and then tears it up and throws it away.  The next scene is in class when the teacher (Robin Williams) asks the students to read the poems they wrote for homework.  He eventually calls on Todd, and Todd says he didn’t write a poem.  Stop the video and ask:

  • How much do you think Todd believes in himself?
  • How strong do you think Todd’s self-esteem is (1 – 10)?  How can you tell?
  • How successful do you think Todd will be in life if he doesn’t increase his self-esteem?
  • Why is strong self-esteem important to success in college and in life?
  • Can people raise their own self-esteem?

3. Have students write their personal definition of self-esteem in their journal.  Let them know they will have an opportunity to revise their definition later if they wish.  Also, ask them to identify someone they know who has high self-esteem according to their definition. 

4. In their small groups, have students share their definition of self-esteem and tell a little about the person they chose as having high self-esteem and why.  What is it about this person that shows he/she has high self-esteem?

5. Show a PowerPoint slide with other definitions of self-esteem, such as the following ones provided at the On Course Workshop:

  • “Self-esteem is the ability to value one’s self and to treat one’s self with dignity, love, and respect.” – Virginia Satir
  • “Self-esteem is the experience of being capable of managing life’s challenges and being worthy of happiness.” – National Council for Self-Esteem
  • “Self-esteem is the capacity to experience maximal self-love and joy whether or not you are successful at any point in your life.” – David Burns
  • “Self-esteem is the feeling that we are worthwhile in our personal, social, and work lives.  It comes from feeling loved and respected as a child in our family, by friends, and at school.” – Jeffrey Young and Janet Klosko
  • “Self-esteem is the reputation we have with ourselves.” – Nathaniel Brandon

Ask for students’ comments. Do they agree or disagree with any of these definitions?  Give students the opportunity to revise their own definitions.

6. Continue on with the video, which shows the teacher getting Todd up in front of the class and helping him spontaneously create some very good poetry.  Stop the video and ask:

  • How would you rate Todd’s self-esteem now?  (1 – 10)
  • If you think it is higher now, why?
  • Is it possible for a person’s self-esteem to go up in a matter of only a few minutes?  How?

7. In your group, brainstorm ideas a person could do to raise his or her self-esteem.  Have a group reporter share the ideas with the class and write them on the board.

8. Lead a class discussion about the best ways to raise self-esteem.  Ask the students to take notes because in their journals they will be writing about ways they can raise their own self-esteem.  Some ideas for raising self-esteem that you may want to identify include:

  • Accepting myself
  • Keeping commitments to myself and others
  • Setting realistic expectations
  • Forgiving myself
  • Taking risks
  • Appreciating my creativity, my spirituality, my mind, my body
  • Taking responsibility for my own decisions and actions  (If I agree that self-esteem can be raised, what would happen if I took full-responsibility for the level of my self-esteem?)
  • Expressing my feelings
  • Disputing my Inner Critic
  • Being a person of integrity
  • Understanding and affirming my values
  • Attending to my physical health
  • Developing basic skills
  • Serving humanity
  • Treating myself with love

Students share in their group and/or journal which of the ideas presented they would be willing to implement to raise their own self-esteem.  Ask, “What is the life lesson here?”

OUTCOMES/EXPERIENCES:  This activity went very well with my students.  It seemed like a new idea to many students that they could take responsibility for their self-esteem and be proactive about raising it. They seemed to enjoy using a video clip to begin the discussion.  Previously I had used only the clip of Todd not having written a poem.  It was much more powerful to include the part where Todd comes up with good poetry and to ask the students to compare his level of self-esteem before and after.  We had a lively discussion about how to improve self-esteem and that it doesn’t have to be a long process to do so.  The students were able to come up with many good ideas for raising self-esteem. One idea that provoked much discussion was the idea of serving humanity; in other words, helping people who are worse off than yourself.  The journal entries that the students wrote on this activity were very good.  I was interested to read about how they rated their self-esteem, how they believe it got that way, and especially, the specific ideas they had for improving it. I was able to offer more ideas to them as I read their journals.  This activity also was a good one for creating community in the classroom.  It seemed to be helpful to some people to realize they aren’t the only one who has low self-esteem and it is empowering to realize that a person can do something to improve it.

PERSONAL LESSONS:  I would definitely use this activity again.  I had a big personal ah-ha when I saw the power in accepting personal responsibility for the level of one’s own self-esteem.  The video clip also gave me a new awareness that raising self-esteem does not have to take a long time.  It made me look at my own level of self-esteem, decide that I was personally responsible for raising it, and gave me some specific ideas that I could use.  Another example of the teacher learning more than the students!

–Marianne Auten, Counselor, Paradise Valley Community College, AZ

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