Self Esteem and School Difficulties

Does your child have low self esteem?

Are your child’s school experiences affecting her feelings of self worth?

In 15 years as a pediatrician, I have helped many children and their parents deal with challenges in school. I am always surprised how profoundly these difficulties affect the child’s self image, as well as that of his or her parent. Parents will be reluctant to seek help in the school system for fear that their child will be “labeled” and carry that label throughout his or her life. And it affects the child even more. When I discuss school with a teenager, it strikes me when they say, “I am supposed to be in 10th grade, but I am only in 9th because I stayed back in the first grade.” Clearly being retained was a profoundly traumatic experience that still affects how they are in school today.

So how can parents help their children get the school help they need, without it being perceived, by the child as a failure on his or her part?

  1. Emphasize their strengths. This may seem like an obvious point, but too often, school can become all about the things your child cannot do. Whenever they are graded the emphasis is on what they did wrong, rather than on the many things they did right. Unless you make the conscious effort to point out all of their strengths, they can become discouraged and give up on school. So, for example, your child has a learning disability that affects his reading, but also has an amazing imagination, help them to cultivate that imagination and use it to motivate them to continue reading.
  2. Celebrate any wins. This goes hand-in-hand with the first point, but it deserves separate mention. By really celebrating any success they have at school, you are training them to think of school as a fun place where hard work leads them to success. They will be more likely to continue that hard work even in the face of a set-back.
  3. When they do have a setback, re-frame it by saying, “What can we learn from this?”. and “What changes can we make so next time works out better?” Rather than looking at a low grade as a failure that has some direct reflection on them, you want them to see it as another step in the learning process. Not only will this build their confidence, but it will teach them determination which will benefit them whenever something does not go their way.
  4. Re-examine your own disappointment. As parents, we want our kids to succeed so that they have a great life, full of opportunities. However, we have to be vigilant that we are not trying to have them make up for some shortcoming that we have. So if you become very disappointed in a grade your child brings home, take a moment to examine what is really causing that disappointment, so that you are not subconsciously reliving your own school failures. Then you can truly be there for your child to help him or her overcome the challenge at hand.
  5. Emphasize that you are on their side. This may seem obvious to you. Even when we yell at our kids, we see it as a reflection of our dedication to their success. However, if your child is struggling, he or she can begin to feel very lonely, as if everyone is against him or her. So it is important, as parents that we show our kids that we really want them to succeed and will do everything we can to see that this happens. Then your child will view the two of you as a team working toward a common goal.
  6. Know your rights and get your child the help he or she needs. With the incredible budget constraints that schools have, they may be resistant to doing a full evaluation of a child who is struggling. Rather they may hope that a little extra help here and there may be enough to help get that child through school. However as parents we do not want our children to just “get through” school we want them to have the best educational experience possible. So if your child is struggling an would benefit from a Planning and Placement Team or a full psycho-educational evaluation, be sure that you directly request this from the school.

In the end, no matter how challenging school may be, your children should come out of school with a feeling of success, that he or she overcame the challenge and did the best they can. Then later in life they will, they will be willing to put in the effort to overcome any obstacle.


Author: Dr. Douglas Curtiss