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Ohio State University Extension


Building Self-Esteem in Youth

4-H Youth Development
Jason Hedrick, Associate Professor, Extension Educator, 4-H Youth Development

A child’s self-esteem may be thought of as a collection of pictures he/she carries with them that reflects how they feel about themselves (ParentLink, 2007). These pictures of successes and failures are developed throughout a child’s life as a result of their interactions with the world. They also serve as a measure of one’s self-worth. Self-awareness then emerges in adolescence (Brinthaupt & Lipka, 2002) and youth begin to see themselves as actors in a play as they interact with their environments. How they “perform” in the world is a result, in part, of their developing self-esteem. A person who has developed healthy self-esteem is more likely to be self-motivated, self-reliant, and able to sustain respectful and fulfilling relationships with others (Pummer, 2014). Parents, teachers, coaches, and 4-H leaders all contribute to how these pictures form in a child’s mind. As 4-H youth engage in club activities at all levels, 4-H leaders can have a positive impact on how a child views and feels about themselves by taking deliberate steps to build positive self-esteem in youth. Success will only result if the adult leader provides a supportive relationship that features warmth, closeness, connectedness, good communication, caring, support, guidance, secure attachment, and responsiveness (Eccles & Gootman, 2002).

The Building Blocks to Self-Esteem

Think of self-esteem as a skyscraper, with the focus on the building's "underground foundation" and the base upon which the entire structure rests (Bailey, 2003). For youth, the underground foundation consists of the mental building blocks that mold a developing self-esteem and create life-shaping values (Bailey, 2003). 


Trust is the basis of all human relationships. A person who has a well-developed sense of trust is able to take risks involved in learning to become a happy, successful person. In order for an individual to develop trust in others, he/she must have a series of positive encounters with the people who share his/her world.


Children begin to mold their self-images early in life. By creating environments in which children can feel secure about themselves and develop their strengths, adults can help children have those positive experiences.


Belonging is the feeling of being accepted by others. Individuals gain security when they feel like they belong to a group. Those feelings of security and acceptance help nurture self-esteem.


Purpose is an important part of one’s self-esteem development. Every individual needs to have a feeling of purpose or a mission in life. 


The statement, success breeds success, is true in the development of healthy self-esteem in people. By identifying a problem or goal, by developing a plan of action, and by accomplishing an objective, children develop problem-solving skills, as well as a sense of pride. This in turn starts an interesting chain of events for children.

Action Steps in 4-H Club Work

Don’t Compare – Develop Personal Bests

4-H members, especially junior high members, are always monitoring how they “measure up.” Take opportunities to highlight a member’s “personal best”—it could be acknowledging great attendance, extra time invested in a service project, progress on a project book, a camp scholarship, or a risk a member may have taken (ran for an officer position or presented a demonstration). Help members set incremental goals. Make it a point to help members see how progress has been made on these goals throughout the 4-H year. 

A Path to Mastery - It’s About the Process Not the Results 

4-H should be about the process (learning by doing). However, we often find ourselves focused on the results (through competition). In 4-H, these two concepts are sometimes in contrast when viewed in the context of building self-esteem. We judge projects and place them, make State Fair selections, and put youth in the show ring with projects to compete. While competition can certainly build self-esteem, it can just as easily tear it apart. Take caution. Leaders should focus on helping members develop a “path to mastery.” Providing opportunities for members to serve on committees, community service projects, and exploring different project topics can enhance this path and help youth build expertise on an item of interest.    

Help Youth Find Their Passions

As 4-H club leaders, it should be our primary role to help youth discover areas they find themselves passionate about. We should then provide the opportunities for them to explore those areas. 4-H is positioned in such a way that it provides a unique environment that allows youth to explore over 215 different project titles, numerous leadership opportunities, specialty camps, trainings, and clinics.


Volunteer leaders can have a profound effect on the development of a child’s self-esteem. Children need positive, caring adult leaders that communicate a feeling of self-worth. Mahatma Gandhi once said that people often become what they believe themselves to be. If I believe I cannot do something, it makes me incapable of doing it. But when I believe I can, then I acquire the ability to do it even if I didn’t have it at the beginning. Adult leaders help youth by providing opportunities to be involved and achieve.


  • Bailey, J., (2003). The Foundation of Self-Esteem. Journal of the National Medical Association, Vol. 95, No. 5. 
  • Brinthaupt, T. and Lipka, R. (2002). Understanding Early Adolescents Self and Identity. State University of New York Press.
  • Eccles, J., and Appleton, J., (2002). Community Programs to Promote Youth Development. National Academy Press, Washington, DC.
  • Plummer, D. (2014).  Helping Adolescents and Adults to Build Self-Esteem: A Photocopiable Resource Book, Second Edition. Jessica Kingsley Publishers. 
  • ParentLink (2007). Helping Children Build Self-Esteem. 4-H/Youth Development, University of Missouri-Columbia.

Original Authors: This Ohio State University Extension Fact Sheet was revised based upon the original work of Cripe, B. (1999), Kleon, S. and Wilson, C. (2007).

Program Area(s): 
Originally posted Feb 27, 2017.