Teaching Students to Have a Healthy Self Image

self image

By Maja-Barbara Kokot

The impact of self image on our thoughts, feelings and consequently our actions as well as our general behavior, is much greater than we would like to acknowledge. This is especially true for teenagers, who mostly equate the notion of self-image with their body image. What needs to be highlighted is its motivational or demotivational role in our lives as everyone acts according to the way they perceive themselves.

Having a healthy self image leads to:

– dealing with problems constructively,

– developing and maintaining good interpersonal relationships as well as being more ready to cooperate with others,

– being compassionate,

– being independent as one does not need other people’s approval,

– being responsible for one’s actions,

-being inquisitive,

-setting high, but not unattainable goals.

Aren’t these the characteristics we would like to develop in our students regardless of the subject we teach?

What led me to deal with the topic of self-image, which is not explicitly in the English teaching syllabus, was the simple fact that students stare at their phones all the time during breaks. They usually chat online while there are plenty of schoolmates around to talk to and they would do the same if phones were allowed in classrooms. I asked them what they were looking at and of course, the answer was as I had expected- social media.

A few days later, during English classes, I provoked them with a simple question about how they feel when they look at the “perfect” posts of other people. They did not answer, but I could see a certain amount of discomfort. I told them about the findings of studies I had discovered on the Internet. The studies dealt with the role of social media in body image concerns (https://www.researchgate.net/publication/5259131). They have shown a direct link between looking at photos of physically beautiful, attractive people and feeling bad and dissatisfied with oneself. The students were really interested and I caught everyone’s attention! The latter motivated me to think how I could develop the subject matter further in English classes.

Going cross-curricular:    Psychology – English

I talked to the teacher of psychology and we agreed on a cross-curricular activity. Students of our Secondary school for Nurses get to know the broader concept of self-image in their third year. They learn that body image is just one component of an individual’s self-image and that the latter is composed of other three important segments, namely school (academic self-image), interpersonal relationships (social self-image) and emotions (emotional self-image).

They learn that every individual can have one component highly developed while being completely weak in other fields. Most of us act and react according to how we perceive ourselves. If we trust in our abilities, we set higher goals and vice versa, underestimating ourselves means lower goals. A person with a positive self-image appreciates their characteristics and skills. That person has self-respect and does not allow him or herself to be devalued by others or to be averted from their needs. Such a person deals with problems constructively, forms experience from errors and nourishes healthy relationships with other people.

In English classes, we dealt with the topic-related vocabulary and defined the very notion in English. Together we formed a handout based on the information they had acquired in their psychology lesson, their textbook and other sources. We then followed on with a very effective activity proposed by a successful personal Slovenian coach S. Einsiedler in her book Moja samopodoba je moja odločitev (unofficial translation: My self-image is my decision).  

I asked them to draw a person’s body and imagine it represented themselves. On the right side of the image they were supposed to write all the characteristics they like about themselves and consider as positive. Then they were asked to do the same on the left side for the characteristics they do not like and would like to change. Most of the students had a longer list of negative features and noted them much more quickly than the positive ones.

English lesson

What we all realized

One aim of this activity was for them to become more aware of their positive traits and acknowledge the negative ones which they might like to work on. The other aim was to point out that every individual has an inner voice, an inner critic which is quick to criticize, yet neglects the qualities we do have. It was highlighted that what we often think becomes our belief. Most people very quickly criticize rather than praise themselves and in this way by means of negative internal monologues strengthen damaging beliefs and increase distorted self-image.

What followed next was the second part of the activity. This time I asked them to write only the positive characteristics of the person they were sitting next to and then to exchange the notes with each other. All the students experienced the latter as positive and received a confirmation of their self-worth. What I find important and worthwhile in this activity is that the students realize our self-image is very subjective and many times not in accordance with how others see us.


Are you, as an adult mature person, aware of the great impact self-image has on your life, more specifically on your actions and beliefs?  Do you ever catch yourself listening to that inner critical voice, constantly bombarding you with negative thoughts preventing you from accepting yourself for who you really are?  Do you think the exercises I did with my student nurses in their English lessons might be useful with your students? Comments very welcome.