How Self Confidence Affects Learning

As the year progresses and things get tough–self confidence and self-esteem becomes a stronger predictor of success.  So many of our students begin to buckle as the work becomes more difficult.  Teachers can scaffold to make learning more attainable but there is still time that students MUST persevere through difficult tasks.

I was inspired to revisit some research that I completed about self confidence and how it affects learning.

Self-esteem or confidence actually resides in the frontostriatal section of the brain which is located between the ventral striatum and the prefrontal cortex (Decision making, personality and social parts of brain) according to Anna Almendrala (2014).   The ventral striatum is associated with feelings of motivation and reward.  Studies have shown that with continual positive or negative statements and emotions an increase or decrease can occur in the activity of this pathway of the brain. Therefore this affects the person’s self-esteem.

According to Susana Martinez-Conde from Barrow Neurological Institute in Phoenix, our brain “makes use of two types of knowledge everyday:  explicit knowledge (the “know what” type) and implicit knowledge (the “know how”).   She uses the example of explicit knowledge is knowing your math facts which is something concrete but implicit knowledge is riding a bike which is something you know how to do. Implicit knowledge is not as easy to explain to someone because it uses many functions and actions to complete the action—you know how to do it.

Self-confidence is an element added to these two types of knowledge which affects our ability to share or retrieve this knowledge based on what she calls real memories or fake (subconscious).  Our subconscious (fake memories) actually is the foundation for how our own confidence is ascertained.  Our subconscious is much like a “recorder” because it is taking information from all of our senses and recording impressions.  Our subconscious is different from other information taken in from our brain which is manipulated, organized and utilized in a purposeful way.  The information from our subconscious is simply brought in and impressions recorded. When we are engaged in certain activities, these impressions will cause anxiety or enjoyment or lack of confidence based on previous information gathered by our subconscious.

Powerful Information!!  Think about a student from a home where literacy is not celebrated. This could be for various reasons; parents uncomfortable reading, lack or unstructured time, unstable environment.  The events are not necessarily remembered but an overall impression is being created in the brain as the subconscious records the events. These recordings are creating negative feelings that will be associated with literacy. In contrast, our children who grow up in literacy rich homes feel comfortable with reading and more willing to try because the subconscious has recorded positive attributes with the event.

This immediately made me think of this quote from Ghandi.

The implications I have gathered through my research is that most likely our lowest performing students have developed a negative feeling or impression of the topic in which they struggle.  When a negative thought is repeated many times it is actually being “recorded” and causes stress when the child engages in this activity. For example, speaking publicly is very difficult for me because I lack confidence in that area and I have over the years developed negative feelings about being in that situation.  To combat this low self-confidence or negative feeling in our students, we must replace the negative connotation with positive repeatedly.

Positive affirmation can simply be a smile!  Smiling, positive feedback, encouraging words and simply being patient can help a child begin to “record” positive subconscious thoughts as they engage in the activity such as reading.  The more positive and comfortable the student feels, the more likely they are to try harder and build higher self-confidence.  For students who are extremely shut down, a tangible reward paired with positive feedback can begin to create the connection between the task and a good experience.

Positive feedback and sometimes a tangible trip to the prize box will activate the ventral striatum (home of reward and motivation) which connects to the frontostriatal (home of self-confidence).  When these two sections of the brain work together, you are increasing both self-confidence and motivation which increases the engagement and openness to learn.

It is powerful to think that we can help change a person’s self-confidence and motivation. How often as teachers do we hear, “I can take a horse to water but I can’t make them drink.”  I do not believe that old adage is true. With repetitive positive affirmation and helping a student feel success we can improve their motivation to try. This in turn will begin to build self-confidence.  These factors together can increase the change of learning because the child becomes open to receive the information. We may not be able to “make them drink” but we can certainly motivate them to want to try!

For a related article, check out my April Blog entitled, “Too Much Stress= Impeded learning.”  It explains how the brain reacts to stress and how it affects learning. In today’s blog it shared how confidence affects learning and how the subconscious can put learners in a state of stress. The April article focuses on how the brain reacts to high amounts of stress. In a state of continual stress, the brain will respond by short circuiting that pathway and stop impulses. This results in the lack of input and messaging in the brain which makes it short circuit that pathway and stops learning. In addition, a constant state of stress causes inability to stay on task, inattention, and lack of self control. (Poor behavior–sound familiar??)

Articles that were cited and helped inspire this Blog:

Article by Anna Almendrala for Huffington Post: accessed on July 20, 2016.

Article by Susana Martinez-Conde and Richard J. Haier on June 2008 entitled Ask the Brains: What are ideas? Does confidence Affect Performance.  Accessed on July 22, 2016:

Quote from

Neuroplasticity is HOPE for Mindset Change

“We become what we think about all day long.” 

Ralph Waldo Emerson


Walking the halls this week, I heard more than once, “I can’t” or “I am not good at this.”  It started me thinking about how this mindset begins and how can we help students make changes and begin to feel—HOPE!  How do our students begin to have a mindset that tells them they cannot achieve?

A fixed mindset, one without hope, is bred in an environment where students are inundated with negative outlooks and reminders of limited resources or even criticisms of education and hope for the future. Our schools are becoming flooded with more and more students who face financial hardships in their homes.  According to, in 2011, there were as many as 46.2 million Americans living in poverty (1 person earning less than $23,021 per year). The children who live in this environment are 1.3 times more likely to have learning and developmental delays. They are often two years behind by 4th grade.

According to Eric Jensen (May 2013), we know students from low income families are less likely to engage in school.  Lack of effort or being unmotivated is often a lack of hope and is fostered by a give up attitude that they may be immersed in each day.  Living in poverty is difficult and the stress of the environment may spill over as a lack of optimism.  This lack of hope leads to a fixed mindset, a feeling that “it is not worth the effort.” This can be perceived as “lazy” by teachers. In actuality, it is a lack of belief that has occurred repeatedly and has become a mindset habit.

Connecting these thoughts with brain research, there IS HOPE!  Within the last few years, we have come to understand that the brain is not a fixed entity much like a machine. Our brain is constantly changing based on our actions and thoughts.  The concept of our brain being able to change constantly is called neuroplasticity.  Plasticity is how our brain learns new information and how to do new activities. Our students need to know that their brain can change and is malleable. They can’t do it yet!! Practice, effort, trying new strategies helps students move from can’t to can.

For example, when you are learning a new motor task, you utilize two sections of the brain called the SMA (Supplementary Motor Area) and the M1 (Primary Motor Area) which work together almost like a highway.  When you repeat the motor task and increase the blood flow to this area of the brain, you are also rousing impulses and sprouting axons and dendrites.  We know when you are creating dendrites, you are learning.  When we use this “highway” repetitively, we are creating a strong pathway and this makes the task much easier. Think about learning how to play the guitar. When you begin, the pathway is weak but with repetitive practice, the skill of playing the guitar becomes more fluent and quick.

With the same idea above, we can change a child’s fixed mindset to one of growth and hope. A person with a growth mindset believes they can work hard, practice and improve or get better. It is not just that you practice and you learn but that trying harder and trying new strategies can help you succeed not only at the task at hand but in the future.


We need to teach our students the concept of neuroplasticity and that our brains are always changing and their actions can increase their abilities. Work to increase a positive attitude by always praising effort and an increase in choices that show the student is trying.  A mindset is not changed easily but with repetitive positive words that affirm effort will help to increase a student’s motivation.

When we can get a child to try—we have increased our chances to meet the goal. I am not encouraging empty praise but an increase in explicitly guiding students in what steps they can take to improve or succeed. With repetitive reinforcement that quitting is NOT an option but that there is HOPE for success—it just takes effort which brings GROWTH.


**There are tons of Growth Mindset resources available online. If you want to learn more or for me to help you find something–just ask!


Resources that inspired or were cited in this Blog:

Article (2014) by Margie Meacham entitled, “The Growth Mindset Starts in the Brain”:

Statistics from

Article (2013) by Eric Jensen enttitled, “How Poverty Affects Classroom Engagement.” Accessed on July 28, 2016.

Video from Sheridan College accessed on July 30, 2016:




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