12 Ways to Build Self-Esteem in Your Students with Autism

We have all heard of self-esteem. It’s how we feel about ourselves. How we would describe ourselves to others and how much we value who we are. Self-esteem begins at a very early age. It can be fostered to flourish, however, it can also be neglected and pruned. Therefore, it is vital to foster your students’ self-esteem every day. Building a powerful self-vision is correlated with positive outcomes in life. These include successes in school, positive social relationships, and the ability to resist peer pressure. The concept of a positive self-esteem is a two-way street. Building positive social relationships and success in school increases a student’s self-esteem as much as the other way around. So it is important to look at the student as a whole and foster a strong positive self-esteem by working on all aspects that contribute to self-esteem.

But, to get you started, here are 12 ways to build self-esteem in your students with autism.

1.     Encourage Your Student’s Interests and Abilities

Everyone has strengths and weaknesses. Your students are no exception. Foster your students’ self-esteem by being observant. Watch to see how they work.

Help expose them to various types of skills and activities in which they could show their strengths.

Don’t ever assume you know what they are good at. Allow your student to shine. If they show promise in one skill or another, make sure that you let them know. Or maybe you could use that skill in other areas of your students learning. Adapt your teaching to incorporate skills that your student is good at to reinforce a valid self-worth.

2.     Teach Positive Self-Talk

Teaching positive self-talk is something that some people spend a long time learning how to do. Some students with autism are natural perfectionists. They want things to be the “right way.” This step is especially important for these students. Sometimes these students have such a negative self-talk because of what they have heard from peers, teachers, or administrators. There is only so many times one can hear that they are “dumb” or “weird” before they actually start believing it.

Self-talk is the internal dialogue that gets us through the day. It is what we use to tell ourselves that we are okay. That we are good people. That we are important.

The best way to teach your students positive self-talk is to teach yourself positive self-talk. You want to be the model for the students in your classroom. So, periodically throughout the day, find times where you can complement yourself out loud. Your students will pick up on this and learn similar techniques. Remember, they are listening. They are watching. And they are learning from you.

3.     Praise Frequently

As a teacher, you want your students to feel valued. To get there, you must encourage and praise frequently.

If you catch your student doing something appropriate and staying on task, then PRAISE!

Good intentions are not good enough. It’s important to actually give praise where and when it is due. All too often we may think we praised a student when we didn’t explicitly tell them. When you praise a student with autism make sure they know WHY they are getting the praise. Praise your student by labeling the exact activity that you are praising them for. For example, “thank you for staying in your seat.” Or, “good job finishing your math problem.” Make sure you have your student’s attention when you praise them as this will help them make the connection between the activity and the reward (praise).

4.     Recognize the Little Accomplishments

Every day is a new day.

And every day, there is at least a couple small accomplishments to be noted. I know some days it is hard to find the progress. Some days can be discouraging and you find yourself asking, “what happened?” but, if you can see around the chaos, I know that there is at least one thing that was positive and a step in the right direction. Here’s a quick story. I once had a student that pinched. And pinched, constantly. He would sneak up on you and pinch your inner thigh before you even realized he was behind you. Out of sheer reaction, he would do it and then giggle at your surprised and shocked response. It was frustrating and tough and hard to find a way to break through as it was nearly impossible to not reinforce his behavior because he knew just where to get you good enough to make you jump. So as a team, we came up with a new plan, we reinforced him by preemptively giving him the grandiose reaction that he desperately yearned for by making a big deal out of seeing him do the things he should be doing. We showed the big shocked jump that he liked, but framed it in a way that was promoting the positive behavior.

But make no mistake, this process was slow…

It took a long time to decrease the pinching behavior (more on how to decrease aggressive behavior here) but we did it. Each day was a little success. We celebrated each day as the behavior decreased by a pinch or two each day. We didn’t get discouraged and we didn’t lose focus. And although it took a substantial amount of time, we got it done. Although I won’t say the behavior is completely extinguished, because let’s face it, no behavior is every completely extinguished, but we decreased the pinch to less than once a month.

So the point here is keep trying, don’t give up, and see the little accomplishments along the way. Eventually they will add up to a big reward.

5.     Encourage Independence

There is nothing better than seeing your student flourish before your eyes. As a special educator, it is your job to show and teach your students mechanisms for future success. It’s your job to teach them the skills so that they can ultimately become independent.

When your student shows independence, praise, praise praise!

The best way to teach independence is to let your students explore, discover natural talents and foster these skills by adapting your teaching style to suit the needs of your students. This means if you have a student that learns better after motor breaks, give them a motor break before independent work. Show the students that they can be successful with being independent, and you will certainly see their self-esteem rise.

6.     Give Responsibilities

Students need to grow up believing that they can make an important and meaningful impact on the world around them. One way to do this and to teach vital life skills is to give your students responsibilities. Setting up a classroom job board would be a good idea. Depending on the age of your students, you can vary the jobs for appropriateness of skills. No matter the age, it is never too early to teach classroom jobs or responsibilities. Although at first it may seem that these classroom jobs are just that, JOBS. But after consistent and frequent praise, students will be more willing to complete their classroom jobs out of a sense of community. Classroom jobs such as cleaning the tables at the end of the day or taking out the trash teach important life skills.

Start slow and small, but importantly, just START.

7.     Don’t Expect Perfection

This probably should go without saying. No one is perfect. NO ONE. So don’t ever expect your students to ever do anything 100% of the time. Doesn’t ever happen. We are human. So try to avoid writing IEP goals that end in “100% of the time.” Writing goals like these sets your student up for a decreased sense of self-worth. Setting a goal that is unobtainable only results in a student feeling like that they are not good enough.

We are bound to make mistakes, mess up and disappoint. But the point is, make sure your students know that it is okay to make a mistake. That it is okay for them to mess up as long as they continue to try and do better next time.

If you make a mistake, get up, and try again. (Tweet this!)

This can be a hard thing to wrap one’s head around especially as a special educator. You have taught your students so many things (as many as they have probably taught you) and you inherently want them to show the world all the great things they know. You want your student to shine. I know that feeling. I know what it is like to have administration breathe down your neck. What it’s like for general education teachers to tell you that your job is useless and that you are not a “real” teacher. I feel the pain. I do. But if you are still reading this, then you are an amazing teacher. You are an amazing advocate for your students. Keep up the good work!

Don’t allow colleagues, principals or others think less of your students because they are not “perfect.” No one is. Your students will pick up on the sense of disappointment in others and it will hurt how they feel about themselves. Make sure you accept the failures as much as the accomplishments.

8.     Avoid Absolute Statements

This is important much like not expecting perfection. Like stated before, your student will inevitably disappoint. And that’s okay. We all fail at times. We all disappoint.

Don’t let yourself describe your student as one that “always” does this or that.

Bite your tongue and resist this temptation as your student is listening. Repeatedly hearing that you “always get your math problems wrong,” or that “you are always a bad listener,” tells that student that you think that they are not capable of doing their math problems correctly or that they will never be capable of listening. Be careful with using these statements as your student will sometimes fill those shoes for you.

9.     Decrease your Negative Feedback

This step means do your best to stay positive. Avoid statements like, “stop that!” or “don’t touch!” Try to remain positive and turn the negative into a positive. Use words like, “safe hands,” or “quiet voice.” Do your best to turn everything around and rephrase it in a positive manner.

That way if your student hears anything, it is the positive words.

They will remember to have safe hands or a quiet voice because those are the words you said and they don’t have to hear “don’t touch” and then have to interpret that as “Oh, I should do the opposite of what I am doing now.” It takes the guess work out for them. It is concrete and your students will thank you for this.

10. Don’t Make Promises you Can’t Keep

Say what you mean and mean what you say.

If you tell your student that they only need to do 5 math problems and then they will earn a reward, stick with that. Don’t have them finish 5 math problems and then say, “oh, couldn’t you do just one more?” Although adding one more problem may seem totally reasonable, especially if your student just zipped through the last 5, don’t do it.

It will backfire.

It is not so much that the student could not complete the next problem, it’s the principle that you told them they only had to do 5. You need to be consistent. Students with autism are very rule bound. If you tell them one thing, stick with it and follow through. Now, I am not saying that these students cannot progress. Quite the opposite in fact. These students are capable of remarkable progress. But you have to take it slow and truly mean what you say. Maybe the next time you can ask the student to complete 6 math problems before earning a reward. But this time, let it go.

Being consistent and reliable will mean much more to your student in the end than adding one more problem to their workload.

They need to know that they can trust you, and springing them with extra work after you told them something else, is not the way to do it.

11. Spend Quality Time

Not everything about being a special educator is about drilling academics down your students’ throat. It’s about being there for them. It’s about building a rapport and a trust that they can rely on. They know that you mean what you say and that you believe that they are an important and vital member of your classroom society. You can show this to your students by spending time with them that are not work times. Hang out during lunch or recess and have a conversation about dinosaurs, Pokémon or whatever makes them happy.

Show them that you enjoy spending time with them and that you value them. You will certainly build a long-standing trust and your students’ self-esteem.

12. Accept Your Student for Who They Are

Along with all of the above steps, remember to accept your students for who they are and where they are at developmentally. No matter where your student is, make sure that they know that they are a contributing member of the classroom community. That there are things that they are amazing at and things that they get better at every day. Make sure that you are warm and inviting and create a classroom of tolerance an acceptance.

It’s vital and important and your students will appreciate it.

All right. So there it is! Good luck! Let me know how it works!