It is fascinating that so many people in early years settings say they lack self-confidence. A trusted colleague once said that although early years is a safe place where skilled adults enable children to grow and flourish, so often these highly capable practitioners are unable to apply their knowledge and understanding to develop their own learning journey. When explored, the reasons behind this are often fear, which sits behind a lack of confidence.
Self-confidence is defined as understanding that you trust your own judgment and abilities, and that you value yourself and feel worthy, regardless of any imperfections or of what others may believe about you.
Naomi is a room leader in a highly established nursery. She has worked at the nursery for ten years now and is thinking about going to university. She came to me because the thought of having an interview and giving a presentation filled her with terror. Even though we were meeting online it was easy to see Naomi’s issue. She spoke very quietly, could barely look at me and seemed much younger than her 27 years. Naomi said she had avoided being an active participant her whole life, because of what people might think of her. She always believed she would get it wrong if she tried anything new. She never accepted the praise her manager gave her about how well she worked with the children and families.
Naomi was exhibiting several tell-tale signs of low confidence, which can include:
- Staying in your comfort zone, fearing failure, and avoiding risk
- Dismissing compliments offhandedly. “Oh that display was nothing really, anyone could have done it”
- Governing your behaviour based on what other people think
She told me she had been born without confidence and did not know how to manage her life. She had a self-limiting belief that she was genetically programmed to be like this and it was part of her personality. I asked Naomi if she realised that confidence simply comprised a set of skills, techniques and attitudes that could be developed. She was surprised to hear this.
Confidence is learned over our lifetimes. From birth we receive messages from the outside world and it is these messages that create or drain us of our confidence. How we were parented, our early years’ experiences and our relationships with families, friends and teachers, all influence our perception of ourselves. Your place in society and external life events play their part e.g. feeling isolated, marginalised, or rejected. Coaching has a role in helping people notice patterns of behaviour in themselves but if there is deep trauma or abuse that people are carrying, these issues may need therapeutic support. A good coach will know when to refer on for more specialist help.
Walking the walk
For Naomi, our starting point was to help her get ready for the interview and presentation date. Even if she was feeling really nervous, she could become more aware of her own body presence and walk into a room with a more confident manner. The words she was going to use were not as important as the impression she would make on first meeting her tutors.
This chart (Fig 1) shows that initial impressions are based more on our body language (55%) and our voice (38%) than the words we say (7%). I suggested Naomi observe the people around her, on public transport and at work. How are they dressed? How do they sit or stand? What do they do with their hands? What does their facial expression tell you? What does the tone or pitch of their voice tell you?
All this is really important when walking into an interview, as the interviewers will be looking at you. A terrifying thought for most of us, and especially Naomi. So we had a practice in the safety of the coaching space.
Raising self-awareness of your body language
Cultivate a warm, friendly direct gaze. Eyes should meet 60-70% of the time. Any more than this and we are probably staring and any less we can appear timid. It is important to practice this and Naomi ended up in fits of giggles as we tried, but after a few minutes she was looking directly at me and then learned to look slightly to the right of me, to reduce the intensity.
Match what you are actually saying to the mood of the conversation. A smile signals approachability and friendliness, so if someone smiles at you, smile back. Naomi was warming up in the session. She smiled at me and I smiled back. It worked!
When facing a person, stand squarely in front of them with an appropriate amount of ‘personal space’. (The COVID-19 pandemic has certainly made us much more aware of this, and it is helpful.) Stand relaxed, knees soft and arms in a relaxed position by your side. Imagine a cord attached to the top of your head which pulls up and lengthens the back of your neck. This open posture encourages others to make contact. Leaning forward a little indicates you are interested and is usually taken as a compliment.
If Naomi is going for interview (in normal circumstances) she will most likely shake hands with the interviewer, or she might just raise a hand, nod and smile. Be aware of old habits of fidgeting e.g. playing with your hair, sipping from your water bottle – these give them impression of someone lacking in confidence.
After our practice on screen, Naomi pledged to go home and practice some confident ‘body talk’ in the mirror. She did. She further observed herself holding her breath and then learned to take a deep breath in and out which slowed her down and further calmed her nerves. Then without telling anyone, she tried the techniques at work. She reported back how these few conscious changes gave her a secret ‘inner smile’ and suddenly her confidence was growing. Her manager noticed a difference in her behaviour and commented how well she was doing at work. Naomi just smiled at her and said “thank you”, It was the first time she had ever been able to accept a compliment without shrugging it off.
Why not try these little tips for yourself and see who notices?
Fig 1 The Open University accessed online 9/3/21
Ruth Mercer is a coach and consultant, with a career background in early education. Ruth is committed to creating a positive learning environment for staff, children and families. She has a successful track record of 1:1 coaching for leaders and group coaching across the maintained and PVI sector. She supports leaders and managers in developing a coaching approach in their settings through bespoke consultancy and introductory training on coaching and mentoring for all staff.
Virtual course forthcoming: Onwards and Upwards – Becoming an Effective Leader in the EYFS (6 half-day sessions over 6 months). Suitable for EYFS leads in school, nursery school teachers and reception teachers. Please email for further details, to book a space or request a bespoke option for your school/setting.