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Supporting Physical Development: Promoting Positive Body Image

During school-aged years, children experience changes in their bodies that often cause insecurities and self-esteem issues. This lesson will explain what body image is and how to look for signs that children may have a negative body image or low self-esteem. You will also learn ways to encourage school-age children to raise their own self-esteem and help them to feel comfortable with their bodies.

  • Describe and define body image.
  • Recognize signs of a school-age child with a negative body image and/or low self-esteem.
  • Develop methods of encouraging school-age children to have positive body images and healthy self-esteem.
  • Apply methods for healthy goal-setting for school-age children.



What is Body Image?

Body image is how you see yourself when you look in the mirror, or when you picture yourself in your mind, and the way you believe others may think of your body. Sometimes, the mental picture that we create of our bodies is quite different from what we see in the mirror and what others see. It is common to fixate on what we perceive to be a negative aspect of our bodies while overlooking positive attributes. This is very common in older school-age children and teenagers. Once a child’s body enters puberty and begins to change into an adult body, and insecure feelings and negative body images can take shape.

A common insecurity for school-age children revolves around body weight. During puberty, school-age children will experience growth spurts that change their body rapidly. These changes can leave children feeling lanky and awkward, while in others growth spurts may leave them feeling overweight and uncomfortable. These negative thoughts and poor adjustment to their changing bodies can lead to low self-esteem, which can impact all other aspects of life.

Negative body image affects both boys and girls. In today’s society, with easy access to photographs of celebrities and influencers in social media, school-age children are exposed to images of an “ideal body type” that has been created by the media. These photos are often edited in a way that makes models look thinner and enhances their features to create a flawless appearance. Poor body image is most often associated with girls, but boys also suffer from media’s portrayals of idealized perfection. Boys may feel as though they aren’t strong enough, tall enough, or masculine enough. One research study found that underweight boys are more likely to suffer from depression than overweight girls. Girls, however, are the most likely to suffer negative outcomes and become involved in disordered eating due to pressures to maintain from feeling overweight.

Negative body image can also be a result of negative comments from peers and others. Teasing and bullying strongly influence school-age children to develop negative feelings about their bodies and leads to lower self-esteem. Not all children will develop at the same time or in the same way. Often it is the children that develop either faster than the majority, or slower than their peers that may be picked on for differences in their appearance.

What to Look For

Part of your role as a school-age staff member will be to make daily observations of the children in your care. You’ve already received information about conducting health and safety checks, but it is also important that you pay attention to the mental health of school-age children. Children who have a negative body image or are suffering from low self-esteem may display some of the following behaviors:

Examples of What to Look For

Saying negative things about themselves If a child talks negatively about self or uses words like “stupid” or “fat”, try to engage the child in a conversation about the use of these words. Ask why they are saying hurtful comments about self and what it is that makes them feel that way. Try focusing the conversation on more positive attributes that define them by giving compliments on their strengths and discussing their accomplishments.
Giving up or becoming easily frustrated Some school-age children may give up quickly when they become frustrated or are given a difficult task. This can sometimes be mistaken for laziness; however, some children do not have enough self-worth to bother trying. For example, a student may give up after their first try at a new sport. When you try to talk to the child about why they quit, you may hear something like, “It doesn’t matter, and my mom won’t care anyway.” This could be a sign that the child may have low self-esteem and doesn’t think highly enough of themself to try putting effort into something new.
Having a difficult time overcoming change Experiencing a minor change or setback can sometimes seem like a huge loss or hurdle for children who suffers from low self-esteem. You can help these children by explaining the change and helping them understand how to progress further, while giving them an idea of what the “new normal” may be. For example, if a child is overly upset by a change to your daily schedule or a cancellation of a field trip, try to explain why the change happened and discuss what will happen instead of the original plan.
Sudden changes in behavior or personality Any sudden changes in behavior or personality should be carefully observed. Sometimes these changes are just phases, but other times they can be cries for help from a child with low self-esteem. If you have concerns about a child, discuss them with your administrator.
Sudden changes in appearance A sudden change to clothing, makeup or hairstyle can be a sign that a child is trying to fit in or change how they are viewed by others. This is, however, simply the way some children behave and it can be completely normal. It can become dangerous when the changes are negative, such as an 11-year-old girl who has suddenly started to dress overtly provocative for her age, or a child who looks ungroomed or neglected. You should also observe any drastic weight change in a child as this could be a sign of an eating disorder.
Sudden changes in eating habits

Eating disorders often begin when a child enters puberty. It is important to observe the eating habits of the school-age children in your care. If you notice a child not eating, eating less than normal, or eating large amounts of food, talk with your administrator about your observations and concerns.

Sudden changes in exercise routines All children should be exercising and enjoying physical activities daily. Many children participate in organized sports. However, exercise can become dangerous when it becomes excessive. If you notice a child seems obsessed with exercising and burning calories —for example, talking about getting up in the middle of the night to do exercises—share your observations with your supervisor. This could be a sign of an eating disorder or a potentially dangerous negative body image. On the other hand, children who are typically active and suddenly stop playing their favorite games or participating in physical activities may also be suffering from low self-esteem. Sometimes, when children become overly sad or depressed, they lack the energy and motivation to keep up with their regular activities. If you notice any sudden changes in children’s behaviors, talk with your supervisor about your observations.

How to Help

As a school-age staff member, the first way you can help the children in your care is to be a positive role model. Try your best to be healthy, active, and positive. Do not make negative comments about yourself or talk about the new diet fad you are trying. Be confident, positive, and accepting of who you are both inside and out. The following tips will help children have positive body images and healthy self-esteem.

  • Identify and redirect negative or inaccurate thoughts:  If you are working with a child who calls themselves stupid or makes fun of their appearance, help by redirecting their negative comments. Focus on something positive or help the child to set realistic and achievable goals. For example, if a child is frustrated because he is the only one of his friends that has not experienced a large growth spurt, explain that all children grow at different rates and that his body will also grow in due time. Work through children’s problems together and provide helpful tutoring and other resources when needed.
  • Give appropriate praise: Not all children receive praise at home. Give compliments, encouragement, and praise to every child every day. Having an adult that is proud of them and who believes in them can make a world of difference to children who have self-esteem issues. Observe your children daily so that you can give compliments on a new pair of glasses or a new haircut. Give encouragement when children are playing a game of soccer or working on a project. Give specific praise and compliments for a job well done.
  • Discuss acceptance: Have open discussions about accepting yourself for who you are. Help children understand the difference between characteristics and features that they cannot change about themselves, such as their shoe size or ethnicity, and the features they can change, like reaching a healthy weight or improving athletic skills. 
  • Help children discover and develop their talents: Finding something children are good at provides a huge boost to their feelings of self-worth. Providing a variety of activities allows children to try new experiences and develop new hobbies. Encourage them to express themselves creatively, through art, drama or music when feeling down or frustrated.

Goal Setting

Goal setting is a very important aspect of self-esteem and self-improvement. There is nothing wrong with wanting to improve something about ourselves, as long as we go about it in a healthy way. Achieving the goals that we set for ourselves builds positive feelings and a sense of pride when each milestone is achieved.  Work with school-age children to help them set goals for things they want to accomplish. If a child would like to improve their basketball skills, help them figure out a timeline and how to practice. If a child would like to become more physically fit, help them to set realistic goals and give them opportunities to participate in physical activities that align with their goal within your program. Check on the child’s progress and provide encouragement.

The following are tips for helping school-age children set goals:

  • Realistic and specific goals are the easiest to keep. Short-term goals are easier for school-age children to focus on completing without becoming overwhelming.
  • Being organized helps school-age children to complete a goal. In the Apply section of this lesson, you will practice helping children organize and plan their goals.
  • Patience is required to make a lifestyle change become a habit. It could take several months for changes, like diet and exercise, to become routine.
  • Repetition makes a goal happen. It might be helpful for school-age children to repeat their goal regularly, tell their family and peers, or write it down.
  • Setbacks or roadblocks do not mean failure. It may be easy for school-age children to become discouraged if they don’t succeed right away. It is important to remind them that change takes time and dedication.
  • Goals are only attainable if they are set for the right reasons. Make sure that school-age children set goals that they want to accomplish for themselves.


Supporting School Age Children Through Change

Watch this video to learn how to support school-age children develop a positive body image.


Helping school-age children through the stages of development is an important part of your role as a staff member. Remember to always be respectful and to only provide factual information.

  • Be supportive. Try to remember what it was like as a school-age child experiencing physical and emotional changes. Be understanding and sympathetic of this stage of development.
  • Provide resources. Always have quality factual information on hand to share with the school-age children in your program as well as their families. Body image and self-esteem can be difficult topics to discuss, so having good information at your fingertips will help you know what to say.
  • Provide encouragement. If a school-age child is struggling with self-esteem or body image issues, be encouraging and supportive. Help them redirect any negative feelings into positive ones and set goals for themselves.


In the Reflection and Critical Thinking: Body Image activity below, reflect and think about what body image is, what your personal struggles and/or triumphs with body image have been, and how you can use your reflections to help school-age children have positive body images. Answer the questions honestly and openly.


As you have learned in this lesson, goal setting can be an important tool to help school-age children develop self-esteem. Read through Haley's Goal Setting below, and think about other ways Haley could reach her goal. Next, use the Goal Worksheet from below, to think about how you could help a school-age child organize their goals into smaller steps. Share your responses with your coach, trainer, or administrator.


Mya’s mom comes to you and says that she is concerned that Mya is developing a negative perception of her body. She asks you what signs she should look for. You tell her to look for. . .
True or false? It is not appropriate to talk with a school-age child about becoming more physically fit.
Which of the following tips may promote positive body image in school-age children?
References & Resources

Moss, W. (2011). Being Me: A kid’s guide to boosting confidence and self-esteem. American Psychological Association.

Willett, E. (2007). Negative Body Image. New York: Rosen Pub.

The American Academy of Family Physicians. (2019). Body Image (Children and Teens). Retrieved from

The American Academy of Pediatrics. (2004). Caring for Your School-Age Child. New York: Bantam Books.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2013). BAM! Body and Mind. Retrieved from