Self-esteem Basics from Independence to Tickling

By Ken Levinson, CPA

As co-creator and lead counselor for AG Bell’s Leadership Opportunities for Teens (LOFT) program, I have been fortunate to speak to several groups about fostering self-esteem in teens and young adults who are deaf and hard of hearing, particularly about the “I AM GREAT” model.  I do not profess to be a psychologist, trained counselor or any other professional expert with a background in teenage behavior.  The model is based on my experiences and the self-advocacy discussions I have observed over the years among the LOFT teens.
Before we dive into the model, it is necessary to point out two things. First, there is nothing different between children with typical hearing and children who are deaf and hard of hearing when it comes to self-esteem. They are children first and deaf and hard of hearing second.

Second, each child is unique and experiences vary from child to child and from family to family. There are different hearing losses, family support systems, neighbors, teachers, religious values, uses of technology, to name just a few factors, which intertwine to create one’s distinct and individual ecology. And that really matters. 

The acronym for the model originates with two prominent sports figures from several years ago. A young boxer, Cassius Clay, later known as Muhammad Ali, would always proclaim before a match: “I am the greatest.” And he was. A few years later, Joe Namath, then a quarterback for the New York Jets, bragged he was the greatest quarterback in professional football. And he was.

It comes down to one word: confidence. To put it in terms of what Joe Namath and Muhammad Ali always said: I AM GREAT.  The phrase I AM GREAT is the acronym for the model. If the reader remembers one thing from this article, remember I AM GREAT.


I is for Independence.



I is for Independence.  In LOFT, we can immediately see which teens have doting “helicopter” parents and which do not. Establishing independence is letting these teens experience as much as they can at the earliest possible age. It is through experience that we develop a sense of who we are and begin our journey to individualization. We want these experiences to be as positive as possible. If experiences are negative—and there will always be some of those—we go to the other letters in the model and use those elements to foster self-esteem in a positive way. 

Parents get so hung up on emotional harm, it prevents them from allowing their children to have some “hurt.” Of course, you would not want them to be traumatized by a significant event such as constant verbal abuse, but other than that, almost anything can be overcome with repeated efforts.   


A is for Attitude.  People say: “Attitude is the greatest disability” and they are usually referring to nondisabled people and their attitudes toward people with disabilities. When it comes to socialization, however, it is different. Turn it around. What is my attitude? Is it bitter or upbeat? I don’t think it matters if we are deaf or hard of hearing—or not—people are attracted to others with more positive attitudes. It’s that simple.


A is for Attitude.


Mistakes Are OK

M is for Mistakes are OK. This hardly needs elaboration. It is doubly important, however, for children who are deaf and hard of hearing to understand because if they should make a mistake, they may often look at their hearing loss as the reason why people judge them in certain ways.

As a parent or professional, show them it is okay by teaching them to acknowledge their mistakes, especially as it happens. Embarrass yourselves, and teach your students and children to be able to do so themselves.


G is for Groups: finding and getting to know others like you. Teenagers are teenagers. That is their group. Whether it is sports, horseback riding, art, music, science or computer games, it is about finding groups that support you and the way you live. LOFT takes this bonding to another level. Most of the teens are from mainstream environments and/or know very few others who are deaf and hard of hearing. What we see in every session is the incredible bonding with others like themselves. 

Every year, we wonder if the need for LOFT will disappear as the teens become better and better in using their technology and are more adept in their interactions with hearing peers. It never changes. These teens have something in common that no one else has. It doesn’t have to be LOFT per se. It can be any group of teens with hearing loss. What matters is the idea they all understand one another instantly. 

To quote one parent:

“I wanted to reach out and let you know just how much LOFT exceeded our expectations, as well as our daughter’s. It wasn’t just the connections and friendships that she will have and cherish for the rest of her life. It was the kindling of the inner glow in her, that quiet confidence that parents hope their kids find. And I expect the rest of the LOFT participants had a similar experience.”


R is for Respect. Respect is essential to a positive self-esteem because it is something that makes you feel valued. When we discuss issues and challenges in LOFT, it is important the other teens listen and respond in a respectful manner. We have had teens with cerebral palsy, other motor or balance issues, Usher syndrome, etc.  Most of the teens have been teased or bullied at some points in their young lives. We constantly observe the respect shown when they realize they are not alone in their challenges or issues. 

Certainly we would want respect for ourselves, but by having your child learn how to respect others, we can hope to get that respect in return. It is similar to having a positive attitude. Rather than “attacking” someone who may be ignorant, wouldn’t it make more sense to take a more respectful approach and take him or her off the offensive? 

Going back to independence, when you allow them to experience things they want to try, despite some fears you may have, you are showing them respect by allowing them to prove to you they are worthy. So, it is not just about developing respect. It is also about showing respect.


E is for Expectations. How often do we hear how important it is to set your expectations as high as possible? As King Jordan, the first deaf president of Gallaudet University, stated in his famous quote: “Deaf people can do anything, except hear.” Expectations are set through allowing your child to experience things and to achieve whatever goals they wish and have set for themselves rather than the ones you think they can achieve. 

There is nothing your child should NOT try. I wouldn’t recommend sky diving right away, but unless they try, they will never know they could possibly accomplish whatever it is they try. Go for it. Don’t keep your children back because of their hearing loss.

To quote a LOFT graduate:

“The important thing is to follow your heart.  Don’t let anybody….take away or discourage your dreams.  And don’t let your inner voices or doubts drown out your passion…..”

As parents and professionals, shouldn’t we foster this in our children?


Another A for Adults. During LOFT, the teens make four presentations on different topics, one of which is on the most important person or role model in their lives. When I first started LOFT, almost all role models were parents. Today’s teens pick sports heroes, famous artists and scientists, literary figures, a family friend, a brother or sister. Parents are still in the mix, but just not as much. Teens today are functioning so much better in the mainstream that they are now looking outside their immediate family and to the larger community for role models.

Even more so, what about role models that are deaf and hard of hearing? AG Bell conventions, state chapter conferences, LOFT and other venues all offer opportunities for children to meet role models. All the LOFT counselors are deaf and hard of hearing, with most of them being former LOFT graduates. It is important for teens to see they can become successful as adults, not just in the things they aspire to, but knowing they can do it, despite their hearing loss. It is really amazing how far people who are deaf and hard of hearing have come. Adults who are deaf and hard of hearing are successful doctors, lawyers, engineers, college professors, audiologists, CPAs, business owners, etc.

Tickle Them

Last, but certainly not least, T is for Tickle Them. One of the most powerful means of developing good socialization skills is a good sense of humor. Make fun of yourself. Nothing puts another person at ease more than this. Poking fun at yourself is a universal thing, and is a very effective means of enhancing that positive attitude discussed earlier. We all have something we can use as a target for others at which to poke.


What are the lessons? Allow kids to develop independence by experiencing everything and taking chances to find out about various situations by making mistakes and learning from them. Help them develop a positive attitude and a constant behavior of showing respect. Get them involved in groups with others that help develop strong bonds. Find good role models, particularly those who are deaf and hard of hearing, and let them see other successful people like themselves. Set expectations high and don’t deny them the opportunity to try anything for which they are capable. Laugh them silly, but laugh at yourself even more. 

And the final lesson? I AM GREAT. And so is every child, whether they are deaf, hard of hearing or typically hearing.  As teachers and parents, it becomes incumbent on us to make sure that greatness is promoted in each and every child.

Photos in this article are from AG Bell's Leadership Opportunities for Teens (LOFT) program. Click here for more information.

Source: Volta Voices, November/December 2014