Parents and teachers want to hear these words: “I can do it.” They’re positive. They reflect confidence, a positive assessment of ability, and a drive to accomplish something.
There are other words we want to hear from children with learning disabilities. “I will try” tells us that even if success is not guaranteed, the child has confidence enough to attempt the activity. “I want to do that myself” tells us the child is seeking autonomy and has confidence that success is possible.
A Lack of Confidence
Children with learning disabilities can lack confidence in many arenas. In class they may have difficulties with reading, speaking, and test taking. At home they may have difficulty finishing homework, getting along with siblings, and making small talk around the dinner table. In the community, they may have difficulty greeting people, maintaining eye contact, and communicating their needs. Any one of these difficulties can damage confidence.
A lack of confidence shows up in many ways. For example, a child may:
make disparaging remarks about himself and his abilities.
judge his efforts harshly.
make excessive use of self-deprecating humor to put himself down.
resist trying new things.
feel uncomfortable in social situations, thus staying close to family and friends and avoiding strangers.
avoid direct eye contact.
get angry or depressed about homework.
avoid speaking in class.
not advocate for himself.
speak pessimistically of his future.
Strategies for Building Self-Confidence
Teachers and parents can help children strengthen their self-confidence. Here are twenty ways.
Teach the child how to ask questions. Practice this with her. Provide a supportive environment that encourages and rewards questioning.
Encourage decision making. Start small, with simple, safe decisions in which right and wrong play no role (e.g., “Do you want apple or orange juice?”). Gradually increase the importance of the decision. Then encourage the child to make decisions he finds more meaningful.
Encourage problem solving. Ask the child to suggest strategies. For example, you might ask her to organize her chores so one flows logically into the next. Or, you might give her a short grocery list of items spread around the store. After shopping, ask her to organize the next trip so these items can be bought in less time. Consider allowing her to choose the sequence of errands you make together.
Encourage active participation. Ask her to explain her opinion about something she thinks is important. Don’t critique it. Then share an opinion with her and invite her to ask questions.
Model and encourage positive self-talk to help her develop confidence in her abilities. "I’m good at this subject and I’ve studied hard. I should do well on this test."
Never publicly critique or humiliate. Always create a private moment for corrective feedback. On the other hand, if she agrees, and if this will not upset other children, publicly PRAISE, PRAISE, PRAISE.
Encourage her individuality. Never compare her to another child.
Illustrate how she can define herself broadly and in a variety of contexts rather than by academics alone. For example,"Alexis, that was nice of you to show Kierstin where to hang her coat. Because you helped her, she’ll be able to do it tomorrow. Good job!"
Encourage effort over outcome. Have her make a list of her efforts, accomplishments, and successes and, in moments of defeat, encourage her to read the list aloud, as many times as it takes until she feels better. Then help her develop a plan for success that can overcome her recent defeat.
requently tell her: "Everyone makes mistakes. When we learn from our mistakes, they’ll happen less."
Teach social skills if the child’s are weak or underdeveloped. If they’re weak, make social skills instruction a priority. In later life, a person’s poor math or reading skills will be less visible than their ability to connect to people. You might, for example, need to teach her how to accept compliments graciously, whether or not she believes they’re deserved, or teach her how to make eye contact, shake hands, make small talk, and dress appropriately for different situations. In other words, teach her to be flexible and fit in.
Actively encourage her to develop her strengths. If she’s good at drawing and loves to draw, create lots of opportunities for drawing. Enroll her in a drawing class, buy her drawing books, take her to art shows.
Help her set one or two realistic goals, goals she can meet with moderate, not super human, effort. When she meets them, encourage her to identify the steps that produced success.
Teach her how to break large goals into smaller ones, ones that she can complete with moderate effort and the right plan.
Discourage catastrophic, all or nothing thinking. The child may need to be taught that a snub from a classmate doesn’t mean she’ll never be liked or never have friends; a bad test grade doesn’t mean she’ll fail all her other tests or all her courses. Discuss matters with her in ways that will help her see things accurately.
Encourage her to accept others’ confidence in her. As achievement is noted and celebrated by others, remind her that she can use those moments to positively reflect on her abilities when facing difficulties.
Help her increase her sense of responsibility by giving her some. You might ask her to help organize a class or family activity or help decide what charity the family or class should support.
Calculate your own praise and critique time. If you critique for two minutes, praise for at least four. Make sure the praise is earned and that the child understands what she did to earn it.
If you’re a parent, love your child, and let her know through your words and actions. Don’t assume she knows you love her.
If you’re a teacher, treat your students with care and respect.
Some Final Thoughts
Confidence is belief in oneself and one’s abilities. It involves learning strategies that lead to success and the skills to carry them out. Fortunately, strategy instruction and skill building activities that strengthen confidence can be carried out in almost any setting for any task.
For teachers and parents to help a child learn strategies and build skills takes focus and mindfulness. It requires systematically teaching the child the skills and strategies needed to achieve the goal.
Using lots of opportunities to build confidence will often lead to the outcomes we want: confident children with a good sense of themselves, their strengths, and what they can offer the world.
Ila A. Keiner, M.Ed., JD, MSW, LCSW has a private clinical practice in Linwood, N.J. As part of her practice, she counsels children and families, consults to schools and attorneys, prepares forensic reviews, conducts Parent Satisfaction Surveys for public and private schools, helps parents prepare for IEP meetings, and assesses compliance with the specifics of IEPs. In addition, she frequently helps schools and parents resolve conflicts.