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How Can Teachers Foster Self-Esteem in Children?

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By Robert Brooks, Ph.D.

Making Appropriate Accommodations to Maximize the Success of Children with Learning Problems in School

If all children learn differently, then it makes inherent sense that we teach them in ways they learn best. The kinds of accommodations I typically recommend do not require major modifications in a student's program, nor do they demand that a teacher have different educational plans for each student in the classroom. What is required is that all parties - students, teachers, parents - understand a child's strengths and weaknesses, arrive at common expectations and goals, and recognize what has to be done to reach these goals.

Some teachers have raised the question whether it is "fair" to make accommodations for one student, especially if other students feel offended. While I understand this concern, I believe that since all children are different and learn differently, the least fair thing is to treat all of them the same. However, the issue of fairness must be openly addressed lest other students begin to resent those students who are receiving accommodations. For this reason, I advocate that schools use the first couple of days of the new school year (although it is never too late) as an "orientation" period. During this period, teachers would not focus on academic content but instead would use the time to create a classroom climate in which all students would have the opportunity to thrive.

For example, to lessen the possibility of children feeling a teacher is unfair because some children might be doing more work than others, on the first day of school, the teacher can discuss with the class how each student is different, how some students read more quickly than others, how some can solve math problems more proficiently, how some can run faster than others. The teacher can then say that given these differences, there will be different goals and expectations of the amount and kind of work done by each student. The teacher can add, "One of my concerns is that you may begin to feel I am not being fair, and if you do, those feelings may interfere with learning. Thus, if at any time you feel I am not being fair, please tell me so we can discuss it."

The feedback I have received indicates that when a teacher introduces the topic of "fairness" before it becomes an issue, it remains a non-issue and permits the teacher to accommodate to each student's needs without negative feelings emerging. Obviously, teachers should share this message of fairness with parents, perhaps through a short statement of class philosophy that is sent home.

As noted, the kinds of modifications I typically have recommended do not require major changes. A teacher reviewing several of these recommendations recently remarked, "These are all very reasonable." The following are a small selection of these accommodations:

  • Untimed tests should be provided. I have known students with learning problems whose scores have gone up significantly by taking tests untimed, and yet they only required a few extra minutes. Removing the pressure of time lessened their anxiety.
  • A maximum time for homework can be defined. I believe that if most members of a class can do six math problems in 15 minutes, then, if possible, teachers should set that as a maximum time. If some students can do only three problems in that time span, the three should be accepted. To ask students with learning and attention problems to put in an inordinate amount of time for homework not only is counterproductive in terms of learning, but also increases tension at home.
  • We should ensure students know what the homework assignments are. Many students with learning problems have difficulty copying homework assignments from the blackboard. Providing the child with a monthly "syllabus" of assignments can be very helpful. Some teachers assign a "buddy" to ensure the child has an accurate picture of the homework required.
  • Children should be permitted to use computers for their assignments. Many students who have difficulty transmitting their ideas on paper do much better with computers. Yet, I know of teachers who still feel "students have to learn to write." By this they mean, writing with a pen or pencil. My feeling is if students struggle to write with a pen or pencil but find it easier to express their thoughts using a computer, they should be allowed to do so.

Teaching Children How to Solve Problems and Make Decisions

I continually emphasize that a basic feature of high self-esteem and resilience is the belief one has control over many areas of one's life and can accurately define these areas. This belief is tied to a feeling of ownership, a vital foundation for motivation. If we wish our children to develop this sense of control, it is essential we provide them with opportunities from an early age to learn and apply problem-solving and decision-making skills.

When I consult with schools and have the opportunity to interview students, I often ask, "What choices or decisions have you made in the past month in school?" Choices and decisions must be present if we are to help students with learning problems gain a feeling of ownership and become self-advocates.

Teachers can provide choices in many ways. A couple of examples include:

  • Teachers in one school gave a certain number of problems for homework but said to the students, "It's your choice. Look at all six problems, and then do the four you think will help you learn best." By offering the students the choice to "do less," they actually received more homework than in the past, especially since the students felt a greater sense of ownership.
  • When children are having difficulty learning, it is advantageous to discuss with them what they think might be most helpful and to attempt certain strategies. As Dr. Myrna Shure has found using her "I Can Problem-Solve" program, even young children are capable of coming up with different options to help them learn more effectively.

Robert Brooks, Ph.D. is on the Faculty at Harvard Medical School and former Director of the Department of Psychology at McLean Hospital in Boston, Massachusetts.

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