When a child grows up facing learning or attention challenges, it is not uncommon for questions around self-esteem to develop. Parents may worry that a child’s self-perception may be affected, or that a child may feel insecure as a result of experiencing academic difficulties. However, when challenges are properly addressed, you can help your child build and maintain a healthy self-esteem
Prevent the Problem
The first thing a parent can do to build self esteem when a child faces a learning challenge, is to prevent a problem from even beginning. This can be accomplished in a few different ways.
An important first step is to start searching for answers when the signs of learning difficulties emerge.
If your child begins to dread going to school or complains about not having friends, these are some early warning signs that there could be difficulties. Watching out for red flags is also a good way to spot when a child is struggling with reading.
It’s best to deal with any concerns sooner rather than later, because challenges addressed before the age of eight usually lead to more positive long term outcomes. If you get a handle on any issues when they first emerge, there is a good chance that your child’s self-esteem will never have the opportunity to be diminished by academic difficulties.
Parents can also help prevent self-esteem issues by simply talking about different learning abilities in family conversations early on. In technical terms, it’s developing a language of neurodiversity. This means, having a family approach to talking about the different ways of learning that all family members have in terms of strength and weaknesses. I help families develop this language from an early age, for example by saying things like, “Mommy is a really strong reader but I can be very shy, and Daddy is really good at doing math in his head but he had a hard time learning chemistry vocabulary. What do you think you are good at? What comes easy for you at school? Where do you notice you have to work harder?”
Addressing the Problem
There are times, when a child’s self-esteem is impacted affected by learning challenges. This usually occurs when concerns or issues go unaddressed, or are inappropriately managed. Often, the child feels like their performance does not match their effort, or sees a difference between their work and their peers.
When this occurs, parents can work to redefine their child’s self image. The key is to take away the shame a child can often develop around their weakness, or what I like to call their “sticky spots”. This usually takes the form of explaining how brains work; in that different people learn information in different ways and how these skills play a role in everyone’s life.
It’s as simple as saying, “Mommy has memory sticky spots too and that’s why I keep lists on my phone,” which can help reassure a child and let them know they’re not alone. These are easy conversations to have over dinner or whenever you catch yourself using a strategy to make your life easier.
In our home, if I have something important to remember I will move the dining room chair into the middle of the hallway, that way when I go to bed and have to walk around the chair it reminds me what I have to do. By pointing out to my daughter what I am doing and why I am doing it, it models for her that it is perfectly normal to have to use tricks to work around a sticky memory.
Building self confidence through activities
Another strategy is to develop what educators call a child’s Island of Competency. It’s all about finding an activity or skill which a child excels at, either inside or outside of school. Some of my students have excelled in a sport, a children’s choir or face-to-face strategy gaming clubs. Their island is a place to find their tribe, to experience unconditional acceptance and to excel in an area of great passion and/or talent.
For some of my students with particularly significant learning or attentional challenges, their passion is what compels them to work at school and has led them to future employment opportunities.
Finally, it goes without saying that when learning challenges are addressed and workaround strategies are put in place, a child’s self-esteem and self image as a competent learner improves along with a feeling of success.
If a child does not feel successful, it’s important to take immediate action to help them change that perception. Reach out to experts, identify difficulties and determine ways for them to learn despite their challenges. At the end of the day, every child has a strength, something that makes them special and unique. It is our job as parents to help them uncover, develop, and celebrate it.