5 Tips for Empowering Kids and Building Self-Esteem

smiling girlMost of the parents I speak to would put “Self-Esteem” at the top of their list of concerns for their children or teens with learning or attention challenges.  And rightly so, as confidence and self-esteem often take a beating when students struggle in school or with homework.

You’re so awesome!  You’re so smart!  You’re an amazing athlete!

Praise is good right?  But what kind of praise?  Our students with dyslexia, attention deficit, giftedness, and other learning differences are plenty smart, but praising them for being smart may have the opposite effect of what you might expect.

New York Magazine published an article by Po Bronson called How Not to Talk to Your Kids, The Inverse Power of Praise.  In it, he discusses a study of 400 fifth graders in the New York schools by Carol Dweck and her team at Columbia University.  Their findings indicate that praising kids for being smart actually caused them to give up more easily and back off from trying things that might be challenging – better to give up or choose an easier task than to not live up to “being smart.”

Some of our very bright students who struggle with reading or some aspect of learning, absolutely shutdown when praised.  They don’t believe it and feel they can’t live up to it.  However, there are ways to give students the encouragement that they need to keep going and develop confidence in themselves as learners.

Here are some tips for empowering our kids:

Praise efforts, not smarts: 

“You kept at this problem even though it was hard!  You never gave up!”

“You finished this whole math page without getting distracted once!”

“You were really looking for times when you could make a pass in soccer today!”

Celebrate small steps:

“I noticed you got your homework copied in your planner for two classes!  That’s a great habit that will help you all through school!” 

Celebrate the strengths:

I like how you always take time to put your homework in your homework folder.”

Focused praise helps them see strategies: 

“You’re getting more independent because you’ve been taking the time to read the directions on each assignment. Great job!”

Mistakes are tools by which we learn:

“Every time we make a mistake, it gives our brain a chance to learn!  The brain is like a muscle.  When it has to work hard to solve a problem or think about something hard, it grows stronger, just like a muscle!”


Self-Esteem is Built on Real Skills

 Students spend at least 12 years in school and use many of the skills they developed in school for the rest of their lives.  When reading, math, or other aspects of learning are difficult, self-esteem can be impacted, even with the right kind of praise and support, because self-esteem is also built on real skills.

Academic and social success depends upon a solid foundation of cognitive learning skills.  If you think about these skills like a ladder or a continuum, academics and school subjects are at the very top.  Many other skills must be in place in order to learn easily at the top of the ladder.  When the underlying learning skills, or skills lower on the continuum are weak, they may keep children and adults from learning and functioning as well and as independently as they should.  Compensating for weak underlying skills will divert attention and energy from the learning task.

I want our students to have an “I think I can” attitude, but even more importantly, I want them to have a solid foundation of underlying skills that will allow them to love learning and reach their potential without having to push themselves to the breaking point day after day.

The great news is, the underlying skills that support efficient, comfortable academic learning can be developed.  The brain can develop new, more effective neuropathways, or connections so that learning can be easier and academic remediation can stick!

Does your child struggle with learning or attention?  These challenges can be changed.  While there are no simple, overnight solutions, most learning and attention challenges can be dramatically improved or completely corrected through targeted physical and cognitive training.  Need to know more??

For information go to www.stowellcenter.com/VideoOptin


“Helping smart but struggling students dramatically improve or completely correct their learning and attention challenges by developing the underlying learning skills that are not supporting the learner well enough.”
We serve children and adults with diagnosed or undiagnosed learning and attention challenges including learning disabilities, dyslexia, ADHD, auditory processing disorders, and autism spectrum disorders.
Jill Stowell, M.S.
Author:  At Wit’s End A Parent’s Guide to Ending the Struggle Tears, and Turmoil of Learning Disabilities
Founder and Executive Director – Stowell Learning Centers

Recent Posts



Ready to take the next step?

Speak to a Learning Specialist to learn more about the results from students and parents at Stowell Learning Centers.