Is there anything more delightful than the excitement in the face of a baby taking those first unaided steps? In that moment, this little one is ready to conquer the world! When the toddler proudly declares, “Me do it aw ba ma sev!” he expresses unabated confidence. Children enter this life wired to learn and have a natural enthusiasm for conquering new skills. As parents, we delight in each of their accomplishments. But what happens when that child faces special learning challenges?
Our heart breaks when we watch the dejected expression in the face of a child, who has come to believe that somehow he or she is not measuring up. Few things are as sad as seeing a child who has given up. Sometimes, it happens early when a child has trouble speaking and cannot communicate effectively. More often it happens after the child enters school and starts comparing his or her own performance against that of the other children. “They can do it but I can’t. It is too hard!” The child may not verbalize it this way but feels the frustration and starts to develop attitudes like “I am no good at this school stuff,” or “I don’t like school,” or even “I am dumb!”
What can we as parents do to counter such negative feelings? How can we instill confidence in the struggling child?
Ineffective Strategies for Instilling Confidence
Some of us may think that we can keep our child’s confidence up through plenty of praise and encouragement. This might work for a while with the very young. In the long run, high fives, hugs and comforting words will not instill confidence. You cannot fool the struggling child into feeling confident.
We might attempt to provide success for our child by making the tasks extra easy. For the child with real learning challenges this will only help very temporarily. Tackling difficult tasks and coming out successful in the end is ultimately necessary in order to gain confidence. But how can we accomplish that, when our child is having such a hard time?
Six Basic Principles
I have over the years successfully employed several strategies based on the following six basic principles. The first one is really the basis for all the others. As you work with your child’s struggles, you may want to ask yourself, “Will what I am doing encourage self-reliance in my child?”
- Self-reliance. Every child has a natural drive to do things independently, but when tasks seem difficult it soon becomes easier to rely on the adult. If the child is allowed and perhaps even encouraged to do so, it becomes a habit to turn to the parent for help. The less the child has to rely on the adult for guidance and answers, the more he or she will gain confidence.
- Tools and strategies. Provide appropriate tools for success and teach your child to use them. Then let the child take charge. Avoid the temptation to jump in and “rescue” him or her. When the child is allowed to struggle a bit, yet comes out successful in the end, it builds confidence in a powerful way.
- Thinking time. Children with language learning challenges usually have trouble coming up with words and facts quickly. We live in a fast-paced society, but hurrying your child on by filling in the missing words is counter-productive. Your child needs to know that it is okay to take time to think. When the child finally comes up with the word or thought that had seemed to slip away, he or she gains confidence.
- Practice is a natural part of learning. We see it in the young child who insists on doing the same thing over and over again, especially with a new or emerging skill. The child learning to ride a bike will keep getting on that bike again and again and will proudly show you how “good” he or she is getting. Yet, many children later come to think of practice as punishment for not getting it right the first time. They then need to learn that practice is a tool to “make hard things easy.” When difficult tasks become easier through practice, it instills confidence.
- Internal rewards. The young child needs frequent validation by adults in the environment. As the child grows and learns to recognize successes, extraneous rewards should be scaled back to allow for self-validation. When the child can recognize the positive result of good effort and gain satisfaction from the accomplishment itself, this instills confidence.
- Nurturing the strengths. Every child has strengths as well as weaknesses. Don’t let your child be identified by the disability or challenge, whatever it is. With the importance of reading and related language skills, children with significant learning challenges often come to think of themselves as not being good at anything. Recognizing that you are good at something instills confidence.
Effective Strategies for Instilling Confidence
These principles are applicable for any child but are especially important for the child with learning challenges. How they are applied will depend on the nature of the child’s difficulties and the stage of development. The specific strategies needed will therefore change with the changing tasks and demands. Your Kindergartner’s and 1st grader’s challenges in learning to read are different from those of your toddler or preschooler learning to talk. The older child faces a whole new set of challenges.
With our strategies, we give the child the tools to successfully compete difficult tasks. We teach the child to evaluate their own performance and independently correct errors. The child is then able to see his or her own progress without your feedback. Recognizing one’s own success becomes a far more powerful reward than any praise or stickers can provide. It should be noted, however, that reaching this point takes time. Your little ones still need feedback. How to gradually scale back on verbal rewards is outlined in my e-book, “Instilling Confidence in the Child with Learning Challenges.”
In the book, I discuss several effective strategies as applied to three stages. These stages include toddler through preschool, Kindergarten through 2nd grade, and finally 3rd grade and up.
You can download my e-book free of charge when you subscribe to this website.
“I always loved how she made me feel smart, like I could do anything I wanted too!”
Son of Nicole Kerby (See Testimonials)