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Can School-Based Interventions Enhance the Self-Concept of Students With LD?

Learning Strategies for Students-Strategies for Students with Disabilities

A Research Synthesis (Executive Summary)

Background and Purpose

The desire for a positive evaluation of self affects a person's feelings, actions, and aspirations throughout life. In the course of childhood and adolescence, school experiences play an important role in the development of self-perceptions and can have powerful and long-term effects on a child's self-esteem. Individuals with learning disabilities (LD) are especially vulnerable to low self-concept. Research findings have linked LD with poor self-concept, and it is clear that students with LD often experience academic challenges that can drain self-esteem.

Despite much recent research and speculation on the subject, the factors that affect a child's self-concept are not completely understood. We do know, however, that students' self-concepts are related to their academic achievement. Students with lower levels of academic achievement have lower self-concepts than students with high levels of academic achievement. Students with more positive self-perceptions of their academic ability tend to do better in school than students who consider themselves to be poor learners.

Is it possible to enhance a student's self-concept?
Researchers have studied a variety of classroom interventions designed to improve the self-concepts of students with LD. These interventions can be characterized as following one of two approaches:

  • The self-enhancement approach
  • The skill development approach

Interventions that adopt a self-enhancement approach are designed to change students' self-perceptions by means of techniques like cognitive therapy. The focus in these interventions is on the elimination of self-defeating thoughts and behaviors that are believed to interfere with academic success.

In contrast, interventions that adopt a skill development approach are based on the assumption that building a child's skill in a particular academic area, such as reading, will improve the student's self-perceptions in that area and will give the student the expectation of future academic success. Although skill development interventions often include some aspects of the self-enhancement approach, such as frequent positive feedback from teachers, the basis of the approach is that improvements in academic performance should boost self-esteem.

Research Method

The authors of the research synthesis conducted thorough literature searches to identify studies of school-based, nonclinical interventions conducted between 1975 and 1997 that included students with LD and used a quantitative measure of self-concept to assess the impact of the intervention. A total of 36 interventions were evaluated in 31 separate studies. A technique known as meta-analysis was used to examine the collective findings of this body of research.


To what extent can school-based interventions enhance the self-concept of students with LD?

The results of the meta-analysis demonstrated that school-based interventions can lead to beneficial changes in the self-perceptions of students with LD. The investigators note that these findings are particularly significant in light of the fact that the interventions typically lasted less than 12 weeks with sessions held only two to three times per week.

Are certain types of interventions more helpful than others in enhancing self-concept?

An important finding of the meta-analysis was that interventions using both types of approaches - skill development and self-enhancement - succeeded in improving the self-concepts of students with LD. Interventions that used group counseling techniques produced favorable outcomes for students of varying ages. Academic interventions seemed particularly beneficial to middle-school students. A key component of many of the successful academic interventions was an emphasis on students working collaboratively with their classmates and receiving feedback from classmates on their progress. These interventions appear to give students with LD a dual payoff: they do better academically and self-concept is enhanced. Enhancing and highlighting new abilities and academic successes seems essential.

One effective intervention that was included in the synthesis targeted parents of students with LD, rather than the students themselves. In this study, the children of parents who participated in a nine-week parent effectiveness training course showed improvement in their self-concept compared to children whose parents did not receive the training. The outcome of this study suggests that enhancing interactions between parents and their young children may be another route to increasing the self-esteem of students with LD.

How do the duration of the intervention, the area of self-con- cept assessed, and student age affect the self-concept outcome?

How long an intervention lasted did not appear to be a determining factor in explaining the effectiveness of an intervention. The investigators suggest that the somewhat lower efficacy of interventions that adopted a skill development approach, compared to interventions using a self-enhancement approach, may in part be due to the short duration of most of these interventions. The development of academic skills is a gradual process, and it may take more than the typical duration of these interventions for students - particularly students with disabilities - to make clear gains in an area such as reading.

 Interventions that focused on the development of academic skills (only academic interventions were amenable to this particular analysis) were found to have somewhat different outcomes, depending on the aspect of self-concept that was measured. The most positive benefits were observed when self-concept was defined globally (encompassing students' self-perceptions in a variety of areas, including the academic area) or more narrowly in terms of academic self-concept. Students' feelings about other aspects of the self (e.g., perceptions involving relations with peers) were not, overall, significantly impacted by the interventions under study.

Whereas the average effects of self-concept interventions for primary, elementary, and high school students were in the small to moderate range, the effects for middle school students were quite large. Young adolescents appear to be especially vulnerable to threats to their self-esteem; the current research synthesis suggests that they may also be especially responsive to interventions designed to strengthen it


The challenge for all teachers, especially those who teach students with LD, is to help children develop positive images of themselves as competent learners while at the same time maintaining high academic standards. Teachers must avoid lowering their academic demands and expectations out of a desire to help students attain and maintain high self-esteem. Lowered expectations of academic success can, in the long run, actually subvert the goal of enhancing students' self-esteem.

The findings of the research synthesis do not point to a single, most effective technique for improving students' self-concept. Moreover, since no data were available on long-term outcomes for students who participated in the interventions under study, it is impossible to determine how long the beneficial effects of a single intervention may last. The synthesis does, however, provide some guidelines for future efforts.

One way for teachers to have a positive impact on students' self-concept is to incorporate critical aspects of effective self-concept interventions into ongoing academic instruction. One example is the use of cooperative learning structures in which students with LD collaborate with nondisabled peers on academic tasks and receive frequent feedback on their work from both the teacher and their classmates. Other promising avenues for enhancing students' self-concept are group counseling sessions by a trained facilitator and training programs for parents.

This document was prepared for the Keys to Successful Learning Summit held in May 1999 in Washington, D.C. Keys to Successful Learning is an ongoing collaboration sponsored by the National Center for Learning Disabilities in partnership with the Office of Special Education Programs (US Department of Education) and the National Institute of Child Health & Human Development (National Institutes of Health).

The purpose of this initiative is to translate research and policy on learning disabilities into high standards for learning and achievement in the classroom, and to take action at the local, state and federal levels to ensure that all students, including those with learning disabilities, are afforded the highest quality education.

Keys to Successful Learning is supported by a coalition of national and regional funders as well as a broad range of participating education organizations.