Self Esteem

“I Think I Can, I Think I Can”

Daily challenges and corrections at school can demoralize a child and trample her confidence over time. Here, learn how to end this negative cycle and improve your child’s self-esteem in the classroom.

adhd college student teen reading
an adhd teen girl reading in bed dorm room

An ADDitude reader wrote: “My 15-year-old daughter is just getting by in school — mostly Cs and a D or two. She is demoralized, and doesn’t think she can do better, because she has gotten C’s since elementary school. However, she has done well at lacrosse. She is one of the top players on the high school team. I would love for her to transfer some of her confidence from the playing field to the classroom. How can I help her use her experience with lacrosse to build confidence in academics?”

I’ve always been inspired by the words of Henry Ford: “Whether you think you can, or you think you can’t — you’re right.” Your daughter doesn’t think she can do better, which results in her not doing better. A positive attitude is key for someone with ADHD to achieve her goals. The right attitude will move her from a cycle of failure to a cycle of success.

Playing lacrosse, your daughter is on a cycle of success. A successful season doesn’t happen without planning and effort: The coach sets goals for the team, your daughter and her teammates practice the skills needed to achieve the goals, and the team puts out lots of effort on the field. Your daughter believes that her coach’s goals are achievable, and that she has the skills she needs to play well. On game day — even against a tough opponent — she believes that her team can win, and continues to push if her team falls behind. The victory is sweet when it is achieved.

Being confident and hopeful about winning enables her to work toward the goals she sets for herself, even if she has a bad day here or there. When she does well on the field, she feels great. The praise and rewards she gets help her to be hopeful about reaching her next milestone successfully.

In school, your daughter is caught up in a cycle of failure. She doesn’t see the possibility of success, so she feels hopeless. Her motivation to work is low, and she is likely to give up when a challenge arises.

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Moving Forward from Here

If your daughter doesn’t believe she can succeed, her ability to focus worsens. She can’t prioritize and stick with one task. For those diagnosed with ADHD, focusing doesn’t happen automatically. Many problems, such as poor sleep or anxiety, worsen focus. But there is a way to find focus and accomplish a goal.

What I call S.M.A.R.T. goal setting is the key to moving from the cycle of failure to the cycle of success. S.M.A.R.T. stands for Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Realistic, and Time-Defined. If your child sets and achieves a goal, it puts her on a cycle of success on which she can build. Someone who is discouraged needs to set goals carefully.

Using the S.M.A.R.T. approach after you have been failing is like starting a bike from a standstill. You use low gear, because it’s the easiest gear to pedal. But it moves you forward only a short distance. You use low gear to build momentum — then, as you get moving, you shift into a higher gear, allowing you to accelerate more quickly. Setting small, achievable goals is starting in low gear.

1. Set specific, short-term goals. A discouraged child should not be asked to make big changes or to achieve large goals. Asking your “C” kid to become an “A” kid immediately is scary. Instead, ask her: Can she make a 1 percent improvement? Instead of setting a vague, long-term goal to achieve better grades in chemistry this semester, her goal might be to “turn in all chemistry homework on time this week.” This goal is short-term and concrete. You can set long-term goals after her confidence builds.

[Click to Read: “I Believe In You!”]

2. Celebrate achievements. Once she attains her first goal, celebrate her success, and set a new, more challenging goal. Celebration brings joy to achievement; without joy, the effort is just work. Make the celebration simple: Give her a high-five, like she gets from her lacrosse teammates. When you tell her “Great job!” ask, “How did it feel to achieve your goal?” Making her aware of the buoyant feeling that comes from doing what she set out to do encourages positivity and gives her confidence that she can do it again.

3. Give the process enough time. Don’t expect your child to start playing academic sports one year and become a champion the next. It takes time to build skills and confidence. After meeting short-term goals, she can develop long-term goals with a positive mindset. Michael Phelps, who has ADHD, had to learn to swim well and compete in local and national competitions before becoming the all-time record holder in the Olympics.

4. Plan for bumps in the road. There will be times when a child who has been making progress will slip back into her old habits, and the negative cycle will kick in again. Even a successful and well-trained lacrosse team loses a game once in a while. When this happens, it’s important that your child not get frustrated or give up. She might say, “See, I’m just not a good student.” Ask her to add “yet” to that sentence. If she can say, “I’m not a good student yet,” that opens the door to start trying again because “yet” suggests that she will get there someday — “I’m not a good student yet (but I will be).” Just as in sports, she must reset by restarting in a lower gear and rebuilding.

5. Consider a coach. A good ADHD coach is helpful when setbacks occur, and can help your child get back on course when the going gets tough. This coach may be a psychologist or a certified ADHD coach. If your child says, “I don’t want any help,” remind her that the best athletes in the world have coaches. Parents do not always make the best coaches, and your child may respond better to a more objective person. Check out coaching organizations, such as, which specifically addresses the challenges of teens.

6. Process is key. The process of setting attainable goals and working through challenges to achieve them is as important as the goal itself. The goal may or may not be reached, but if your child learns how to aim higher, and achieves intermediate goals along the way, she can apply this process to any situation in her life. Remind her that even if she doesn’t reach her goal, she has learned skills that will help her in the future. Maybe she didn’t get the grade in chemistry that she was hoping for, but she found out that she can concentrate on her homework better in a certain room.

7. Review and renew. As your daughter works toward achieving her goals, review the progress she has made and make adjustments to goals, if necessary. Examining and celebrating progress toward the goal is a great way to get her excited about achieving the goal eventually. If her heart isn’t in the goal, she will have a harder time achieving it. If she decides that she doesn’t want to make the effort needed for A’s but is OK with B’s, you may have to accept that. The important thing is to clarify what she wants and find a way to do the work needed to achieve that.

As an adult, you find that things haven’t always gone the way you had planned. You have had to adjust goals, or come up with a new plan because your original plan did not work out. Share these experiences with your daughter. This will reassure her that, when the road to her goal is temporarily blocked, she should stay hopeful, re-evaluate and adjust her strategy, and keep working to achieve success.

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