While any child can suffer from low self-esteem, students with learning disabilities are particularly vulnerable. It’s not that these children are less intelligent than other children, but rather they learn differently.
However, most learning programs are designed for neurotypical children. This mismatch between learning style and learning program can frustrate students and cause them to doubt themselves, and even to believe that their subpar performance means they are stupid.
To make matters worse, that frustration often brings feelings of shame associated with underperforming. Add to that the social stigma of being “different” and you have the perfect recipe for low self-esteem.
But with effective strategies and emotional support, many children with learning differences can overcome the challenges they are saddled with, achieve their full potential in the classroom, and regain healthy self-esteem.
How to Build Self-Esteem in these Children
1. Quality Time is Important
If you are around your child every day, aren’t you spending time with him? Yet, there’s a difference between being around him and spending time with him; the latter helps build confidence in numerous ways.
When you engage your child one-on-one in an activity, you are showing that child that her world matters. It is your undivided attention to what interests her that conveys the clear and powerful message that you love and care about her, regardless.
2. Accentuate Positive Reinforcement
When you give your child with special needs a task that you know she can easily complete, you are providing a confidence builder. The child will be able to experience that wonderful feeling of a job well done and marvel at her accomplishments. This provides a perfect opportunity for you to use positive reinforcement.
Phrases like, “Great job!” or “Way to go!” will elicit that smile of approval from your child. Just keep in mind that you need to keep the tasks within their limitations to avoid undue frustrations that might arise from the inability to complete them without parental assistance.
Most of us, including our children, respond better to positive messages than negative ones. When our actions elicit a positive message, that triggers the brain to release a flood of dopamine and oxytocin, otherwise known as the “feel good” chemicals.
When our bodies experience that pleasure, we want more of it. The child with special needs who consistently receives positive messages of encouragement feels that pleasure and is empowered to achieve more than she could have ever expected otherwise.
3. Teach Problem-Solving Skills
There’s probably no better way to foster self-confidence than to become adept at problem-solving. Helping your child to develop coping strategies for dealing with her daily struggles and dilemmas works wonders. As parents, we often reflexively provide our children solutions instead of teaching them the art of doing it themselves.
To get the process rolling, ask your child what he thinks would help to solve the current problem. If you find him stumped, help him to generate a laundry list of potential responses. Then narrow that list to specific, workable solutions that align with your child’s personality. Try this problem-solving worksheet to help you begin.
4. Celebrate the Small Victories
Most of us wouldn’t know what to do if we were thrown into a room filled with astrophysicists. So why is it that, while we allow ourselves a little grace, knowing that we are totally mismatched with these scientists, we have such difficulty applying this understanding to students with disabilities?
It is critical to keep in mind that not every student will excel academically.
Teachers should take the time to ask all of their students what they are good at, and encourage them to use those skills as much as possible. Is she artistic? Does he play an instrument? Who has great social skills?
Parents should pursue this same theme from a different angle. Let mom or dad construct a list of all the things the child does well and post it in an obvious place. Because it is so easy for a child struggling to “forget” her strengths – areas she excels in, the child needs a constant reminder.
And find ways to highlight these strengths – display her artwork prominently on the fridge, never miss a soccer game, or compliment his generosity in front of his friends or other adults. By accentuating character traits like determination and kindness you can create a counterweight to offset shortcomings that make your child feel inferior.
5. Share Together what Your Child Likes to Do
For the child with special needs, who often experiences frustration and disappointment far quicker than other children, simple tasks that serve as confidence builders for their peers can very easily become a nightmare.
That’s why, if you want to help your child feel strong and capable, it is advisable to explore activities that she enjoys. If your child loves to draw, sit with her and admire the pictures she draws for you, mentioning here and there what a beautiful picture she created.
If your child is soothed by listening to music, play the songs in your child’s playlist and listen to them together, commenting on the good taste he’s displayed in choosing these songs.
Engaging your child in activities she enjoys conveys the powerful message that she isn’t lost in the shuffle of the world and that her likes and preferences do matter.
Witnessing a child struggle to keep up with his peers is heartbreaking for parents. But you aren’t powerless and needn’t be passive. There are things that you can do. Use the strategies enumerated above to help your child become strong, resilient, and self-confident.
Begin by fully grasping what your child can reasonably be expected to accomplish. A corollary of this is the necessity of accepting his special needs so that you can fully accept your child as he is. Children take their emotional cues from the adults in their lives. If you as the parent can accept the disability, that means it is acceptable.
And then help your child understand her learning problems. Misconceptions are unnecessary and are often a great source of pain for children. Realistic expectations help to cultivate a sense of control, a cornerstone of self-esteem.
It is well within the power of every parent and teacher to significantly raise a child’s self-esteem.