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Defining the Self as a Learner for Children with LD

By: Augusta Gross (1996)

Children with learning disabilities experience frustration and episodic failure in learning activities. This kind of chronic disappointment can translate psychologically into a generalized sense of diminished value and potential, where children's inner sense of adequacy is seriously compromised.


Much current research suggests that children with learning disabilities are likely to exhibit signs of depression, in particular, a sense of low self-worth. Research has not yet fully clarified the basis for the relationship between depressive symptomatology and learning disabilities. It does appear, though that lowered self esteem is often an outcome of the children's erratic and thwarted attempts at learning and mastering academic skills. Children with learning disabilities experience frustration and episodic failure in learning activities. This kind of chronic disappointment can translate psychologically into a generalized sense of diminished value and potential, where children's inner sense of adequacy is seriously compromised.

Forming a psychological identity as a learner

The child defines himself as a learner through various means, including: (1) how he experiences himself at mastering skills and absorbing information; (2) how others see him and let him know about himself and, (3) how he compares himself to others in terms of mastering a new skill, (e.g. a sibling or peer may be reading while he is just learning the alphabet; the kid down the block is good at ball, while he can barely play "catch").

The development of a sense of self as a learner starts in very early childhood. Recent research has shown that children, prior to first grade, are already making distinctions about how competent they perceive themselves to be in different learning activities (including math, reading, playing a musical instrument, and sports activities). As they get older, they are increasingly adept at making distinctions about their abilities within broader domains. This is interesting because it strongly suggests that younger children are making generalizations about their learning ability even in areas they have not yet directly experienced. It also suggests that children's self perception of competence-- and by extension-- their self-concept as learners, are already becoming formed at a young age.

All these experiences, impressions and communications become aspects of the child's self-concept as a learner. The child's attitudes, motivation, and initiative in learning situations derive in part from the child's early interactions with others, especially from parents, teachers, and family. These reactions and interactions become internalized and serve as the basis for the child's own sense of value as a learner, and for his attitude and openness to learning.

Learner identity issues for children with learning disabilities are quite complicated. These children often display inconsistent patterns of abilities that result in learning experiences marked by unpredictability and uncertainty. Imagine some of the dilemmas which these children face:

  • What's wrong with me that I know something one minute and not the next?
  • Why do I sometimes feel dumb and sometimes smart?
  • Why am I fast at learning some things and slow at learning other things?
  • How could I possibly overcome this problem and learn better if I am learning disabled?
  • How could I be smart if I miss the simplest things like remembering words or names?
  • Why can I read something one time and not be able to read it the next time?
  • If I'm disabled, doesn't that mean I can't do it?
  • Why is it that I know all about football statistics but I can't seem to do simple math?

These are real dilemmas that undermine children's ability to make sense of and integrate a consistent self-definition as a learner. Children with learning difficulties have to override these periodic experiences of failure and frustration and develop more positive self images.

Young children tend to embrace a simplistic view of themselves as being either good or bad and, in so doing, are at risk for developing a distorted view of themselves as "poor" learners, especially if they have learning disabilities. Such global self-stereotyping call unhappily persist into adulthood, and can negate their positive traits, reaping little if any benefit from what are often superior abilities.

Children who internalize a sense of being slow or poor learners are at considerable risk for failure. Lowered expectations have been shown to have a negative impact on how well children actually learn, and even on how willing they are to attempt tasks. Children with learning disabilities are vulnerable to paralyzing self-doubt, and often avoid learning in order to withdraw from further failure. The literature on learned helplessness is filled with examples of how children try to reduce their sense of failure and to avoid further experiences of incompetence. Labels such as "slow," "stupid," "lazy," and "dumb" can have a devastating impact on motivation, curiosity and confidence and are unfortunately all too frequently heard during the impressionable early school years.

The impact of parent-teacher interactions

The feedback others provide in early schooling and at home influences the child's view of himself as a learner. Feedback may be given for learning and mastering new skills (learning new words, using a potty, tying shoes) and may be forthcoming as verbal praise, a nonverbal gesture or smile, or a combination of sound, sight, and touch. Serving as highly charged messages, feedback can profoundly influence the child's sense of self-competence.

Recent research has confirmed that for learning disabled children, parents' positive perceptions are strongly related to children's own self-perceptions, and in turn, to their academic success. As children with learning problems are often unsure about their abilities, they are vulnerable to being swayed by others' perceptions of their abilities. Parents may, at times, unwittingly communicate their own frustrations and doubts, and are likely to react when learning disabled children evoke in them a feeling of failure or a reminder of something they themselves may have experienced.

One parent of a child with significant sequencing and organizational difficulties commented about his daughter's school report by saying with irritation, "She wasn't supposed to turn out like me!" This parent had academic difficulties himself and strongly identified with his child's problems, recalling his own sense of injury and failure. He therefore had difficulty giving his child the reassurance and support she needed, and acknowledging that she could be helped through remediation. Fortunately, with time, this parent began to accept his learning problems as well as those of his child, and succeeded in getting her the help she needed.

Parents who have experienced learning difficulties can offer empathy to their children who have learning problems in ways that can be uniquely validating and supportive. These parents have a key advantage in knowing firsthand the discouragement and frustration of living with learning disaffiliates. Parents' sensitivity can be invaluable in giving children the sense of being both accepted and understood.

The following is one clinical illustration in which a child with a learning disability grapples with identity issues related to his internal view of himself as a learner:

Jack was a 12-year-old boy, referred for reported depression. He was found to have strong verbal skills and mild visual-spatial learning problems and was struggling in school. Early in the course of therapy, he stated that he did not like the term "learning disabilities." Jack looked at the various books in my office having to do with learning disabilities. "Why don't they just call it trouble with learning certain things?" he asked vehemently. "That way you don't make it seem like it's such a big handicap!" Over a short period of time, this youngster became more willing to acknowledge his "trouble" with learning math, and agreed to get remediation.

Once he could talk about his feelings about being labeled, it was possible to talk realistically about his learning problems. Once Jack was able to find a way to think of himself as "a good learner with trouble in math," he was more willing to accept help. For Jack, the meaning of the label "learning disabled" had felt overwhelming.

Summary and conclusions

As part of a child's psychological development, there appears to be a mandate to create a coherent self-concept as a learner. It becomes easy to see why a child with learning disabilities can become confused and discouraged. A child with learning disabilities has to assimilate contradictory information about himself as a learner; e g, "I'm good at designing models, but I'm slow in reading." It is easy to see how a child with widely uneven cognitive functioning could become overwhelmed and decide that he's a bad learner and "why bother!" In such a case, the child's internal view of himself as a learner can result in crippling feelings of hopelessness and failure.

One of the biggest psychological challenges for such a child is to develop an accurate self-concept as a learner which takes into account both positive and negative learning experiences. How well a child succeeds at this complicated task depends to a large extent on sustained support and feedback from others early on as well as an ability to integrate what he understands about himself in various learning situations.

A good student may develop efficient and automatic academic skills, yet may be unexplorative or lackadaisical about the learning process itself. A good learner is one who shows willingness to approach problems and an ability to sustain motivation in spite of frustration. These psychological characteristics are frequently exhibited in learning disabled children who have to work doubly hard to compensate for their difficulties in mastering certain academic skills. If the learner is valued as a whole, a very different and broader view of the child's ability and approach to learning is developed. That can, in turn, directly affect the child's self-concept as a learner and can help focus on the real, positive learner attribute. Descriptive words that come to mind are "enthusiastic," "motivated," "alert," "curious," "spirited," "persevering," and "inquiring." These are characteristics that can be identified and fostered through the use of verbal labeling and/or visual and verbal analogies that highlight their meaning and value.

One eight-year-old with learning disabilities latched on to a phrase that the therapist said to her as a way of validating her efforts. "I see you like to work on something until you get it!" She later repeated the sentiment, "I don't give up until I'm finished!" She had incorporated the verbal feedback to urge herself on in a positive way.

Children with learning problems need help in designing broad and generous self-definitions as learners which contain disparate and often contradictory elements. Children need ongoing help to know about themselves as learners across different settings and tasks. Providing ongoing support and consistent feedback become crucial factors in helping children develop and sustain positive learner identities.

Augusta Gross, Ph.D., is a licensed psychologist affiliated with the Institute for Contemporary Psychotherapy in New York City. She works with adults and children with learning disabilities.

Their World 1996/1997 National Center for Learning Disabilities