Rewarding student behavior

Knowing how to build self-esteem in students is an important skill for all teachers. Bolstering self-confidence in students who have learning disabilities (LD) is even more critical. In this article, I’ll share my formula for building students’ self-esteem.

When I walk into an elementary school classroom, I am prepared with an array of teaching strategies and behavior management tools to build self-esteem in my students. I often use a token economy system with rewards for completing quality work and for making wise social choices. Rather than provide food or other tangible rewards, I have found social reinforcers, such as acknowledging effort, giving a “high five,” or a granting a special privilege, are far more powerful and important to the students. One of my mentor teachers once told me, “Catch them in the act of being good.” I remember that daily and try honestly to acknowledge students for effort, academic progress, and good choices as frequently as I can.

Providing information

For middle school and high school students, I tell them a bit about how their brain works. As kids grow older, their brains develop and allow them to understand more complex instruction. This helps them succeed with learning in areas they struggled with at a younger age.

I explain “learning disabilities” to help kids stop thinking of themselves as “dumb” or “stupid.” I know that if students with LD think they are stupid, they will invariably act out because they would rather be seen as “bad” than as “dumb.”

Building skills

When I work with adults with learning disabilities at a community college, I find many of the students are bright, already with some college education, but have a great deal of difficulty with reading. Many of them rely on sight reading and have little or no phonics skills. Earlier in my teaching career, I was told I should give up trying to teach phonics after a certain grade level. However, after working with adults, I am certain phonics is always a useful tool to learn and one that leads to improved self-esteem. In addition to re-teaching phonics to many of the students, I show them how to look for what makes sense, using context and inference clues, which they might not have been able to do when they were younger. A simple, but useful, technique for many is learning how to use the pronunciation guide in the dictionary. I am always amazed when someone asks, “Why hasn’t anyone shown me this before?”

Establishing relationships

As I continue to develop as an educator, I realize the great importance of the teacher-student relationship, no matter what the age of the student. When I establish a positive relationship with students, they feel trust and look to me as a source of information about themselves and the world.

Valuing uniqueness

A few words I took away from a training awhile back sum this up quite well: “Motivation comes from the perception of the possibility of success.” I continue to let students know they are special to me, even loved, and I appreciate their uniqueness. They begin to believe success is possible, sometimes for the first time.

Strategies to build self-esteem

  • Provide information about the brain and how students learn.
  • Build skills — academic and social.
  • Reward effort, performance, and good choices.
  • Establish positive, trusting relationships with students.
  • Value each student’s uniqueness.