It’s not uncommon for children with learning difficulties to be burdened with feelings of low self-esteem and a lack of confidence. There are various definitions of self-esteem, some of which have been negative, equating self-esteem with kids being self-centered and lacking self-discipline. In this article, Dr. Robert Brooks addresses the questions: How do you define self-esteem, and how important is it?

I believe self-esteem plays a major role in all aspects of a child’s life, having an appreciable impact on learning, school performance, and peer relationships. Given the failure situations many children with learning and attention difficulties have experienced, these youngsters are especially vulnerable to low self-esteem. A lack of self-confidence is often associated with feelings of helplessness and hopelessness that serve to intensify a child’s sense of failure and loss of dignity.

Engaging in the “Blame Game”

When I was a psychology graduate student in the mid- to late-l960s, there was limited understanding of youngsters with learning and attention difficulties. These children and adolescents were frequently anointed with such labels as “lazy” and “unmotivated” and exhorted by adults to “try harder.” I constantly heard the refrain, “They could do the work if they really wanted to.” (Unfortunately, 35 years later we still hear some of these same comments.)

In addition, given the relative isolationism of mental health professionals from the field of education, learning difficulties were typically understood as resulting from emotional problems. Consequently, the primary recommendation was for individual psychotherapy with the belief that once the emotional blocks were removed, the child’s learning problems would disappear. When many youngsters did not respond to this treatment approach, when they continued to struggle with learning, it was very easy to refer to them and their parents as “resistant,” in essence, blaming them for the apparent treatment failure.

To be empathic: understanding the importance of self-esteem

As I saw more children with learning problems in therapy, I began to wonder: “Are these children truly resistant? Don’t they want to improve? Are they unmotivated to change? Or is my understanding of their difficulties somewhat limited and, thus, the interventions I am using not in keeping with what they need?”

I recognized that to answer these questions I had to become more empathic. I had to place myself in the shoes of children with learning problems and see the world through their eyes. In my efforts to grasp this world, I used data from psychological tests, direct interviews, and questionnaires. I asked them to describe what it was like to have a learning disability. I also engaged these children in writing stories about their lives and their learning struggles.

While some youth with learning problems maintained a relatively positive self-image, what impressed me was that the vast majority had suffered assaults to their self-esteem as a consequence of their learning failures. Many of these children not only demonstrated anxiety and a lack of confidence, but they also harbored doubts about whether their situation would ever improve. Thus, a loss of hope dominated their lives. These themes of low self-esteem and hopelessness were captured in the following first-hand accounts:

“I was born to quit and God made me that way.”

“It (learning problem) makes me feel terrible. It makes me realize there is a barrier that stops me from having a happy and successful future.”

“Sometimes I feel unrespected, unconfident, lower than other people. I also feel I could never do half the stuff I want to do and that makes me feel frustrated.”

Caitlin, a seven-year-old I saw in therapy, was beset by reading and attention struggles. She created a story, with my assistance, about a dog named Fidget. It was soon apparent that Fidget was a representation of Caitlin; the dog was described as having difficulty learning to read and concentrating on her work. The themes of low self-worth and a sense of hopelessness were poignantly captured in Caitlin’s second paragraph which read, “Fidget told herself that she would get over this problem someday, but she wondered if she really would. She was worried that when she grew up and her own puppies asked her something, she would not know the answer and they would wonder why their mother was not very smart.”

Caitlin’s words reflected not only her low self-esteem but also a fear expressed by many children with cognitive and learning problems, namely, that the situation will not improve. In essence, many of these children have lost one of the most precious gifts we possess — hope. It became increasingly apparent to me that if I were to improve the lives of children with learning problems, I had to reflect upon how to enhance their self-esteem.

Self-esteem: a definition

Some clinicians and researchers have defined self-esteem almost exclusively in terms of the difference between what you would like to be and who you feel you really are. I tend to use a broader definition.

I believe self-esteem includes the feelings and thoughts we have about our competencies and worth, our abilities to make a positive difference, our level of optimism, our willingness to confront rather than retreat from realistic challenges, our capacity to learn from both our successes and failures, and our ability to treat ourselves as well as others with respect. Viewed in this light, self-esteem, which is greatly influenced by our experiences of success, guides and motivates what we do, and, in turn, the outcome of what we do further affects our self-esteem. Thus, a cycle constantly operates in which our successes (or failures) impact our self-esteem, which then influences our beliefs and actions, which then influence our self-esteem.

While I place great importance on enhancing self-esteem in my work, some psychologists and educators have viewed the concept of self-esteem from a very different perspective, contending that those who advocate fostering self-esteem are doing so at the expense of teaching children responsibility, self-discipline, and caring. I do not subscribe to such a negative view of self-esteem. One basis for these differences may reside in the confusion between what Lerner (1996) calls “feel-good-now” self-esteem versus “earned” self-esteem. She argues:

“Earned self-esteem is based on success in meeting the tests of reality – measuring up to standards – at home and in school. It is necessarily hard-won and develops slowly, but it is stable and long-lasting, and provides a secure foundation for further growth and development.” (American Educator, 20, p. 12)

In contrast, “feel-good-now” self-esteem is perceived as attempting to reinforce feelings of self-worth by providing activities that do not truly challenge children, or set up realistic expectations, or teach them how to deal with mistakes. Lerner believes this kind of self-esteem replaces authenticity and hard work with false praise and lowered standards, prompting us to rescue children before they have had an opportunity to test their capabilities.

As is apparent, my notion of self-esteem resonates with Lerner’s description of “earned self-esteem.” I do not believe children can develop a stable, enduring sense of self-worth and confidence unless they truly succeed in areas they believe are important to significant adults in their lives and to their peer group. Children are quick to perceive when praise is false and expectations are low, providing them little sense of dignity.

Attribution theory: one framework for understanding self-esteem

In ending this article, I should like to describe one framework for understanding the components of self-esteem I have found helpful in guiding interventions to reinforce the self-worth and hope of children and adolescents with learning difficulties. The framework was initially proposed by Weiner (1974) and applied by many clinicians. It is called “attribution theory.” Basically, this theory examines the explanations children offer for why they believe they succeed or fail at tasks. These explanations are directly linked to a child’s self-esteem.

More specifically, research indicates children with high self-esteem believe their success is determined in great part by their own efforts and ability. In contrast, children with low self-esteem (many children with learning difficulties fall into this group) are more apt to believe their success is based on luck or chance or factors outside their control. Such children are quick to dismiss a high test score with the following comments: “The teacher made the test easy,” or “I was lucky.” Not surprisingly, such a self-perception weakens confidence of being successful in the future and is frequently a dominant belief of children with learning and attention struggles.

In terms of failure situations, children who possess high self-esteem typically attribute a lack of success to factors within their control to change, such as lack of effort (especially if the task is realistically achievable) or poor strategies (e.g., ineffective study strategies). These children entertain the belief that mistakes are experiences from which to learn rather than feel defeated by. Children with low self-esteem, however, are likely to ascribe failure to an unchangeable, inner lack of ability, reinforcing feelings of hopelessness.

Attribution theory has major implications for working with children and adolescents with learning problems. It helps to frame the following questions for parents and professionals:

  • How do we create an environment in our homes and schools to reinforce the likelihood youngsters with learning difficulties will not only succeed but also experience their accomplishments as based in great part on their own abilities and efforts? Posed somewhat differently, how do we reinforce a sense of personal control in these youth so they assume an increasing sense of ownership for their own lives? A feeling of personal control is part of the basic scaffolding for self-esteem and motivation.
  • How do we create an environment in our homes and schools that reinforces children’s belief that mistakes and failure are frequently the basis for learning and are not only accepted but expected? How do we instill in children and adolescents with learning problems, many of whom feel defeated after having faced years of frustration and failure, the conviction that their failures need not represent an albatross around their neck and that they can learn and succeed? How do we lessen or even erase fears of being humiliated and embarrassed for not understanding something the first time?

I will address these questions in the coming weeks. In my next article, I will discuss a question I am frequently asked: “What are the signs of low self-esteem or what should I look for in my children (or students) that would suggest they are struggling with feelings of low self-worth?” The answer is very important for if we are to help children with low self-esteem, we must have some sense of the various ways in which these feelings are manifested.