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Build self confidence in a child with speech & drama


Speech and drama activities are an ideal way to build self confidence in a child. If you have a child anxious or afraid of speaking up in front of a class, adults, or perhaps even their peers, the suggestions and activities outlined below will help you to help them. The positive benefits will spill over into all areas of their lives.


The life cycle of public speaking fear

Being afraid of public speaking is a fear acknowledged by many adults. That children are afraid of it too, shouldn’t be a surprise! What is more of a surprise is that their fear is allowed to persist, often unchallenged, long into adulthood. They become the grown-ups who frequently say they would rather “die” than make a speech.

The real fear underlying public speaking fear

The truth is not that talking in public is a deadly disease. The real truth is many people, children included, fear making fools of themselves in front of others. Being “looked at” and “listened to” is the problem. People fear being seen, for fear they are “not good enough” or will fail in some way. Being laughed at or dismissed as stupid is the pain they’re avoiding. The simple remedy to side-step risking exposure many people, including children, adopt is to keep out of the public eye and their mouths shut. However that solution is a boomerang. The child who is too frightened to talk or feels so self-conscious they can’t relax and join games loses out in numerous ways. They are often overlooked by peers and teachers in favour of bolder children. The more they are marginalized the harder it becomes to join a group or allow themselves to be seen. Then, when forced by circumstance, like for instance having to give a formal speech in class, their discomfort and subsequent embarrassment or humiliation, is a self-fulfilling prophecy.

How to break the cycle of fear

Non-threatening drama and speech activities can help break the cycle. Before you use any of these suggestions to build self confidence in a child please make sure you:

  • Start slowly and simply. A nervous child is easily overwhelmed. Asking too much, too soon, will compound their problems. Choose your beginning point with care. Put yourself in the child’s shoes and ask yourself, ‘Is this a little step or a giant stride?’ Being ‘cruel to be kind’ can backfire.
  • Role model the behaviour you want from the child. Show them it’s OK and safe. Do the exercises with them. This has a wonderful double-whammy pay off. They feel valued because you gave them time and attention AND they are learning new skills.
  • The activities to build self confidence in a child are separated into ‘speech’ and ‘drama’ because although inextricably linked, they are different.


    What is speech?

    Speech is how a person communicates with another. It is the conduit for spoken self- expression. A combination of vocabulary, voice and experience gives each person their unique oral signature. This is who they are. Their speech is what carries their being, their presence into the world.


    What is drama?

    Drama, by contrast, extends and embodies speech. To dramatize is to enact something or someone; either an aspect of oneself or someone else. Drama lifts ordinary speech into the realm of the imagination and theater. Its activities focus on living into other worlds or experiences while speech ones concentrate on developing and extending oral language skills. Drama teaches empathy. Handled well, drama builds self confidence through providing opportunities to experience the world from perspectives outside his own. He does not become an egoistical show-off constantly needing applause. Instead he becomes humane.

    1. Build self confidence in a child by making unpressurized time to talk with them. Many of us talk to or talk at a child. We give instructions like ‘Clean your teeth’ or ‘Pick your toys up’. This type of communication is very different from talking with. To talk with implies you are actively making room or time to listen to their side of the conversation.
    2. Another simple way to build self esteem is to ask open-ended questions. These require more of a response than a simple ‘yes’ or ‘no’. Try asking ‘why’ or ‘how’ to elicit extended answers.
    3. Get down to their level. If they’re sitting on the floor playing, get down with them. This reduces the gulf between big and powerful, small and insignificant.
    4. Avoid doing the talking for a child. Sometimes as adults it’s easy to assume spokesperson status habitually. The child learns that you’ll do all the talking for them and they don’t have to try. They also learn you’ll do it better than they can anyway. In doing the talking you rob them of practice time. Give it back to them. Even though you may have to wait for them to find the right words at times, know you’re helping!
    5. Avoid reinforcing baby language by repeating it frequently. This can be hard as sometimes a child’s vocabulary mistakes are delightful and we don’t want to let them go. But we must if we want them to grow. We can write down and cherish the errors but keeping them live for too long is unkind.
    6. Avoid teaching a baby language. Why complicate learning to speak with giving a child a sub-language to learn which later must be un-learnt? Support their growth by teaching the right words from the start. By this I don’t mean pedantically correct language but definitely giving them a vocabulary appropriate for their age.
    7. Build self confidence in a child through making a point of praising their speech and correcting mis-pronounced words non-judgmentally. ‘Good on you for trying xxx (said correctly) word. It can be tricky. Let’s say it slowly together.’
    8. Play lots of language games. (These are great for car journeys.) Examples: Alphabet ‘I spy’: I spy with my little eye something beginning with a, b, c, d etc., Rhyming word-chains: words starting with or ending in the same sounds. Example: cat, mat, fat, flat, sat…Or flat, floor, flood, flew, flop…
    9. Read stories aloud daily. When they’re very small start with stories built around repeating phrases and rhymes. If you read the same story frequently enough, your child will begin ‘reading’ it along with you. Miss bits and they’ll correct you. Talk with them as you go about the pictures. Get them to tell you about what’s happening in them.
    10. Singing songs. Get your child singing along. If it’s a favorite you can take alternate verses or take turns making up songs about whatever is going on around right now. Pick a well known tune (‘Old Macdonald Had a Farm’ is good.) and have fun. I remember our son enjoying variations like, ‘Our Big Boy James is putting on his boots, e, i, e, i, o. He puts his right foot in and wriggles it around, e, i, e, i, o’ …etc.
    11. Read poetry aloud. Children love the sounds of poetry and will readily imitate them. Try nonsense poems, fantastical poems, or ones with a strong beat full of words sounding their meaning. Your local library will have anthologies in the Children’s Section. Ask for help if you can’t find them.
    12. Encourage ‘talking time’ at the dinner table. Make sure each child has a turn, is listened to, and not interrupted. If need be put a time limit in place for the one who goes on and on! When they’re finished, paraphrase what you heard and respond.
    13. If your child has difficulty speaking clearly and you’re worried it could be a physical problem, get it assessed sooner rather than later. The problem may lie in their hearing or the formation of the physical organs and body parts needed for speech. Specialized therapists will do a superb job of advising the right way to address the matter. If you allow a speech fault to establish, they become harder to stop.
    14. Going to a local play-group or kindergarten will definitely help build self confidence. They’ll learn in a protected safe environment to interact with people outside of their family circle.
    15. Take your child when you go visiting or shopping. It doesn’t have to be all the time but enough for them to learn to feel comfortable in new situations with new people.
    16. Teach your child simple good manners and expect them to use them as a normal part of daily living. Making their own requests politely and thanking people for things or services received will build esteem and is a valuable first step toward solo public speaking.
    17. Model good listening and speech. A child learns from those closest to them. If you don’t listen or speak well, it becomes more difficult for the child to develop the confidence to do so. 

      19 Drama Suggestions & Activities to Build Self Esteem in a Child

      1. Build self confidence in a child by actively encouraging their imagination and allowing them to experiment and play with dress-ups. We had a large wicker basket of old clothes. There was a cloak, coats, some hats, lots of scarves, shoes, bags etc, etc. I found the more definite the costume, the less it appealed. The more flexible the items were, the more readily they were put on. The cloak was magical one day because it made the wearer invisible and the next it became a glamor item for going to the ball. Also favored were discarded ‘father’ or ‘mother’ clothes. These allowed children to experiment with being adult.
      2. Encourage the retelling of stories in their own words. Choose either true family events or a familiar tale that’s been read and read as a bedtime story. Within these, encourage taking on the voices of the characters. How did the wolf talk? What did the Grandmother say? How did her voice sound? Can you make that voice?
      3. Take your children to listen to story-tellers or children’s theater productions
      4. Listen to story CD’s or tapes read by trained actors.
      5. Limit the amount of television a child watches and monitor what they do see. Television programs have been shown to deaden the imagination rather than encourage it. A child watching is not working actively, they’re passive. In comparison, making your own play is hard work physically and mentally. Turning off the television will really help build positive self-esteem!
      6. Allow ‘truth’ or ‘reality’ to be suspended providing the play is safe. Jumping off the garage roof with an umbrella for wings is going to hurt but having an invisible friend or changing your name for awhile is relatively harmless. Provided it’s accommodated without undue fuss (either negative or positive), your child will let it go when they’re finished with it.
      7. Allow for ‘mess’ to happen. The easiest way is to say where and when the play can occur without inconveniencing everybody.
      8. Play yourself. Your example will build self confidence in a child. Get involved without taking over the direction of a story or piece of play acting. This way you’re showing it’s OK to ‘pretend’ and leaving the authority with the child. We’ve eaten dinner with spare chairs and places set for invisible guests who asked for special foods. I remember a toy train that talked, a teddy bear who threw temper tantrums…
      9. If the child volunteers to make a play, tell a story, sing a song for the family to watch, help them to do it without taking over. Ensure any comment or feedback is constructively positive and appropriate.
      10. Do discuss the plays or fantasies your child creates with other adults in their presence but avoid ridicule or mockery. Be careful too, about setting them up as entertainment outside the family particularly if they are under eight. Too much attention and praise for being clever, amusing, a real clown or for copying an adult performer can slow their character development. There is a fine line between learning aboutbeing another and learning to be one’s self. You don’t want a child whose sense of well being is largely derived from being the center of attention and someone else!
      11. If you decide to take your child to drama lessons or a group, check the agenda before enrolling. Some groups offer wonderful programs designed to enrich and extend appropriately. Others are not so scrupulous. A child is a child. They should be allowed and encouraged to be one. Ask to see a curriculum and talk over teaching styles. A very shy child can be encouraged to participate gradually through for instance taking part in group or chorus work before taking on solo parts. Instant solo focus or insensitive comparison with a more outgoing child will shut a tender one down quickly.
      12. If you do offer criticism because you were asked, make sure it follows a commend-recommend-commend model. Do not compare one child with another. If you must compare do so with what that particular child did yesterday and what they did today or in this part of the play and that part of the play. Be specific rather than global in your comments. Telling a child he did a great job or that it was awful doesn’t communicate anything useful. The first gives him nothing to improve or build on. (It’s all good, so why bother?) The second denies anything of value happened. (Again, why bother?) Also practice asking them for their critique. They will know what happened. Help them to learn to trust and refine their own judgement

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