4 Ways to Grow Confidence in Struggling Learners

By Ezra Werb, M.Ed., author of Teach for Attention! A Tool Belt of Strategies for Engaging Students with Attention Challenges

4 Ways to Grow Confidence in Struggling LearnersAre you a confident person? Perhaps you’re confident in specific activities, but with others you feel you don’t have a chance.

It’s true that when we struggle with something, this usually results in our lowered confidence. But the reverse can also be true––our confidence in our abilities actually affects our performance. In other words, if we don’t feel we’re capable, we act hesitant, maybe don’t put forth our full effort, and just end up confirming our own self-doubts.

Why Is Confidence So Important in the Classroom?

Let’s turn to our students with learning and developmental challenges. In a 2003 study, researchers found after three years that students’ achievement in reading and math may have been more dependent on self-perception than on their willingness to learn.1

Wow. So students who are already confident tend to keep achieving at a higher level than those with less confidence. The rich get richer. And in my 15 years of experience working with students with ADHD, dyslexia, dysgraphia, and other learning challenges, I have seen how anxiety and low self-esteem may prevent students from engaging with new material and tasks.

So what can we do––as educators, parents, support staff, etc.––to help give our struggling students the confidence that they can learn like everyone else?

Here are four strategies.

1. Foster Incremental Growth

We generally hope and expect that our students will make substantial academic improvements at a rapid pace. But for students with learning challenges, this may add pressure and stress that results in lowered confidence. For struggling students, we can set attainable goals that they can reach so that they feel successful and see that improvement is possible for them.

I once worked with a sixth-grade student with dysgraphia and dyslexia whose class was already working on five-paragraph essays. This student could barely squeeze out a couple sentences and showed little understanding of writing organization. Rather than push him toward that ultimate goal of five paragraphs, I set one paragraph as a first goal. I knew this was a task he could handle––a target he could hit. After some time working on this, he was able to independently write a paragraph, which boosted his confidence and made him feel comfortable in proceeding to tackle multiple paragraphs.

2. Let Them Be Experts or Use Their Interests

When students are an expert at something or have a strong interest, they feel confident. Whether it’s their favorite TV show, a sport they play, a hobby, or a particular skill they have, we can incorporate student interests into lessons and/or allow students to integrate their interests into their work. Sounds difficult, right? How can we possibly bring Pokémon into a math lesson? What does NBA basketball have to do with writing essays?

Here’s an example:

You’re teaching multi-digit multiplication—a very challenging task for students with learning disabilities—and one of your struggling students appears to get particularly distracted during math. Well, he knows he’s not yet good at the procedures, so he figures he might as well check out mentally. Pokémon, on the other hand . . . with that he’s an expert. Try this: ask him if there are any important double-digit numbers on the back of his favorite Pokémon card. He’ll probably tell you, “There’s the HP number, and also the character’s weight.” Perfect, how about trying to multiply the HP by the weight?

To be clear, this doesn’t help him get better at the actual procedures. What this sort of strategy does––and I’ve seen this happen many times––is reduce students’ stress so that they can approach the task with a modicum of confidence. And with that confidence, they are better equipped to fight through the challenge.

For students who need to improve their writing (at any level), create opportunities for them to compose sentences, paragraphs, and essays about topics of their choice. When a student gets to write a treatise on why LeBron James (her favorite player) is the best NBA player of all time, she will approach writing with an entirely different mindset: focused, motivated, and confident in knowing all those stats and facts about LeBron!

4 Ways to Grow Confidence in Struggling Learners3. Highlight Their Strengths

Another way to use the affinities and interests mentioned above is to give students opportunities to show off their knowledge or talents to the rest of the class. Struggling students may feel inferior to their classmates who seem to have little trouble with work. They may feel like they don’t even belong in the same classroom.

But all students have strengths. It may be difficult to see, at times, considering the
academic struggles they’ve endured. This makes it extra important for us to acknowledge the things students do well and recognize opportunities for them to display their strengths or knowledge, allowing them to feel accomplished in the classroom.

If a student has a drawing talent, for example, find chances during the day where they can draw something on the board to help classmates visualize a new concept or piece of information. If a student enjoys playing chess, perhaps he can show the class how this relates to multiplication or geometry. If a student is a great actor or likes performing, maybe she can act out a scene from the book you’re reading as a class.

4. Give Verbal Praise

We shouldn’t underestimate how verbal praise can affect students with learning challenges. Of course, we need to be deliberate in how we give it out. If we’re just saying “Good job” or “Nice work,” it won’t serve to increase students’ confidence because compliments like these are too vague for students to internalize. We can recognize when students make improvements, show growth, or show effort, and then praise them for these specific qualities: “It’s great how you put your energy into editing your writing.” “The way you kept working at that difficult math problem showed great effort.” “That was a really creative way to answer that question.”

These sorts of praise statements let students know that you recognize their effort, helping them acknowledge what improvements they’re making.

Final Thoughts

Confidence and achievement have a reciprocal relationship. The more you have of one, the more the other grows. For our students currently low on both, we can find ways to create opportunities for them to experience success so that their confidence starts to grow, to get that confidence-success cycle going.

In other words . . . play the Confidence Game!

1. Bouffard, Thérèse, et al. “Changes in Self-Perceptions of Competence and Intrinsic Motivation Among Elementary Schoolchildren.” British Journal of Educational Psychology, vol. 73, no. 2, 2003, pp. 171–186, doi:10.1348/00070990360626921.

Ezra WerbEzra Werb, M.Ed., formerly a behavior interventionist and resource specialist teacher and currently an educational therapist, has been working with students with attention deficits, learning challenges, and spectrum disorders in typical classroom settings, resource rooms, and one-on-one academic support scenarios for more than a dozen years. Ezra earned his master’s in special education with a concentration in educational therapy from Cal-State Northridge and is a member of the Association of Educational Therapists. He lives in Los Angeles, California, where he works in private practice with students with ADHD, spectrum disorders, dyslexia, anxiety, and other learning challenges.

Teach For AttentionEzra is the author of Teach for Attention! A Tool Belt of Strategies for Engaging Students with Attention Challenges

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