Building Self-Esteem in Children with Learning Disabilities

Instructor: Amanda Wiesner-Groff

Amanda has created and taught English/ESL curricula worldwide, has an M.Ed, and is the current ESOL Coordinator for the Saint Louis Public School District.

Teaching special education is an important, yet challenging, job. Special education students require your support and encouragement, so this lesson will focus on how you can build their self-esteem in the classroom. Read on, to learn more.

The Importance of Self-Esteem

Building self-esteem can become an uphill battle for students in special education. As a special education teacher, you know daily life is already difficult enough for students dealing with special needs; therefore, feelings of insecurity, rejection, and isolation, can leave students feeling low in the self-esteem department.

When students lack confidence in themselves, it will show up in many areas of their life, including their academic development. In order to eliminate this issue, you should include in-class strategies and programs that work on building self-confidence and self-esteem within your students. Let's take a look at some ways you can create a classroom environment that not only promotes self-esteem, but also builds it from the ground up.

A Positive Classroom Community

The first step in building self-esteem in the special education classroom is to build a positive classroom community. This means, having a classroom where students learn to respect, support, and value one another. If students know they are able to be themselves, make mistakes, learn at their own pace, and share their ideas without judgment or ridicule, they will begin to feel validated and self-assured. Here is what you can do:

  • Create rules, guidelines, and consequences together as a class. Allow everyone to be involved.
  • Assign student jobs, roles, and responsibilities so students feel trusted and see that their skills/abilities are valued.
  • Teach cooperative learning and problem solving skills, so students know how to support one another, feel comfortable trying new things, and understand it is okay to make mistakes.
  • Lead by example. Make mistakes, use individualized praise, talk through problems, have oral reflection time, and be encouraging.

Building Self-Esteem

So, you are building up a positive classroom community. Your students are beginning to understand the class guidelines, are working on cooperating, and are learning how to support one another. Now, it is time to start building up self-esteem. Think about trying to build confidence in a way that allows your student to become self-assured as a whole being, not just as academic beings. Here are some ways to get started:

Treat Students as Individuals

  • Do not compare students to one another. Value students for his or her individual strengths, skills, and accomplishments.
  • Avoid generalizing, or grouping students according to his or her needs, culture, learning style, or demographics.
  • Remind students of their individual value on a regular basis.
  • Teach students that individuality is something to be appreciated and celebrated.
  • Give individual praise so students can see how their individual contributions matter.

Focus on Strengths

  • Have students complete a Multiple Intelligence Assessment, so you can see how they learn best.
  • Have students fill out interest inventories, so you know their interests, and incorporate those interests into the classroom.
  • Incorporate your students' strengths, skills, and special talents (academic or not) into lessons, especially when they are struggling.
  • Implement a wide variety of learning mediums into each lesson to accommodate diverse learning styles and intelligences.
  • Focus on accomplishments, not struggles, when students are having a hard time.


  • Create a reward system together so students can get excited about workings towards goals.
  • Display the reward tracking system so students can regularly track his or her progress.
  • Make a big deal out of their achievements, even if the achievement or reward is small.
  • If students make a mistake, do not take away rewards. Mistakes should not erase previous accomplishments.
  • Use achievements for motivation; refer to the reward system when students need encouragement.

Establishing Independence and Goal Attainment

  • Help your students establish independence by teaching decision-making skills and allowing them to actually make decisions.
  • Offer choices as much as possible, so students feel a sense of independence and ownership in the classroom.
  • Teach your students how to set realistic and achievable goals.
  • Break down large assignments, modify the length of tests, or give extra time, so students do not feel overwhelmed by their workload.

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