Learning Disabilities and Self-Esteem

Because they have more difficulty in school compared to other kids, children with learning disabilities (LDs) sometimes start to question their own intelligence and competence. Their self-esteem can suffer, despite the fact that they usually have normal or even very high intelligence as measured on standard instruments.  In fact, a learning disability is defined as a SPECIFIC deficit in one or two areas of functioning (i.e. math and reading) despite overall normal (or even higher)  intelligence. However, children typically experience a great deal of failure and frustration before they end up being officially diagnosed with a learning disability. It is often during this period of not knowing what the problem is that kids are particularly vulnerable to developing low self-esteem.

However, even after diagnosis there are many threats to the child’s self-concept: there’s the anger, self-pity and a sense of helplessness that comes from having to work harder than peers, or from needing to be isolated in special learning situations (remedial teachers, classrooms or schools), or having to endure after-school tutors and lessons. Despite all the interventions and efforts, many children with learning disabilities will never do as well as their peers in their weak areas. Moreover, some kids with severe learning disabilities will not be able to keep up with or join in certain activities because of their deficits and this exclusion, too, can contribute to low self-esteem.

In addition, not all people are sensitive or affirming when they relate to children with disabilities. Some kids can be downright cruel, teasing children with special needs or even bullying them. Parents and teachers may also unconsciously communicate low expectations, and may unintentionally send the message that they don’t see the child as capable.

A Predictor of Success
However, since healthy self-esteem is a key ingredient for attaining  success in life, it is important that parents do what they can to help their learning disabled child acquire a positive self-concept.

Studies have consistently shown that if kids with LDs consider themselves as capable and confident, they do better in all areas of life. Moreover, they are less likely to fall into mental health issues associated with LDs, such as depression or anxiety.

Define the Term “Learning Disability”
A learning disability is a condition, not a trait. In this way, it is similar to diabetes or asthma. Helping your child know that he or she is normal but has a condition, can go a long way to keeping that youngster’s self-esteem intact. There are books for children that explain learning disabilities; seeing the condition described in a book can also help kids realize that this is something outside of themselves that they must deal with, but it does not define all of who they are. Children often misunderstand the term “learning disabilities,” thinking that it means that they can’t learn! This erroneous idea can affect their performance across the board. Instead of just having difficulty in one or two areas, a child with this misconception can do poorly in every area simply because he believes he is intellectually handicapped. It is very important for parents to spell out the specific disability and to highlight the child’s learning strengths. For instance, a parent might say, “your brain has trouble recognizing and remembering letters (this is called ‘dyslexia’)and so you have to work harder to be a fast reader. But in every other way, your brain works perfectly and you are actually very smart. So this means that you should find it easy to do your arithmetic, art, gym, music, science and most of your other subjects. You can can also be awesome on the computer and in sports. And because you’re so smart, you will be able to figure out how to help your brain remember the letters and you will become a good reader – it will just take a bit of work. But we’re going to provide you with extra help so it will be even easier.”

In addition, parents should focus on their child’s areas of natural strength and competency. If the child is a talented musician, artist, cook, computer whiz or whatever, parents can highlight the child’s gift and smarts in these areas. Parents can try to expose their child to as many different activities as possible in order to help the child find areas of competency. For instance, if you don’t invite the child into the kitchen to prepare dessert for the family, neither you nor the child will ever know that cooking is his natural talent! In addition to skills, LD kids also have commendable traits such as determination, compassion or courtesy. Giving positive feedback to character and behavior is another way to boost the child’s self-esteem.

Let Them Contribute
Assume that the child is competent unless the child proves otherwise. Therefore, treat your learning disabled child as a full fledged member of the family with all “voting” privileges and responsibilities. Parents can help their child feel normal by holding them to normal expectations and standards. Offer compensation only when the child’s LD is actually affecting task performance. For instance, kids with learning disabilities can fold laundry as well as anyone else, so don’t let them off the task. However, a particular child with LD may have more trouble running errands due to the difficulty of handling money. This doesn’t mean that the child shouldn’t be allowed to go to the corner store. It might mean, however, that you help him with this task by explaining what to expect in the way of change, showing him what the financial transaction is going to look like or otherwise “tutoring” him through the task.

Use Emotional Coaching
By naming a child’s feelings, parents can help boost the child’s self-esteem and overall emotional intelligence. Naming a feeling lets the child know that he is O.K., his feelings are normal and acceptable and he has emotional support. Thus, when the child is struggling with a difficult task, a parent can acknowledge “It’s hard! It’s frustrating to try that again and again and still not get the answer!” It is hard to believe how powerful a simple acknowledgment of the child’s feelings can be. Moreover, a large body of research shows that just naming feelings helps the child do better academically, behaviorally, socially and emotionally.

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