• by Rogelio López del Bosque, Ed.D. • IDRA Newsletter • May 2000 • 

Sticks and stones may break our bones, but words can hurt even more. As children, we hear a lot of “don’t,” “can’t” and “shouldn’t.” Typically, these words are for our own good. But too many children also hear disparaging words implying that there is something wrong with them. Such words, innuendoes and perceptions can have a negative affect on children’s self-esteem.

Do you remember your first day of school and the nervous excitement that came with it? Going to school for the first time was an exhilarating experience that most of us recall quite vividly. In my case, I was ready to learn. I was ready for my turn at school just like my older brothers and sisters before me. The night before, the excitement kept me awake. I slept very little. I had a new pair of shoes, new clothes and a colorful book satchel that my sister had bought for me with crayons, scissors, pencils and erasers in it. I thought life was so good. It just could not get any better than this.

I also knew that on the next day I would have to use English at school. For me, this was not problem. I already knew enough English. With help from my sister María, I had memorized two important phrases: “May I go to the restroom?” and “May I get a drink of water?” María made it clear that the words “May I” were essential. When you speak to the teacher, you must be polite and show respect. With these two English phrases, I was ready.

As I walked into the school with my sister, I remember smiling with pride and full of that desire to learn. Now that I recall, my sister gave me a sense of security. She had been directed by my Mom to take me to school the first day. (Mom did not feel she could do it herself since she spoke Spanish.) I was ready, and I know my family was proud. My parents were probably very happy that I was the last of 13 children to finally go to school.

Shortly after arriving in the classroom and meeting the teacher, I recall very vividly learning that I was no longer going to be called by my name, Rogelio. I was given a new name. I thought it was part of being in school.

Of course, I found out later that the name Rogelio was too difficult for the teacher to pronounce. There was something wrong with me. So my name had to be changed. This was the beginning of my feeling different.

Was there something wrong with my name? It really did not matter. This was what schools did, and it would help me learn – so I thought. I rationalized: Big deal, my Mom does not even call me Rogelio. She calls me “Rogelito.” So on my first day of school, I was given a new name so I would fit in with everyone else and I would be ready to learn.

Little did I know that the excitement of that first day of school would soon change to discomfort. I really could not identify exactly what I was feeling. But something was not right.

During my years of school, I experienced low expectations and hostile attitudes on the part of some teachers, administrators, and other students. I had difficulty assimilating into this unfamiliar environment. Continuously, I was made aware that speaking Spanish had bad consequences. I was also told many times that I should not speak Spanish because I used an incorrect form. Was the language I learned at home inferior? I had learned to express my love, desires and fears in that language. Of course, my parents must have been a very bad influence by teaching me such language, this Tex-Mex.

Many questions came up for me. Do I have bad genes or do I come from less intelligent gene pool? I could not speak English the right away (those two phrases were not enough after all). I already had many skills that I had learned from my mother and siblings, but I could not translate them yet. I felt out of place. I ached because I wanted so badly to learn and fit in just like everyone else.

I finally understood the reason my prayers were never answered. I was using an inferior language that God did not understand or like. Although my father was illiterate, my mother was well educated in her native Mexico. She taught me the value of the language, so very much about the culture along with the corridos, cuentos, etc. But at school I learned that there was no value in this, that it was un-American. On top of this, I was criticized for speaking English with an accent and for using incorrect sentence structure, forms of the subject pronouns and verb tenses.

In essence, very early in life, it was made very clear to me that there was something not right with me. My name was not good enough, neither was my language. Even when I learned to speak English, something was always wrong with how I did so. Surprisingly, I was criticized by other Hispanics and on occasion called a “burro,” because I could not speak English perfectly.

What about self-esteem? Like all children, there were so many qualities that I brought with me to school that were valuable. I was eager to learn, eager to please and eager to do a good job and feel right just like everyone. Instead, like so many other students with similar backgrounds, I was made to feel wrong, unintelligent and inferior. My whole person was in jeopardy.

Many of us have survived these unpleasant and harsh years of our lives in spite of such attitudes. Yet many more have fallen by the wayside. This can be seen in our high dropout rates, for example.

The Value of Self-Esteem

A student’s self-esteem cannot be improved simply by using flowering adjectives. It is, instead, about the students’ feelings, thoughts and even all that they believe about themselves. G. Dunne, D. Schilling and D. Cowan define self-esteem: “It is our unique perception of our worth and worthiness” (1990). It is about working with the affective domain rather than placing all efforts on the cognition and psychomotor. Helping to build the self-esteem of students requires action and knowledge of their strengths.

Focusing on students’ deficits (or what people assume are deficits) demands much energy and results in negative consequences for students and others. Focusing on students’ strengths is easier to do, is less stressful, and results in success.

Approval and respect for students are just the beginning of what we can do to nurture their self esteem. But this is something that cannot be done only by one or two people. It takes the entire staff, including secretaries, cafeteria workers, janitorial workers and the community as a whole.

The Search Institute recently published Taking Assets Building Personally (Roehlkepartain, 1999). Through extensive research on children and youth, the institute identified 40 building blocks that are essential for young people to successfully grow and develop. These building blocks represent positive experiences, opportunities and relationships that all young people need from the time they are born until they are adults. These building blocks are referred to as developmental assets. They have a tremendous influence on young people’s lives. These assets make it more likely youths will be engaged in positive behaviors.

The Search Institute divides the developmental assets into eight categories (see box), the last of which is “positive identity.” There are four building blocks in this category:

  • Personal power – Young person feels he or she has control over “things that happen to me.”
  • Self-esteem – Young person reports having a high self-esteem.
  • Sense of purpose – Young person reports that “my life has a purpose.”
  • Positive view of personal future – Young person is optimistic about his or her personal future.

Roehlkepartain states that while some of these factors are part of a person’s temperament, “others are shaped as they grow by the people around them.”

These four building blocks are highly evident in IDRA’s Coca-Cola Valued Youth Program – an internationally-recognized cross-age tutoring program in schools across the United States, Great Britain and Brazil. Since its inception in San Antonio in 1984 until 1999, the program has kept more than 7,700 students in school, young people who were previously at risk of dropping out. According to the Valued Youth creed, all students are valuable, none is expendable. This philosophy is helping more than 217 schools in 24 cities keep 98 percent of Valued Youth students in school, keeping these young people in the classroom and learning. For more than 16 years, this program has made a visible difference in the lives of more than 79,000 children, families and educators.

In the Coca-Cola Valued Youth Program, secondary students who are considered at risk of dropping out of school are placed as tutors of elementary students, enabling the older students to make a difference in the younger students’ lives. With a growing sense of responsibility and pride, the tutors stay and do better in school.

In the 1998-99 school year, there were 1,066 tutors in the Coca-Cola Valued Youth Program. Only 10 tutors dropped out of school, which is a dropout rate of 0.9 percent. In other words, 1,056 students – who had been considered at-risk of dropping out – stayed in school.

The Piers-Harris Children’s Self-Concept Scale is used to measure students’ self-concept before and after their participation in the program. On average, the tutors’ self-concept improved last year after their participation in the program at a statistically significant level (59.2 at pre-test to 61.9 at post-test). All subscales increased significantly including behavior, intellectual and school status, physical appearance, anxiety, popularity, and happiness and satisfaction.

The students’ teacher coordinators were asked to evaluate the tutors at the beginning and end of the school year in 15 areas, from self-concept to academic achievement. Their pre-and post-test ratings increased significantly in all areas: self-concept, disciplinary record, academic achievement, attendance, interest in class and school, future goals, ability to socialize with schoolmates, ability to socialize into their school environment, relationships with their parents, relationships with teachers, relationships with administrators, relationships with counselors, desire to graduate, and hygiene and dress.

The elementary school students who were being tutored also increased in self-concept, disciplinary record, academic achievement, attendance, interest in class and school, ability to socialize with schoolmates and into their school environment, and their hygiene and dress.

Most parents of tutors (73 percent) reported a positive change in their child’s attitude and behavior regarding school. They attributed the changes to their child’s involvement in the Coca-Cola Valued Youth Program. The changes included greater responsibility and maturity, greater interest in school, and higher self-esteem.

The key to the program’s success is in valuing students who are considered at risk of dropping out of school and sustaining their efforts with effective, coordinated strategies. It builds on students’ strengths. Students are valued, supported, acknowledged, rewarded, celebrated, nurtured and helped in every way possible. They are provided with outside experiences through field trips, guest speakers from the community, and a major celebration at the end of the year where they are recognized for the wonderful work that they have done. In most the program sites in England, each tutor has a mentor.

What do we get in return? The tutors provide creative teaching. They teach young children to read, smile and feel good about themselves. The tutors become role models for these students (tutees). They are proud of their tutee’s progress. Tutors show a more matured and responsible attitude. They take pride in the fact that they are helping other children as well as helping themselves, their siblings, their parents, their schools, and their communities.

In addition to the changes this program produces in young people, the Coca-Cola Valued Youth Program succeeds because it subtly but powerfully challenges and ultimately changes people’s beliefs and behaviors about students for whom expectations were low.

Self-Esteem Fostered by Equity

If we look carefully at the research that has been conducted with the Coca-Cola Valued Youth Program throughout all these years, we find that the model certainly lends itself to meeting the goals of educational equity. When IDRA’s Bradley Scott wrote, “The real issue is making school work for all students” he meant those students who are at-risk of being suspended, or of being expelled or excluded from school, and all those who for some reason or another are seen as at-risk of failing and leaving school (see Scott, 2000). If we look at the five goals of educational equity we can see that the Coca-Cola Valued Youth Program supports these goals.

The first goal is comparably high academic achievement and other student outcomes. In the Coca-Cola Valued Youth Program, there have been higher achievement levels for all the students of varied backgrounds, and there is evidence of closing the gap between those who are considered “at-risk” and those who are not. Based on participant interviews and journals, it is evident that these students have developed a better outlook on life as well as of school. They are certainly staying in school and developing higher self-esteem. Tutors’ disciplinary referrals have been curtailed in great numbers, and attendance has improved significantly. Through field trips, many of these students are exposed to colleges and universities. They can visualize themselves in higher education for the first time. Parents become involved from the very beginning by approving tutors’ participation in the program. Students and teachers spend one hour each week to debrief and learn more about tutoring. Here, students are supported, nurtured and encouraged to develop goals for themselves and the students they are tutoring.

The second goal of educational equity is equitable access and inclusion. In the Coca-Cola Valued Youth Program, student selection is based on need, and schools follow different procedures for enrolling students in the program. In most cases, student selection is based on recommendations, interviews, and specific criteria. IDRA provides ongoing training and technical assistance for schools to better serve their students. Information about the program is provided to parents in their home language, and they are encouraged to attend frequent meetings and events, some of which are held bilingually.

The program is an assets-based model rather than a deficit model. The first of the seven tenets that express the philosophy of the program is, “All students can learn.” Tutors are constantly being recognized by teachers, teacher coordinators, principals, and counselors. From the beginning, all the aforementioned parties must commit to make the program work. Personnel at the tutees’ elementary schools welcome the students to do their tutoring lessons. The secondary teacher coordinators and staff encourage these tutors as the school year progresses. Communication between schools for the program creates a bridge, which is particularly important within the feeder patterns. The program fosters parent and school communication and relationships along with fostering relationships with community organizations (such as local Coca-Cola bottlers) that contribute to the program.

The third goal is equitable treatment. The Coca-Cola Valued Youth Program tutors are valued by the all the people involved in the process. Sometimes there is reluctance at first, but these feelings turn to respect for the tutors as they become excellent tutors, great role models and in many cases, end up doing things to help children that teachers themselves could never do. The tutors must go through a minimum of eight hours of training, getting to know the school where they will be assigned, the principal, the teacher and most important of all, the students they will be assigned to tutor. They have a process to follow that looks carefully at each tutee. Tutors and tutees do not work in isolation but in the primary classroom and in consultation with the tutees’ teachers.

The Coca-Cola Valued Youth Program is a dropout prevention program. Yet, many schools have included the program as part of their school improvement plans as a means of curtailing disciplinary referrals, increasing attendance, and improving parent involvement.

The fourth goal is equitable opportunity to learn. Tutors in the Coca-Cola Valued Youth Program are given lessons each week for debriefing with the teacher coordinators. In many cases, other teachers become involved both at the primary and secondary levels. Tutors improve their own literacy and math skills in order to teach their tutees. Students are given the opportunity to reflection what they are doing in their tutoring lessons and what is going on in their classes at the secondary level. In the hour each week that they spend together, the tutors engage in lessons about tutoring or to enhance their literacy or self-esteem. Constant feedback is provided to each tutor, and there are different manners of acknowledgment throughout the school year. Certificates of achievement and participation are provided for each tutor along with an end-of-year celebration, field trips and tangible gift items. Tutors receive a stipend in acknowledgment for the work that they do as tutors.

The final goal is equitable resources. Funding for many of the Coca-Cola Valued Youth Program sites comes from Title VII projects, state compensatory education monies, foundations, and even some general funding program monies from the school districts. In many cases, the program has been institutionalized by the district as part of its plan to decrease the dropout rate.

The teacher coordinator is usually specifically selected by the school for his or her ability to work positively with these students. This teacher and other personnel at the secondary and elementary schools go through training at the start of the program and receive follow-up training throughout the year. They all become part of a team that reflects the philosophy of the program. Tutors are provided with their own tutoring manual specifically developed for them, a name tag, and transportation to the elementary school when distance or weather is not appropriate for the tutors to walk. In essence, all the necessary support for the program’s success must be agreed upon from its inception in order to guarantee that the students succeed.


Nellie Bly wrote about the circumstances in an “insane asylum” back in the early 1900s when she was getting her start in journalism. She purposely had herself committed so that she could write about the place from experience. After 10 days, she was ready to leave and was released. When she wrote about the conditions, everyone was surely surprised and shocked at her findings. Although there was nothing wrong with her, Ms. Bly was treated as if she really were insane. There were many other people there who had nothing wrong with them, either. Many were recent immigrants who simply could not speak English. Others were just too different and did not fit in, so they were placed there.

When I graduated from high school and the university for my first, second and third degrees, I recalled all the negativism that I and many others had to overcome. Growing up with that self doubt and low self-esteem made learning more difficult.

When we empower students through respect and acknowledgment and valuing, we create energetic students who can do almost anything. The same thing happens when they see that they are being valued for something that they do well. Usually, the effects are immediate in the results of their work. If we are to help build the self-esteem of students, especially those who are considered at-risk today, perhaps we should start looking first at ourselves and what we are doing, then look at model programs that will help us do things better.

I will be forever grateful to my parents, my brothers and sisters who encouraged me and to all those teachers at all levels who did see my strengths and potential. Knowing what I know about myself and my heritage today, I know my prayers are answered.

The Eight Categories of Developmental Assets

  1. Support – Young people need to experience support, care, and love from their families and many others. They need organizations and institutions that provide positive, supportive environments.
  2. Empowerment – Young people need to be valued by their community and have opportunities to contribute to others. For this to occur, they must be safe and feel secure.
  3. Boundaries and Expectations – Young people need to know what is expected of them and whether activities and behaviors are “in bounds” or “out of bounds.”
  4. Constructive Use of Time – Young people need constructive, enriching opportunities for growth through creative activities, youth programs, congregational involvement, and quality time at home.
  5. Commitment to Learning – Young people need to develop a lifelong commitment to education and learning.
  6. Positive Values – Youth need to develop strong values that guide their choices.
  7. Social Competencies – Young people need skills and competencies that equip them to make positive choices, to build relationships, and to succeed in life.
  8. Positive Identity – Young people need a strong sense of their own power, purpose, worth, and promise.

Source: Roehlkepartain, J.L. Taking Assets Building Personally: An Action and Reflection Workbook (Minneapolis, Minn.: Search Institute, 1999).


Dunne, G., and D. Schilling and D. Cowan. Impact! A Self-Esteem Based Skills Development Program for Secondary Students (Spring Valley, Calif.: Innerchoice Publishers, 1990).

Roehlkepartain, J.L. Taking Assets Building Personally: An Action and Reflection Workbook (Minneapolis, Minn.: Search Institute, 1999).

Scott, B. “We Should Not Kid Ourselves: Excellence Requires Equity,” IDRA Newsletter (San Antonio, Texas: Intercultural Development Research Association, February 2000).

Rogelio López del Bosque, Ed.D., is the marketing coordinator in the IDRA Division of Professional Development. Comments and questions may be directed to him via e-mail at feedback@idra.org.

[©2000, IDRA. This article originally appeared in the May 2000 IDRA Newsletter by the Intercultural Development Research Association. Permission to reproduce this article is granted provided the article is reprinted in its entirety and proper credit is given to IDRA and the author.]