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  • Writer's pictureCavendish Education

A sixth form with a difference: With self-esteem at the core

Updated: May 31

Jane Rogerson counsellor at Burlington House Sixth Form considers contributing factors which affect self-esteem and shares ideas of what can help promote positive outcomes. Jane began working at the sixth form at the start of 2023 having come from a mainstream school where she worked as a counsellor for three and a half years.

The sixth form is part of Burlington House School; a specialist school with provision for students with Specific Learning Difficulties (SpLD). Students can do years 12 to 14. Everyone plays a part in creating the unique environment that supports self-esteem and encourages students to value themselves and each other. This theme runs through all aspects of school life. 

Before I share some of the ways in which we collectively support wellbeing it is useful to share what we mean when we talk about self esteem. 

What do we mean when we talk about self-esteem? 

To me, it means having confidence in our own abilities and valuing ourselves, as well as demonstrating self-care and self-respect. If we can say what we feel and do the things we enjoy that give us a sense of purpose then we are getting there. 

It plays an essential role in building and maintaining our social and emotional well-being and shaping character. Self-esteem has an important role in setting realistic goals, forming good relationships and creating personal boundaries. So, rather than ‘people please’ to fit in, we can say what we genuinely want.

Low self-esteem is very common among teenagers

Studies have found that one-third to one-half of adolescents struggle with low self-esteem (Harter 1990, Hirsch and DuBois 1991). This can be more prevalent for teenagers with SpLD  especially as they navigate school and friendships. They have experienced many challenges in life by the time they join the sixth form such as: bullying, dealing with change, struggling to ‘read’ and understand social situations and to manage and express emotions. Most students have been highly reliant on others and doubted their own abilities.

Contributing factors that affect self-esteem

Social media can have some positives but can also be negative; especially for young and vulnerable children/young adults; unhelpful comparisons can be made, poor body image can lead to eating disorders and self-harm. Mental or physical health issues, peer influences, academic pressures, family issues, financial concerns and social anxiety can all contribute to a person’s self image. For our students, some have previously felt excluded or been mistreated due to being neurodivergent or having SpLD. They have experienced prejudice and judgement.

Typical emotions and thought patterns emerge

There can be a cascade of emotions of worry, fear, anxiety, stress, depression, inadequacy or hopelessness and even suicidal feelings for some. Many young people describe thought patterns that can be unhelpful with constant self-criticism, judgement, and thoughts of inadequacy with some having perfectionist thinking. They compare themselves with their peers, seeing themselves through a lens that fails to measure up. They can struggle to receive compliments or to acknowledge their successes.

So… how do we foster a learning environment of growth at Burlington House Sixth form?

Self-esteem is not just a concern in therapy but is developed in so many ways: through learning, building relationships, healthy competition, challenges, failures and successes. It is seen as a core concept at the heart of all we do and it is a major goal in education, ranked with reading, writing and mathematics. Our view of self changes over time and set-backs and events can affect how we feel day to day so it is really a journey.

The Cavendish Schools Flower Logo 

The flower represents the school ethos of blossoming and learning, in a safe and nurturing space. We want to empower students in finding their unique strengths and interests so each individual can grow and thrive in school and beyond. In this atmosphere, students gain confidence, learn skills, express creativity and vision, develop values and make choices. It contributes to overall well-being and success.

The classroom environment

In the sixth form, classes encourage active discussion, engagement in the learning process. Students’ contributions are valued and respected allowing them to flourish. Speech and language therapists collaborate with teachers to work on strategies teachers and students can use in class to support varying styles of learning. Assistive technologies are used where this is helpful for students enabling them to access learning and exams in ways that suit their specific needs. This helps to remove barriers to learning and allows students to experience success as learners. 

Creative courses and enrichments

Students in the sixth form can take a variety of creative courses: E.g. Art, Performing Arts, DJing, Music/band, Comic Creation, Barista training. Students can also take photography, with a dark room available for them to develop their photographs. There are lots of opportunities to engage in enrichments and activities, from Japanese cooking and ceramics to climbing, football, self-defence and crochet. These give opportunities to engage in team and group activities and gain confidence while they learn new skills.

Work Experience

Students in years 13 and 14 are encouraged to engage in work experience. The school collaborates with several local enterprises that provide student placements and supported internships so they can develop skills and confidence. E.g working in a café, cinema, music production, restaurant, child care in the prep school, shop restoring furniture, or for Sovereign Comics. Students then go on to other colleges, universities, work and internships. The sixth form recently won three ‘Work Experience Provider of the Year’ awards presented to staff at the Spark Awards 2024.

The provision of therapy

This is an important aspect of the curriculum with onsite Occupational therapists, Speech and Language therapy and counselling, and weekly sessions for those students who need it. As it takes place onsite at Burlington House sixth form, it ensures consistency and reinforces the environment as a ‘safe space.’ Students can build relationships with therapists to address their specific needs and work together on goals and targets. 

In counselling sessions students can explore issues that affect them. They can express thoughts and feelings and work on coping skills, identifying strengths and managing emotions. Speech and Language therapists work with students to address issues with speech, social interactions and communication and in gaining confidence in themselves in the process. Occupational therapists may support the acquisition of new skills and daily living tasks E.g. cooking, organisation and travelling which builds confidence and independence as students prepare for leaving school.

Pet therapy

Lily the dog is here three days a week along with her owner who is one of the therapists. With Lily around, it changes the atmosphere around the 6th form as she provides unconditional acceptance for students, assisting them to regulate their emotions to feel calmer and happier as they sit with her or accompany her on walks in the park.

Strategies to build self-esteem

These strategies and embedded practices are intrinsic in the work we do with our students. We encourage and support them to be involved, to have a voice, to face new challenges, to engage in self-care, to build strong relationships, and learn new skills. Weekly tutor groups, PSHE and life Skills sessions also align with these aims. In this atmosphere of respect and acceptance, students can tackle obstacles, and feel more positive about their achievements.

Every achievement and contribution is celebrated

This is an on-going process with acknowledgements and awards. Students are able to share their work whether this is artwork, a comic, a dramatic performance to an audience, photography, DJing, a band performance, an EPQ creative project presentation, a Duke of Edinburgh Gold Award or football team winners trophy.

What next? student progression

Students can feel worried about moving on to the next stage after sixth form and they are supported in considering next steps and finding what is right for them.

One student was fearful about going to a new club in their area, worried they didn’t fit in due to their neurodivergence. They described feeling ‘different’, and battled with thoughts of self doubt. With encouragement they continued each week and as they learnt new skills, their confidence and self-belief grew. They did well in A levels, began to recognise their abilities and self-worth and progressed to university. 

Another student was extremely quiet, experienced some emotional issues and was lacking confidence but found self-expression and purpose through their skills in music, performing arts and writing. After fostering this passion in the sixth form, they then went on to take a course at a higher level, where they are continuing to grow and thrive.

Another student discovered a love of photography in sixth form. They showed amazing dedication and drive and worked through a number of personal obstacles; gained excellent A level results and went on to continue with photography at their chosen university.

A further student was able to persist with their course (with continued support) despite ongoing personal challenges and is now at university to continue to develop their incredible talent in art. They have since been offered a scholarship for further study.

These are just a handful of success stories but reflect the ongoing work that we do to foster self esteem and confidence with our students which ultimately promotes positive life long outcomes for those who choose to study with us. 

What can we all take away from this?

In our work and communications, we can all be more mindful, knowing that our actions contribute to young people’s views of who they are and make a difference in them feeling valued and understood.

As we believe in each student and value who they are, in a nurturing atmosphere of acceptance, they can develop a belief in themselves and in what they are capable of achieving. This is our goal and one that we continue to strive to achieve with each and every student at the sixth form and in the school as we all take a part in their journey with us and onwards. 

Further Reading:

‘How to talk so kids will listen and listen so kids will talk’ Adele Faber and Elaine Mazlish (1982).

‘Self-esteem in children with special educational needs.’ Gurney P (1988) 

‘Helping children to build self-esteem’ Deborah Plummer (2001).

‘Listening to young people in school, youth work and counselling.’ Nick Luxmore (2000).

Support for Young People:



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