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When kids with learning and thinking differences have positive self-esteem, they feel more confident. They try their best. They value themselves. And they’re proud of the things they can do.

Kids with learning differences develop positive self-esteem by working hard toward a goal — and then seeing their hard work pay off. But failure can build confidence in kids, too. In this episode of The Opportunity Gap, listen as Julian explains:

  • How encouraging feedback builds positive self-esteem

  • What kids can learn from experiencing failure 

  • Ways to praise kids and teach them to be proud of their efforts

Episode transcript

Julian: From the Understood Podcast Network, this is "The Opportunity Gap." Kids of color who have ADHD and other common learning differences often face a double stigma. But there's a lot that families can do to address the opportunity gap in our communities. This podcast explains key issues and offers tips to help you advocate for your child.

My name is Julian Saavedra. I'm a father of two and an assistant principal in Philadelphia, where I've spent nearly 20 years working in public schools. I'll be your host.

Welcome back, listeners. Welcome back. We're trying something a little bit different today. It's my first episode without a guest. So today we're talking a little bit about the importance of positive self-esteem and confidence in kids who learn and think differently. We'll learn more about why positive self-esteem is really important, how it's developed, and how to help kids build it.

Simply put, positive self-esteem is when people feel good about themselves. You know that feeling where you're just feeling yourself. You just feel like things are going the right way. It's how much people value themselves and how important they believe they are in their world. It's important for kids with learning and thinking differences to be confident and have positive self-esteem.

You're probably asking yourself why? When kids with learning and thinking differences have positive self-esteem, they feel confident. They feel like they can accomplish things. They place value on themselves. They're proud, and they have that pride not only in themselves, but in their ability to do things.

And above everything, they really try their best. They put effort into things. When they're confident and secure about who they are, they're a lot more likely to motivate themselves to take on some of those new challenges. Right? And sometimes to learn from some of the mistakes they have. You know, there's a lot to say about having the experience of failure and learning from that failure — knowing that you can get knocked down, but you can get back up again.

They're also more likely to stand up for themselves and ask for help when they need it. These actions are also known as a growth mindset. We did an episode about growth mindset in Season 1 of "The Opportunity Gap."

But for today, let's really talk about that positive self-esteem. Kids with learning and thinking differences develop that positive self-esteem by really working hard toward a goal. Like they see a goal. They see it. They can feel it. They can visualize it. And they push themselves to know that they can accomplish it. They can see that their hard work is really going to help pay off. That success that they feel makes them feel good about themselves. Makes them realize that not only did the hard work actually pay off, but it makes them feel really good.

So what about when the kids fail at something? What about when you don't accomplish what you're trying to set out to do? I remember that when I was a kid, I always, always, always wanted to figure out how to dunk a basketball. So I'd wake up early every morning. And I had a hoop in the backyard and I'd try to say, all right. Today I'm going to touch the net. So I'd try to jump and maybe I'd touch the net with one finger. Then the next morning, all right, I'm going to try it again. Maybe I'd get it with three fingers. And then I finally one day grabbed the net with my whole hand.

So now I'm like, all right, I'm feeling myself. Let me see if I can try to touch the backboard. So I run back further and I jump. One finger backboard. After a couple weeks, keep trying, three fingers backboard, and I finally touch the backboard. So now I'm like, all right, maybe I'm the next Spud Webb. Maybe I'm the next Muggsy Bogues. But then I tried to touch that rim. And 10 feet is a long way away from the ground.

Now, unfortunately, I never touched that rim. I tried and I tried and I tried. And the only way that I ever got to touch the rim is when I got a ladder and I walked myself up that ladder and I touched that rim. But I had to realize that even though I tried super hard to do it, I didn't accomplish it. I failed.

And there were some aspects of it that I couldn't control. You know, you can't control your physical attributes. But there's also some aspects of the work and the process that really encouraged me to realize that I could do hard things physically. And so even though I wasn't able to ever dunk a basketball or even touch the rim, I did play sports. And I played basketball, and I got pretty good at it. And I used my talents and that same work ethic in other aspects of the game. And I didn't let my height or my size hold me back from getting on the court.

And I feel like the confidence that I built playing with much bigger players and ball, like actually playing hard, it really helped me move into other aspects of my life where I still have that confidence. I still feel that I can walk into a room and I can get the things that I need to get accomplished. And it all comes from realizing that even though I didn't accomplish the goal I wanted, the work was what's important.

And so I would say that anybody who has a child who is really working hard, it's important to remind them how smart they are, how talented they are, how much that the work that they're putting in really matters. That's how we build up that positive self-esteem — by showing them that we believe in them and that we encourage them to continue to work hard.

Now, how can you support? What can we do to build that up?

In the Saavedra household, we really focus on reciting affirmations, and it's so incredibly helpful. We wake up, we get into the car, and we say, "We are beautiful, we are powerful, we are wonderful, we are smart, we are caring, and we are perseverant. And we work hard. We love you. Have a wonderful day." And we say that every single morning. And even though it sounds a little corny, it's something that they look forward to. And my children really believe, even in those hard times, that they are all the things that we recite every single day.

And so just like my children, all the children out there know that they've been successful and they've worked hard, and when they haven't. When we praise kids' efforts, don't just lavish it for everything they do. They got to earn it. You know when your child is giving something their best shot. And you also know when they're not trying at all. So make sure that when you do offer praise, praise something that deserves the praise.

One of my favorite techniques from the classroom is something called positive narration. This is a way where you can pinpoint exactly which action deserves praise. So it sounds something like this. Imagine you're watching your child attempt to fold their clothes. Now we all know we love our kids to get up and put their clothes away and fold their clothes after doing the laundry. It's, you know, every parent's nightmare to have to do mounds of laundry.

So your child finally says, you know, "I'm going to try to do the laundry." And they start folding clothes. Now, you could say "Hey, good job. You folded clothes." What you could say with positive narration: "I love how you took both arms of the shirt and you folded them together, and then you neatly used the corners of the shirt to put it together. And then you placed it inside of your drawer. Great job folding those clothes."

Or maybe you're working really hard and brushing teeth. Instead of saying, "Hey, great job brushing teeth," you could say, "I notice that you took your toothbrush and put the toothpaste on by yourself. And I noticed that you brushed for a full minute and you kept brushing, and you brushed all parts of your teeth — the back, the front, the bottom, and the top. Great job."

So positive narration specifies each action into small parts, and it allows the child to hear exactly what they're doing correct. Positive narration. It works wonders in my household, and I'm sure it'll work wonders in yours.

I really hope you enjoyed my first solo episode. And I want to thank all of you for listening. But before we go, I want to share some resources and articles that talk about positive self-esteem. We'll link to them in the show notes. First:'s article on "The Importance of Positive Self-Esteem for Kids." Second, Harvard Business Review's article "The Power of Small Wins." And third, Teach Like a Champion's article "Narrating Positive Behavior."

Be sure to check these out. They're all great. They really, really are helpful. I'm not just saying it because I'm on the show. I actually use all of these in my own life.

Remember: You are powerful. You are smart. You are caring. And above all, you are loved. Thank you.

You've been listening to "The Opportunity Gap" from the Understood Podcast Network. This show is for you. So we want to make sure you're getting what you need. Is there a topic you'd like us to cover? We want to hear from you. Email us at

If you want to learn more about the topics we covered today, check out the show notes for this episode. We include more resources as well as links to anything we mentioned in the episode. is a resource dedicated to helping people who learn and think differently discover their potential and thrive. Learn more at

"The Opportunity Gap" is produced by Tara Drinks, edited by Cin Pim. Briana Berry is our production director. Our theme music was written by Justin D. Wright, who also mixes the show. For the Understood Podcast Network, Laura Key is our editorial director, Scott Cocchiere is our creative director, and Seth Melnick is our executive producer. Thanks for listening. See you next time.


  • Julian Saavedra, MA

    is a school administrator who has spent 15 years teaching in urban settings, focusing on social-emotional awareness, cultural and ethnic diversity, and experiential learning.

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