It is essential to build self-esteem in children with disabilities as they develop, just as we do for other children. Parents, caregivers, teachers and healthcare professionals often make up the community that surrounds them. Here are a few ways everyone can work together to help children feel properly supported and cared for.
1. Let the child speak.
Let the child speak for themself as often as possible even if their language is limited. When appropriate, direct questions to them, not the adult with them. Be patient, look at them and listen attentively. By doing this, you are validating that what they want, say or need is of significance. Plus, you will be demonstrating important skills of mindfulness, listening and interactivity.
2. Treat the child the same.
Treat children with disabilities the same as you would other children. Don't use their disability as an excuse for inappropriate behavior. Children can be very perceptive and take cues from what you say or how you act. Giving in to a child, pitying them or making things easier for them can all backfire later. Siblings and classmates may become resentful for any 'special' treatment that is given to a peer. Or, they may learn by poor example and treat the child differently than they would other friends and acquaintances.
3. Teach the child manners.
Teach the child about manners and forming friendships as early as possible. As soon as your child is able, help them learn how to introduce themself and be able to ask other children, "What's your name?"
While toddlers and young children typically become friends more through physical activities than language interaction, they may be wary of approaching your child to play. Help your child learn how to initiate contact with other children by role modeling and practicing often. By preparing your child, they will become comfortable making new friends and may have more success than if they waited for someone else to initiate contact. This is an important skill that will serve them well throughout their lifetime.
4. Teach the child about their assistive devices.
When your child is able to understand, explain why they need and use the assistive devices they have. Whether it's hearing aids, a wheelchair, an FM listening system, etc., they should be able to describe what it is and what it does in simple language. Schedule a peer in-service the first week of each school year for their class and let the teacher know your child will be helping to lead it. Let them demonstrate the device(s) they use to their classmates. It is important to become comfortable educating others about what is a necessary part of their life. By participating in the demonstration, it removes the elephant in the room and allows them to set the tone for how they expect to be treated.
5. Discover the child's interests and cultivate them.
Introduce your child to a variety of activities and discover which ones they like. Help them develop their interests by signing them up for classes, joining clubs or participating in the activities as frequently as possible. This can be sports, music, dance, writing, photography, art, cooking, etc. Self-confidence soars when children learn a new skill or hobby they enjoy. They need the relaxation and downtime as well and both you and your child will be proud of their accomplishments.
6. Avoid labeling.
Do not use a child's disability as a descriptive term unless it is necessary to the discussion at hand. Remember, the child is a person first and should not be defined by their disability. It is offensive, damaging and can have long-term effects on their feelings of self-worth.
7. Teach the child self-acceptance.
Don't try to hide the cochlear implant, assistive listening device or other technology your child may use. Make these devices a natural part of their daily life. It is important for both their self-esteem as well as for their benefit. Sometimes people think they are protecting their children by covering up things that help them, but instead, children will often think that it is something to be ashamed of. This is not wise. A child who cannot accept their disability will be certain to encounter much more difficult obstacles as life goes on.
8. Acknowledge effort, not someone else's definition of success.
One of the best ways to boost your child's self-confidence is to acknowledge their academic, physical and social efforts no matter how small. By doing so, you are showing them that your love and approval is unconditional and not based on the outcome of their efforts. Motivation to try should not be inspired by the possibility of a reward from the parent or teacher. Offer praise, not money, gifts or special treatment, for both their efforts and their achievements. This way, they will not feel that they deserve praise or love only when they accomplish what they set out to do.
Children with disabilities often face many obstacles growing up. Early development of self-esteem, self-confidence and self-acceptance are instrumental to their success. Use these tips at home and share them with the educators and professionals who are part of your community. Together, you can ensure your child a bright and confident future.
Paula Rosenthal, J.D. (she/her) is deaf and uses cochlear implants to hear. Her husband and one of her three children also use cochlear implants. Paula is an award-winning advocate for people with hearing loss and their families. She blogs at PaulaRosenthal.com and is available for speaking engagements. To contact her, please send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org.
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