Self-concept amongst adults with mild learning disabilities is good, but can be strengthened with practitioner support


Research concerning the self-concept of individuals with mild learning disability has tended to focus on children and adolescents, with Kloomok & Cosden (1994) finding that students with learning disability often have poor self-concept. The majority of the research has been quantitative in nature, whereas this paper adopted a semi-structured interview technique in a bid to provide more qualitative results.

In seeking to gain a deeper understanding of individual’s ‘self-concept’, this research could provide an insight into what factors might drive how adults think about themselves. This might in turn enable practitioners to better understand how they might support individuals to think more positively about themselves.

Previous research has evidenced a correlation between low self-concept and depression (Benson & Ivins 1992), whilst other studies have shown that a positive self-concept is associated with psychological well-being, peer acceptance and self-confidence (Harter 1993), demonstrating the value of research in this area.

Positive self-concept is associated with psychological well-being, peer acceptance and self-confidence

Positive self-concept is associated with psychological well-being, peer acceptance and self-confidence


The study utilised interpretative phenomenological analysis (IPA). IPA is an experiential qualitative approach to research. It is concerned with trying to understand lived experience and with how participants themselves make sense of their experiences, enabling the researcher in this instance to directly explore the lived experiences of the participants (Smith 1996). 8 adults with mild learning disability participated in the study, six male and two female participants with an age range of 25-56 years old.

A semi-structured interview method was used, lasting 1 hour with on-site staff available for support if necessary, with questions focused on the different domains of ‘self-concept’. The method of analysis was descriptive rather than interpretative in order to stay true to the participants own self perceptions. To strengthen validity, an independent researcher also analysed the interviews alongside participant’s own comments.

The study followed guidelines on conducting research with people with learning disabilities and at the end of each interview participants were debriefed, receiving a resource list and signposted to support if needed.


A range of attributes in the social, physical, occupational, cultural and psychological self-concept domains arose from the study, with the majority of attributes reported by the participants being positive.

Most reported a belief that they were friendly:  “I’m very friendly”, helpful: “I put myself out for people who need help”,  supportive and talkative.

2 of the 8 participants reported ‘not feeling normal’ and others evidenced a degree of social anxiety: “I don’t like talking to strangers. I don’t like crowds”.

It was found that participant’s physical self-perceptions were varied and individual. Occupational self-perceptions mentioned by participants included being artistic/creative, knowledgeable, impatient and anxious.

It was noted that all participants had a sense of being religious, illuminating the importance of practitioners understanding the cultural and religious backgrounds of those with whom they work.

In respect of psychological self-perception, themes included independence and capability. Some participants who showed social anxiety also demonstrated a feeling of independence, highlighting a laudable determination in spite of feeling “not normal”, and also reported that, in relation to others, they thought that they took longer to do things.

Most reported a belief that they were friendly supportive and talkative

Most reported a belief that they were friendly supportive and talkative


The authors explain that the participants reported mainly positive self-concepts, but note that in exploring the different domains of self-concept, the findings do not fall into a global category of ‘positive’ or ‘negative’.

They also assert that the qualitative nature of the study ensures that the findings are grounded in the participants lived experiences.

The authors refer to other research to stress the need for practitioners to monitor and help strengthen the self-concept of their clients, in order to promote and build social skills.


The small number of participants cannot be seen to accurately reflect the wider population and there is scope for the study to be extended. The authors also point out the semi-structured interview might have limited the range of attributes that the participants used to describe themselves; more in-depth interviews could have been used to allow participants to reflect more on their self-perceptions.


The study has shown that individuals with mild learning disability have a strong awareness of themselves and a good understanding of self-concept. Each participant was able to explain their own self-perception and articulate their perceived strengths and weaknesses.

The study has shown the value of qualitative research and specifically the semi-structured interview method. Under the right circumstances, this has strength in eliciting specific and detailed information from participants which is more participant-led and therefore potentially more accurate and ‘real’, as opposed to the more prescribed quantitative techniques such as questionnaires.

One participant’s comment, that “they are all normal outside except for me, because I got learning disabilities” provides a poignant reminder of the unwelcome power of labelling in society, and emphasises the continued need for wider education in order to build recognition and acceptance of minority groups.

Common themes were apparent arising from the research. The participants had predominantly positive self-perception, with several feeling that they were friendly, supportive and helpful. A common negative theme was anxiety.

This is not surprising when considering the Mental Health Foundation’s statistics that 2.6% of the population suffer from depression whilst 4.7% suffer from anxiety, and is thought considerably more prevalent due to much being under-reported.

Participants are likely to be inadvertently demonstrating considerable resilience here, managing their anxieties without seeking support.

Ultimately, the results were revealing, in that the participants demonstrated an admirable understanding of themselves. The authors emphasise the need to support individuals to strengthen their self-concept, suggesting that this can be done within existing support planning frameworks.

The lesson for practitioners, service providers and commissioners could be that building relationships through recognised techniques such as open dialogue and relationship-based practice would lead to greater counter-transference. Increasingly this work is not felt possible by practitioners due to top-down pressures and target-driven environments.

If practitioners were afforded the time to carry out this work, it would enable practitioners to better support individuals to think more positively about themselves, as we would gain a deeper understanding as to the reasons behind any negativity. In that sense, the study can be deemed a success.

The authors emphasise the need to support individuals to strengthen their self-concept within existing support planning frameworks

The authors emphasise the need to support individuals to strengthen their self-concept within existing support planning frameworks


Pestana, C. (2014) Exploring the self-concept of adults with mild learning disabilities. British Journal of Learning Disabilities, 43, 16-23 [abstract]


Benson B. & Ivins J. (1992) Anger, Depression and self-concept in adults with mental retardation. J Intellect Disabil Res, 36: 169-75

Harter S. (1993) Causes and consequences of low self-esteem in children and adolescents. In: Baumesteir R., editor. Self-esteem: the puzzle of low self-regard. New York, Plenum Press: 18-37

Kloomok S. & Cosden M. (1994) Self-concept in children with learning disabilities: the relationship between global self-concept, academic discounting, non-academic self-concept, and perceived support. Learn Disabil Q, 17: 140-53

Mental Health Foundation (2015) Mental health statistics: Anxiety. Available at:

Smith J.A. (1996) Beyond the divide between cognition and discourse: using interpretative phenemological analysis in health psychology. Psychol Health, 11: 261-71

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Alex Leeder

Alex completed an undergraduate degree in law at Keele University before completing the Legal Practice Course at Aberystwyth University. Alex went on to work for a rehabilitation team before completing the MA Social Work at the University of Worcester. Alex is now a qualified social worker having completed his Assessed and Supported Year in Employment (ASYE), working in a Community Learning Disabilities multi-disciplinary team. He has a broad range of related interests including learning disability and dementia, mental capacity and best interest decision-making, and dual diagnosis. Alex is contributing to the MA Social Work at the University of Worcester in 2015 and remains interested in the promotion of social work values, practice approaches and supporting students in practice.

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