Self-esteem is always a concern for students with special needs. In a mainstreamed classroom, it’s not difficult to see students divide into groups. If you as a teacher are aware of this, you can take steps to ensure that the entire class is cohesive. For instance, there may not be a real peer group for the only student in class with visual impairment; therefore, you need to make certain that the entire class is a peer group. This is accomplished through classroom management.
Focus on Talents
Not all students will excel in academic skills. As a teacher, take time to ask all students what they are really good at and use those skills as much as possible. Are they artistic? Do they play an instrument? Do they have great social skills? There is nothing greater than eavesdropping on a conversation in which a student with special needs is lauded by other students for his or her skill and students form connections based on a common interest.
As the parent of a child with special needs, you can make a list of things that the teacher might do or say to help improve your child’s self-esteem. If your child does something very well, take a sample to show his or her teacher. Those teachers who are receptive will look at your child with new respect and they may mention the skill to other students. This could be a huge self-esteem boost.
Everyone struggles when they learn something new. It’s important to explain to students with special needs that they are not necessarily struggling because they have a learning disability: they may be struggling because the information is difficult. This helps to reassure students who may be sensitive to their slower rate of learning. Tackling a challenge provides a wonderful chance to gain self-esteem: if students keep trying until they accomplish a goal, their self-esteem increases. Sometimes, the harder the goal, the greater the boost to self-esteem will be. The key to helping students with special needs persevere is to break a difficult task into smaller steps to reach a larger goal.
Rejoice in What They Do Well
Students gain self-esteem when they do something well, and it’s helpful to focus on the little things they can do well. Many tasks are frustrating for students with special needs; as a parent or a teacher, be patient with what they can’t do and rejoice over what they can do. There are things each of us can’t do, and a lot depends on the standard to which we are held. Most of us would be at a loss in a room full of astrophysicists; however, while we can give ourselves a little grace, knowing that we just can’t do what these scientists can do, sometimes we have trouble translating this concept as it relates to students with disabilities. Help these students understand that everyone has things that they can’t do and things they can do. Help them discover their strengths.
Help Them Look Beyond School
While it is important that students with special needs meet the requirements of testing and the school, help them to think beyond school. Allow them to explore careers. Look at their positive traits, keeping in mind that these can be very valuable to a potential employer. Do they always arrive early? Do they turn in their work on time? Do they clean up after themselves or others? Are they observant? Can they greet people at the door and make them feel welcome?
Involve them in Hands-on Activities
If it is possible, enroll students with special needs in some kind of adventure or science field class in which they are exploring or collecting samples outside. This builds self-esteem by giving them a sense of connection and accomplishment. It also allows them to work in groups to solve a problem.