General and Domain-Specific Self Esteem Among Regular Education and Special Education Students

Do learning impaired students have lower self-esteem than individuals of normal intelligence?  The surprizing answer appears to be, “No,” but why?  Is it possible that setting goals that are relevant to you and creatively comparing yourself to other might improve your self esteem?  Apparently, that is the way learning impaired individuals formulate their self esteem.  Using survey methods to determine the self-esteem of general and learning impaired students, Conley et al. demonstrated the learning impaired do not have lower self-esteem than those in general education.  The reason appears to be based on how they derive their self-esteem.  Those who are learning impaired derive their self-esteem from areas where they are competent and successful and thus their success builds self-esteem.  It is a positive self-fulfilling prophecy.

The goal of this study was to determine how students view themselves and to look at factors that contribute to their global view of themselves.  It compared how disturbed students, learning disabled students and students in general viewed their ability.  The study’s results were based on a survey given to the three classes of students involved in the study:  learning disabled students, emotionally disturbed students and students in the general population.  It was not surprising to learn that emotionally disturbed and learning disabled students had a lower self esteem than did students in regular education classes.  Individuals who were learning disabled and those who were emotionally disturbed had a lower self-esteem that did those students in regular education classes.  However, it was interesting to realize that the setting and environment in which the students interacted was a factor in determining how they viewed themselves.  The study’s results led the investigators to ask, “Do the specific types of special education labels placed on students influence (their) self-esteem” and “Do students who are set aside from their peers and placed in special classrooms suffer from decrements in self-esteem, relative to students who are in regular education classrooms?”  This study suggests that a person’s worldview of themselves is dependent on themselves and their environment.  In some respects, their self view may be a positive self-fulfilling prophecy where students, whether emotionally disturbed, learning disabled or “typical” appear to interact with their environment in such a manner that the setting and the environment of the individual positively affects there worldview of themselves.  The authors suggest that there is no correlation between self esteem and behavioral success or academic achievement.  As a result, the authors suggest that it might be more important to change student behavior and that their perception of competency will follow.

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Conley et al’s study may have, perhaps, pointed out an aspect of how learning impaired individuals approach life that could serve as an example to everyone.  The learning impaired often compare themselves to others so as to maximize their own positive impressions of themselves.  Everyone has role models and of course, many of us try to pattern ourselves after some aspect of our role models, but when we fail, it is not uncommon to find individuals who succumb to their failures, often because they set their goals too high (initially) or not high enough.  (Initially because it is always best to set high goals, but not your ultimate goal and try to achieve them before moving on to a higher goal (but always with the higher goal in mind) once the original goal has been achieved rather than focusing on low goals (as your ultimate) because you don’t feel you can achieve the higher ones.)  In the past, it had been assumed that learning impaired and emotionally disturbed individuals might have lower self-esteem because they must compete with the general student.  However, Conley et al’s study suggests that learning impaired and emotionally disturbed students form their opinion of themselves based on their own world view of what is important an formulate that worldview based on what they are competent in rather than based on areas where they are incompetent.  Often, they don’t feel that their areas of low competency are the most important areas of their life.

Perhaps most important, it appears that a person’s environmental influences combine with their worldview to influence and even create self-esteem.  How, could it be that despite the prejudice directed towards them, on average blacks do not have lower self-esteem than whites?  In this context, Conley et al. point out that mentally retarded students have as much self-esteem as do individuals of normal intelligence despite the impaired cognitive abilities of the mentally impaired.  Their worldview and environment appear to play significant roles in creating their self-esteem.  Their worldview is formed so as to maximize their positive self-impression and allow them to derive self-esteem in areas of life where they are successful and competent.  Thus, they appear to create self-esteem by focusing on things that are important to them or on their own achievements than on the achievements of others.  They look at their successes rather than their failures, and so by focusing on their own success, they appear to create a worldview of success.  In fact, it is interesting and significant that all students, including those is special education believe that they must succeed in the areas where they are most competent.  Perhaps this is particularly significant in that it allows the special education students to focus on and develop their strengths rather than being concerned with their weaknesses.  For example, if a martial artist only has one arm, it would be useless to focus on skills that require two arms and foolish to give up the arts just because they only have a single arm so instead, they focus on skills where only having one arm actually gives them an advantage.  (An entire martial art, Aikido, focuses on using the opponent’s superior strength against him.)  So, special education students appear to approach life in a similar manner by focusing on and developing their strengths and ignoring their weaknesses.  This approach to life increases their self-esteem.  Special education students and those in regular education have the same perceptions of their academic abilities.

In conclusion, it appears that learning impaired students form their opinion of themselves by focusing on things that are important to them and developing competency in areas where they have abilities.  Thus, their self-esteem is just as high as that of individuals who are not learning impaired.  This is an important lesson in the real world and one that might benefit many in the general population.