By Faith Karimi, CNN
(CNN) -- The fourth-graders walk up to a full-length mirror -- one after the other -- at a school in southwest Atlanta.
"I'm smart!" a girl in braids says.
"I'm a good person!" a boy donning a mask adds.
A bespectacled boy follows with, "I'm strong and independent," before hurriedly walking away. In the background, their teacher, Neffiteria Acker, holds up the mirror in front of the kids and cheers them on. "Yes! Louder! Love it!" she calls out.
Acker teaches math and science at Kindezi at Gideons Elementary school, and she's on a mission to boost her students' confidence and self-love. The kids returned to school this month after a year of virtual learning, and say their positive affirmations every morning before class starts.
Acker's practiced this with her 5-year-old daughter since she developed verbal language skills, and loved how they both felt afterward. Watching her students assertively repeat positive affirmations gives her chills, she says.
Acker and her students' daily ritual seems to be resonating. A fellow teacher at the elementary school recently posted a video of Acker's students sharing their affirmations on social media that's been viewed and re-shared more than 4,000 times.
"The best part about doing the affirmations is the feeling after I say them," Acker says. "And the feeling I see my students feel or that they express after they do them. Their attitude is better, their self-confidence is lifted and we have a better day."
Teacher has cards printed out with positive words
Mental health issues are rising among children nationwide as they struggle with anxiety, uncertainty and a relentless pandemic. Many adults report that the pandemic has been hard on their mental health. For kids, some experts say, it has become a crisis.
And more so this year, kids "need all of the kindness and compassion we can muster," says Dr. Marcuetta Sims, a psychologist and founder of The Worth, Wisdom and Wellness Center in Atlanta.
Children develop their beliefs based on how grownups speak to them, making teachers a key influence and positive affirmation a crucial first step, she adds.
Growing up in a rough neighborhood, some of the students in Acker's class don't hear a lot of positive words, she says. She starts the lesson by giving them examples of the affirmations she shares with her daughter.
She also has cards printed out with words such as powerful, great, talented, valued and intelligent. "When they get to the mirror and they cannot think of an affirmation themselves, I encourage them to pick a card and say that in the mirror," she says.
Most times, they don't have to -- they come up with their own words. On a recent day, the children walked up to the mirror and shared different affirmations: "I am intelligent. I am Black and beautiful. I am gorgeous. I am educated. I am loved."
With every passing day, the kids say it with more confidence as they look at their own reflections. Acker chose a mirror that was big enough to show the students from head to toe -- without other distractions. She searched various stores to get one that was just the right size for her students.
"I wanted the mirror to be so that they're only looking at themselves -- nothing else," she says. "My goal was I want you to love yourself, the whole you -- not just your hair."
Words have a lot of power, experts say
Acker is onto something, experts say.
In Sims' work with adults, most of the trauma is connected to messages they got when they were younger and the beliefs that resulted from that, she says.
"Our words hold so much power and when these words are being internalized by children who are still in the process of developing their sense of self, those words carry even more weight," Sims says. "The way we speak to children is the way they learn how to speak to themselves. It's how they develop their self-talk, which influences their behaviors and the choices they make in life."
In addition to building kids' self-esteem, such affirmations increase the number of positive emotions they feel each day, which in turn builds their resiliency and coping skills, says Jenna Glover, director of psychology training at Children's Hospital Colorado.
"When we encourage kids to develop thinking patterns that focus on the positive, even in difficult circumstances, they are better able to mitigate the negative impact of the stressors in their lives," Glover says.
Acker says she has noticed changes in the students' confidence and interactions, and plans to keep the practice going. The kids love it so much, some ask if they can say more affirmations after class.
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