Learning disabilities and self-esteem

Learning disabilities and self-esteem
Read and Spell blog
Learning disabilities and self-esteem

While any child can suffer from low self-esteem, students with learning disabilities are particularly at risk, especially if they are struggling with an undiagnosed condition. If the problem is related to a learning difference such as dyslexia, a child is not less intelligent than other children, he or she simply learns in a different way. Yet most school-based learning programs are developed with a neuro-typical child in mind.

This mismatch between learning style and task can cause students to doubt themselves and believe poor performance means they are not “smart”, that they are thick or stupid, or are somehow less skilled than their classmates. The stress and frustration a child experiences at school is often accompanied by feelings of shame associated with underperforming. There is also the social stigma of being “different” to deal with.

But with the right strategy training, accommodations and emotional support, many children with specific learning differences can overcome the challenges they face and achieve their full potential in the classroom.

Students with learning disabilities or differences like dyslexia, dysgraphia, processing difficulties, or ADD/ADHD may have to work harder than their peers to achieve the same results. These kids can have trouble getting started on a task, need instructions to be repeated more than once, or be unable to complete work in a given time-period. However, this does not necessarily mean they are less intelligent, only that they learn in a different way, which may not be being catered to. That’s why it’s so important to consider the terminology used to refer to learning disabilities.

The word “disability” implies a deficiency of some sort and it’s a term frequently, but incorrectly applied to those with a learning difference. A student with a learning difference is not less able than his or her peers. In fact, there are many examples of people with learning difficulties and differences exhibiting extreme giftedness in some areas.

Consider for example, the person with Down syndrome who is an accomplished dancer, or medal winning javelin thrower, or the person on the autistic spectrum who draws magnificently. For this reason “learning difficulty,” “specific learning difficulty” and “learning difference” are increasingly preferred alternatives to “learning disability.”

Read more in our posts: What are learning difficulties? and Dyslexia strengths

Confidence vs. self-esteem

Confidence and self-esteem are often mentioned in the same breath but they actually refer to different things. Confidence is a belief in one’s ability to be successful in a task based on previous experience or an understanding of the challenge level involved.

Self-esteem is about having a healthy self-image and believing that you are worthy of respect and love from others. A child can be confident in his or her ability to do well in a baseball game or succeed in school exams, but have a poor self-image and still struggle with low self-esteem.

In the case of a child with a learning difficulty like dyslexia, there may be a lack of confidence when it comes to reading and spelling. Children and adults can tend to falsely equate performance and ability level with self-worth, which is why it’s so common for a lack of confidence to turn into low self-esteem, but it doesn’t have to be this way. Learn more in our post: Self-esteem vs. self-confidence, what’s the difference?

3 Signs of low self-esteem at school

3 Signs of low self-esteem

  1. Not completing homework or long-term assignments

    A child may complain that he or she was tired or unwell (or the dog ate it!) and thus was unable to complete an assignment, but when this happens on a regular basis it may be a sign of avoidance. This is especially true if a student has learned that hard work and effort do not necessarily equate to improvements in performance. In these cases, classroom accommodations, including task modifications, and strategy training might be necessary.

    Learn more in these posts: How to help a dyslexic child in the classroom, Strategies for students with ADHD, Classroom accommodations for students with dyspraxia

  2. Refusing to participate in social activities

    When a child stops wanting to participate in group activities, including attending sports practice, school clubs or even social gatherings, it can be a sign that something is wrong. Some kids with learning difficulties struggle with a secret sense of shame. They may believe that they are less worthy than others or that their peers will not like them if they discover they have a learning difficulty. Over time this can lead to increased isolation and depression. It’s important for educators and families to put things in perspective and provide plenty of opportunities for children to open up about how they are feeling.

    Learn more in these posts: Helping children with learning difficulties, Motivational quotes about dyslexia

  3. Acting up or attention seeking behaviour

    Sometimes children who act up in the classroom or who come across as the class clown may be doing so in an effort to distract others from their poor academic performance. Acting out and being reprimanded can be a way of getting out of classroom activities, such as reading out loud or writing on the board. It can also be a way of getting more personal attention from teachers, even if it is negative attention. When bullying and anti-social behaviour are an issue, it may be a sign that the child is rejecting others before they have a chance to reject him or her. It’s important to address these issues as soon as they come up and to look at what might be motivating the behaviour, particularly if a learning difficulty or difference is present.

How to help

Talk things out 

Sometimes children just need a supportive and judgement-free space in which to share their feelings. It helps to listen with an open mind. This means accepting what the child is saying without always needing to respond with a solution. If you’re having a hard time getting a student to open up, you may try having a conversation in a different environment to where he or she normally studies.

Look up role models

A child with a specific learning difficulty may feel that they alone are suffering with a particular experience. Do some research and find examples of other people who have struggled with and overcome similar life challenges. Talk about external situations and see if you can get the child to reflect on any lessons they have learned and relate them to their own life.

Some communities have independent Dyslexia Support Groups or other support groups that are based on a common difference or difficulty for adults, parents, children and young people. These can provide opportunities to share experiences and give mutual support, as well as learning more about a specific condition.

Celebrate strengths

Many assessment measures are designed to call attention to deficiencies and show us which skills a child with learning disabilities or differences needs to improve, but how about focusing on what a learner is good at for a change? There are online strength finder quizzes available or use what you know about a student to delve deeper into their interests and look for hidden talents - then give them plenty of opportunities to develop these further!

The pursuit of interests can lead to spontaneous learning. For example, baking a cake involves weighing, measuring, understanding the interaction between ingredients as they mix and cook etc.

Teach coping strategies

The brains of individuals with specific learning differences work in a different way. This means children may benefit from strategies that help them to succeed in tasks developed for a neuro-typical child. For example, mnemonic devices can help with memorizing words the individual finds particularly hard to learn.

An example for the child who always has a problem with spelling “because” would be to recite Big Elephants Can’t Always Use Small Entrances. Or those who struggle to remember the direction of the letter “b” or “d” could be taught to say “first the bat – down stroke I – and then the ball Io.”

Keep in mind that how you teach the strategy, which should include an explanation, modelling and giving the student a chance to implement it, is just as important as which strategies you present. It can be particularly effective if the individual makes up their own mnemonic device to cope with a problematic word. 

Review classroom accommodations

The right school accommodations can make a big impact on a child’s ability to be successful in the classroom. Accommodations include devices and technology which can assist learning, as well as aspects of classroom practice such as where a student is seated and how they are meant to participate in different activities.

For example, many learners with dyslexia and ADD/ADHD will benefit from being able to type assignments and/or take notes on a computer. Children who struggle with dysgraphia may need more time and shorter assignments and/or the option to demonstrate knowledge through oral reports.

Know when to take a break

School takes up most of a child’s day-to-day but for children with learning disabilities or differences, going home to another few hours of homework can just extend the challenge and frustration to the point that it causes burn-out.

To keep motivation up, it’s important a child has plenty of opportunities to take a break from studying. This can include pauses during the day so a learner can get up from his or her desk and move around the classroom, or going home and having a nice afternoon instead of forcing in a few more hours at a desk.

How TTRS can help kids with learning disabilities

A typing program that can help

When a child repeatedly experiences anxiety, frustration and disappointment in the classroom, these feelings can develop into a negative attitude toward school and learning. Sometimes a good approach is finding an alternative hobby or skill-set to develop which can restore a child’s confidence and belief in his or her ability to learn new things.

Touch-type Read and Spell is a keyboarding programed designed with this in mind. The program focuses on accuracy over speed and breaks learning down into bite-size modules. It takes a gentle approach to challenge and has repetition built in to reinforce learning and prevent learners from failing.

Learn more

The course uses a multi-sensory approach that benefits children and young-adults and fosters independence and self-directed learning, while also boosting reading and spelling skills through a structured program of English phonics. It’s designed to make learners feel and be successful from the beginning, and to have that “can do” feeling which impacts on self-esteem and confidence as a learner.

Moreover, kids and young-adults alike acquire typing skills that can make using a computer faster and more efficient. This is particularly important if a computer is a recommended classroom accommodation.

Students work through the course one module at a time, learning at their own pace and moving on only when they feel ready. Feedback is automatic and encourages a learner to keep working toward their goals, with visual progress reports and praise for effort over performance.

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About the Author 

Meredith Cicerchia

Meredith Cicerchia is a teaching affiliate at the University of Nottingham, an education consultant, and a freelance writer who covers topics ranging from speech and language difficulties and specific learning differences, to strategies for teaching English as a second and additional language.
Reviewed by 

Chris Freeman

Chris Freeman has a BA cum laude in Sociology, and has undertaken post grad work in education and educational technology. She spent 20+ years working in public health and in the charity sector.
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