Supporting Students with Low Confidence – A Practical Guide

As an early years specialist, I regularly work with children holistically, or with the whole of the child, to support and promote early development. That is the beauty of the early years seven areas of learning as opposed to ‘subjects’ which all intertwine and support one another. Of course, the early years curriculum isn’t without its flaws, but for the sake of a ‘holistic’ approach, it does give us an insight into how each area affects one another.

Tired student works on laptop

But this isn’t really about the early years, more of a look at how an early years approach can support confidence in thelater key stages. Schools must maintain their places in league tables and have certain attainment standards for their students. This sometimes means (unless you’re in a particularly good school) that much of this ‘otherness’, or areas which aren’t going to score the points, are often overlooked or shoved to afternoon slots when everyone’s burnt out from all their maths and reading.

As a former primary school teacher, I know this all too well.

The fact that subjects are largely taught in ability groups and at such a fast pace is usually the reason why children show low confidence. They are constantly reminded, whether it be by the groups they’re sat in or that one other child who always has the answer, that they’re not ‘as good’ at something than others. This can lead to them doubting themselves in other subjects and may leave them wondering why they just can’t ‘get it’.

What if learning looked a little more like the early years approach? What if we allowed children to explore topics in a more unstructured and exploratory way? What if we paid attention to the whole child: their needs, interests, skills, strengths and created learning that supported their development holistically?

Perhaps, with a different approach, these children who show low confidence will begin to flourish and thrive. I have seen this in action with so many of my students from Key Stage 1 right up to GCSE. In my experience, tailoring learning to suit a student’s needs, rather than filling them with facts, is the best way to raise children’s confidence and that’s where this three-pronged teaching approach comes from.

How can we promote confidence?

In my experience, there are three key things that help to raise confidence in children and young people: holistic learning, repetition and promoting a growth mindset. There are certainly other things too, but these are the big three! In this article, I want to go through each aspect to make it crystal clear how they can work together to help students raise their confidence levels. You can also scroll down to see a case study which shows how I have been able to use these with a particular student in key stage three.

Holistic learning

As we’ve already seen, holistic learning is an approach to learning that encompasses the whole being of a child. It draws upon the learner’s interests, skills and knowledge. It puts emphasis on emotional health, relationships and democratic learning far more than traditional learning (Loveless, 2021) and also highlights the importance of the process of learning, rather than the end result (Owen, 2021). This isn’t a new concept whatsoever. In fact, Miller et al (2018) write that ‘great teachers such as Lao Tse, Buddha, Confucius, and Socrates emphasised the importance of compassion, which is central to holistic education’ and goes on to explain that ‘Rousseau, Froebel, and Pestalozzi focused on the goodness and wholeness of children’ in their education. This preceded the Steiner and Montessori movements in the twentieth century and eventually, the ‘holistic Curriculum’ was born (Miller, 2000). This has been adopted by many education providers and seeks to connect all aspects of a student’s development to promote learning. You can read more about it here:

The idea behind it is very simple. By approaching a child’s learning through ideas and concepts that are interesting and important to the student, we can promote positive engagement with a subject.

We can also use holistic approaches to intertwine learning and cover the aspects of the curriculum that are needed through fun and engaging topics. For example, let’s say you are tutoring a child in maths and English at Key Stage 2. From your engagements with the child, and by spending time ‘getting to know’ your student, you find out that they are big fans of Matilda by Roald Dahl. From that you can design a curriculum that allows you to cover obvious English outcomes, but also several maths outcomes too. Matilda lends itself to the idea of division, percentages, measurements etc in two parts of the story: The car dealership that her father owns and the idea of eating chocolate cake! (I have used the chocolate cake part to drive sessions based around percentages of cake, ratios of ingredients and weight measures). You can also weave the ideas around morality and choices. All it takes is a bit of creativity!


School is a fast-paced learning environment which relies on children learning concepts quickly and applying them just as fast.

When specific and important concepts have been missed, your child is expected to play catch up. Imagine if they were to miss a day or two of school due to illness. During this time they miss two lessons based around the crucial art of long multiplication and, whilst their classmates are busy responding to more complex and worded questions involving this basic skill, your child is still trying to figure out what it’s all about!

Giving time to go over, revisit and repeat concepts is hugely important to raising confidence across the curriculum and to strengthen basic skills. Bruner (2001) explains that repetition is important for a learner’s engagement and can help to deepen the learning process. For example, through encouraging repetitive learning opportunities, students can: engage in self-paced discovery, reflect on what they have learned and develop clarity of thought. All these elements help to promote ‘deep learning’ (Bruner, 2001).

I have spent many weeks going over the same content (albeit presented in different ways) to promote children’s understanding in many different subjects. The sheer delight when they finally ‘get it’ is joyous on so many levels. It’s those days that I live for! 

Let’s link back to early years again. Remember those times that your child was picking up so many new things? New numbers, sounds, words? Of course, development is not always as linear as this, particularly when your child is neurodivergent, but in many cases children in their early years are often referred to as ‘sponges’ who soak up new information and skills quickly and efficiently. Yes, early brain development has a lot to do with this, but it also has to do with the fact that children at this age are given the opportunity to practice and to repeat their learning. They are also given the opportunity to fail and to learn from their failures in safe and supported ways. When a student in school is struggling to grasp a specific concept, their fear of failure gauge is at maximum and their anxiety can often go into overdrive. Being able to revisit their learning over time, with a supportive teacher, allows them to reduce anxiety and become more able to learn positively from mistakes. This is hugely important in developing a ‘growth mindset’, which is our next subject.

Promoting a growth mindset

Small plant grows in the hand

A growth mindset allows people to constantly attempt and learn new things without getting hung up on failure. It linksback to our first point about holistic development because it focuses on the process of learning rather than the outcome. Sure, we all want a good outcome in life, but success really is in how you learn rather than what you learn. 

Carol Dweck, the person who coined the terms ‘growth’ and ‘fixed’ mindsets, explains through her research that she found people were more likely to be successful if they harboured a growth mindset. These people believe that through: hard work, good strategies and relationships with others, they could develop their skills and talents (Dweck, 2019). This has been adopted by many learning facilities including Bright Sparks Tutors, where we use ‘the power of yet’ to support student’s growth mindsets. 

The power of yet is a mighty tool which allows students to transform their thinking and their self-perceptions. When a student says, ‘I can’t do algebra!’, we add ‘yet’ to the end of their sentence. This is an example of such a small word causing a whole new range of possibilities for the un-confident learner.

Suddenly, they can believe in themselves!

They can identify that, just because they don’t know how to do something now, it doesn’t mean they won’t be able to do it in the future! I highly recommend that you watch this brilliant Ted Talk with Carol Dweck, who we previously identified as the psychologist behind the mindsets mentioned above.


Case study

So how does this work in action?

Let me introduce you to Ben. Ben was a student I worked with who was in year 9 and had a sensory processing condition. He was shy, reserved and desperately low in his confidence. Ben’s mum had asked me to help Ben with English, Science and Maths twice a week in a blended learning format (once online and once face-to-face). 

I spoke with Ben about his hopes and aspirations for the future. We discussed his dream of being an illustrator and found common ground in his interest in anime… although Ben’s taste was a little beyond mine!

Before we started learning, we talked. We got to know each other. We built up a rapport that allowed me to assess where he lacked confidence and why he lacked confidence. I used my knowledge of Ben to create a holistic program of study in which we covered the curriculum outcomes for those core subjects, but which also covered them in a way that engaged Ben’s interests. There were plenty of struggles along the way for Ben, particularly when he disclosed that some of the other students had been making fun of him, but we persevered. In those sessions where Ben felt deflated, we focused on mindfulness strategies and his wellbeing. 

I was able to take Ben’s learning right back and uncover areas which he had ‘missed’ in his education, or that had sped past him. We looked at basic phonics which I presented to him in a much more teenage-accessible way, and his spellings improved! I gave him time to revisit his learning over and over again until he had mastered the basics. I presented this repetitive learning in a myriad of ways and in ways that he found enjoyable. For example, during our revision technique lessons, Ben used the characters from his favourite anime to create mind maps and revision cards. 

During our first few lessons together, Ben would often say, ‘Oh, I’m no good at that’, and that’s when I would chime in with ‘yet’. I could tell by his face that he found this particularly annoying at times, but it wasn’t long until he was using ‘yet’ to finish his own sentences! 

By the end of our sessions Ben had transformed into this young boy with a great attitude to learning and who shined in his year 9 exams. It wasn’t so much the content he had learned, but that he had uncovered his enjoyment of learning. He had discovered his ability to learn. Ben had discovered that he was a good learner and used that to take in all the information he could at school and at home.

I still continue to work with Ben and we are now looking at tackling his GCSE’s in the coming school year.

Thank you for reading

I hope that you found this article useful. Try to consider these points when you plan for your child’s learning long term learning. Think about their interests and create a fun and engaging learning topic that encompasses different areas of development, not just those core subjects! Consider how you will repeat the learning in a variety of ways and also how you will use the ‘power of yet’ to promote a positive growth mindset in your students. I wish you all the best in your teaching.



Bruner, Robert. (2001). Repetition is the First Principle of All Learning. ] Available at: <> [Accessed 17 August 2021].

Dweck, C. S. (2019) ‘The Choice to Make a Difference’, Perspectives on Psychological Science, 14(1), pp. 21–25. doi: 10.1177/1745691618804180.

Loveless, B., 2021. Holistic Education: A Comprehensive Guide. [online] Available at: <> [Accessed 17 August 2021].

Miller, J.P., Nigh, K., Binder, M.J., Novak, B., & Crowell, S. (Eds.). (2018). International Handbook of Holistic Education (1st ed.). Routledge.

Miller, R. (2000). ‘A brief introduction to holistic education’, The encyclopedia of pedagogy and informal education. [ Retrieved: 17.08.21].

Owen, R., 2021. Broadening the Circle of Holistic Education. 1st ed. [ebook] Available at: <> [Accessed 17 August 2021].

Vaughn J. Crandall & Alice Rabson (1960) Children’s Repetition Choices in an Intellectual Achievement Situation following Success and Failure, The Journal of Genetic Psychology, 97:1, 161-168, DOI: 10.1080/00221325.1960.10534323

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