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How to Help Kids With a Learning Disorder Build Confidence

Strategies for helping your child see their worth beyond academics

Writer: Shelley Flannery

Clinical Experts: Taína Coleman, MA, MEd , Daryaneh Badaly, PhD, ABPP

en Español

As a parent, you know your child is so much more than their learning disability. They’re skilled and talented in many ways. But with so much of their time spent in an academic setting, where they are acutely reminded of their learning challenges, it can be difficult for kids to see themselves the same way their parents see them. And that can take a toll on their self-confidence and, even deeper than that, their self-concept.

“For a child with a learning disability, their entire self-concept can be affected,” says Taína Coleman, MA, MEd, an educational specialist in the Learning and Development Center at the Child Mind Institute. “They might be wondering who they are or why something is so hard when it’s not for other kids. Some students come to me and say, ‘Oh, I’m just not smart.’”

That’s why the educational specialists at the Child Mind Institute say working with children with learning disabilities should be as much about addressing self-concept and self-confidence as it is academics and learning strategies.

Assuming you have gotten your child an evaluation, seen that a plan of support and remediation has been set up for them at school, and checked in regularly to ensure it’s being implemented, you can focus on helping bolster their confidence both in and out of the classroom.

First, listen to self-talk

The first thing Coleman does when she begins working with a child is listen, to get a sense of how they feel about themselves.

“I listen to find out if a child believes they’re valuable and worthy of love, care and consideration,” she says. “I want to know if they wonder, ‘If I fail this test, am I going to disappoint my parents? Will they still love me?’ Because for many kids, those are real concerns.”

Coleman suggests addressing statements a child makes about their self-worth directly and helping them to reframe their thoughts by telling them what you see. The goal is to replace negative self-talk with positive.

For example, if she’s working with a kid who gets frustrated halfway through their math homework and says, “Ugh, I’m so stupid,” she might say something like this:

“Oh, I don’t think you’re stupid at all. What I’m seeing is you’re working through this problem with great care, and, in fact, we just did a bunch of activities where you showed continued fluency, right? That tells me you’re doing good work.”

Reframe thinking about challenges

From there, parents can help their child by adding context to the situation and reframing difficulties. For instance, when kids tell Coleman they must not be smart since they have to use special tools to learn (such as a highlighter for reading comprehension, noise-cancelling headphones for reading or extra time on tests) that their peers don’t, she brings up her glasses.

“I say, ‘I know. I hate wearing glasses. Should I just stop wearing them and expect myself to be successful?’” she says. “Usually, they say, ‘No, actually, you need your glasses.’ And I use that example to explain that sometimes you need a tool that might be visible — i.e. my glasses — or something you can’t see.”

She discourages comparisons to peers by noting that everyone uses tools that work for them, visible or not.

It’s also important to promote self-awareness by sharingyour child’s diagnosis with them, making sure they know that it’s not a reflection of their intelligence. Help them understand their learning profile — how it may be different from the way other kids learn — and equip them with language to describe their strengths and challenges.

Praise the process

When it comes to encouraging kids academically, and especially kids who have learning disabilities, Coleman says it’s important to focus on the effort they’re making rather than the end result, or grade.

“I always praise the process. I praise the problem solving,” she says. “The hundred percent or the A doesn’t show the level of effort and skill a child put into something.”

Daryaneh Badaly, PhD, a neuropsychologist in the Learning and Development Center at the Child Mind Institute, says helping your child develop a growth mindset — a way of thinking that encourages effort and perpetual self-improvement — ultimately is what will enable your child to reach their goals.

“Shifting from a fixed mindset to the growth mindset is about trying your best rather than being the best,” she says. “And that attitude has actually been shown to be predictive of success, not just academically but across different areas, whether schoolwork, soccer or some other activity.”

But the success isn’t the goal. “It’s about the process of how am I growing rather than did I get everything right,” Dr. Badaly adds. “And that is what will help the most in having a confident kid because they’ll know that trying their best — at anything — is enough.”

Encourage personal growth

Nurturing a child’s self-esteem and promoting their self-confidence requires helping them see themselves as more than their learning disability. At the end of the day, their learning challenges make up only a very small fraction of who they are, and are by no means a measure of your child’s worth as a human being. You can help your child realize this by encouraging growth not only in the area in which they struggle academically but also in other subjects and extracurricular activities.

Try to offer plenty of opportunities in which your child can develop talents, skills and interests in activities that are unaffected by their learning difficulties. These could include sports, dance, music, scouting, art, acting, chess, robotics — whatever kids are drawn to that offers them an opportunity to shine. They can also include opportunities to explore a passion such as volunteering with animals or taking on an environmental cause.

As for how to choose activities in which to involve your child, Dr. Badaly suggests starting by taking a look at what your child is already into. “They probably gravitate toward certain types of toys or YouTube videos and things like that,” she notes. “See if you can find activities that naturally fit into what they like or what their friends are doing.”

For instance, if your child enjoys building with blocks, perhaps there is a Lego group in your area they could join. Does your child love strategy games or puzzles? Maybe they’d want to give chess club a try.

And be sure to consider your child’s executive functioning abilities and social and sensory tolerances. For instance, if your child has ADHD or autism spectrum disorder, group sports might not be the best fit, even if they’re athletic. Something like rock climbing, gymnastics or martial arts might be a better path.

Keep it leisurely

Dr. Badaly suggests presenting a few options and letting your child choose what to try, keeping in mind such activities are for leisure.

“It’s important we let kids weigh in on how they spend their leisure time,” Dr. Badaly says. “If it’s not enjoyable to them, then it’s not leisurely.”

In that same vein, Dr. Badaly again reminds parents to focus on effort and growth with leisure activities, including sports, rather than focusing on outcomes such as wins and points scored.

“If everyone’s focused on being the best — if it’s a sport where they’re expected to win all the games or if, in piano, they’re expected to practice every day and be this great pianist,” she says, “then that has the potential to feel like another failure to them and isn’t going to help anything.”

Dr. Badaly urges parents to focus on helping kids find something they derive joy from.

Foster a sense of belonging

Coleman recommends helping kids find ways to be active in their family and community that will make them feel needed and connected.

“Ensure your child feels valued at home by allowing them to contribute in meaningful ways,” she suggests. “Facilitate connections with peers, friends and family outside of the school setting. Encourage them to engage in the community through volunteer work or faith-based programs.”

These activities are another way to bolster a child’s sense of self and having a secure role to play that’s independent of academic success. They can also allow them to develop leadership skills — or simply practice being a good friend.

This article was last reviewed or updated on June 22, 2023.