Students Who Struggle: Focusing on Strengths | Edutopia
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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation
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James Christensen is really a children's illustrator with profound depth and symbolism to his work. At times humorous, Christensen has created a universe of the absurd, full of characters in layered clothing, rich with ideas, ridiculous in execution. Occasionally, however, he has produced an image that resonates deeper.

Over my dining room table, I have a picture called Sometimes the Spirit Touches Us Through Our Weaknesses. My four year old asks about it occasionally and I tell him that it's an image of a muse, a spirit who whispers ideas into your head, touching a deformed man on his hunchback. The message, I say, is that something you may not be good at, may even be insecure about, or may be made fun of for having, might actually be your strength. At least, that's what I get out of it.

Which is interesting because I found myself thinking about this painting the other day when I was talking to some of my students.

One of them confided that he was on medication for Attention Deficit Hyperactive Disorder (ADHD). Another student said he was taken off the same medication because he couldn't concentrate while on it, and both complained about their lost appetite when on the medication. Other students asked what ADD and ADHD meant, and why they needed medicine for it. The two students, both of whom felt the need to confide in what was an entire classroom of tweens, went on to explain their symptoms, and the other students, who have lived for years avoiding these particular kids in their classes, understood a little more about them in a different way.

After all, one was the kid who never stopped talking. The other was the kid who wouldn't participate or pull his weight. Clearly, it's not that way with every child with ADD or ADHD, but it was with these. Anyway, by communicating a little deeper, the class understood more. Now, I'm not saying kids need to confide or should be outed for their difficulties. That has to come from the kid, and kids rarely feel that comfortable unless you have spent a lot of time building community in your classroom. This is something that I take time to do since I want my students to produce the best that they can. The by-product is, of course, unity. This incident, however, got me thinking of the painting.

What If...?

Studies show that in the next few years, our schools will see a wider spectrum of special needs kids than ever before. And these students will not all be segregated into some program. No. They will be in our classes, integrated with our mainstream students. And we must prepare them for their futures as much as we prepare the students we have now.

What if we could sell these struggling kids on the fact that sometimes their difficulties can become their strengths? What if ADHD became a student's superpower one day? What if the stigma of autism could be harnessed, at least in a child's mind, to be seen as the nymph phase of what will be a real talent one day?

How far off am I? What if adults who struggled with differences in their childhood came forward in a targeted campaign to speak as the voices in our students' own futures? See, child, this is what I became. What if that actor or author or scientist launched a campaign that admitted their earlier struggles in an attempt to help these students through their own chrysalis years? See, child, this is what you can still become.

Education needs the support of those we produced years ago. We need more than just the schools to be the muses to these children. We need teachers, families, and our community to be helping in any way they can to pitch the concept that Sometimes the Spirit Touches Us Through Our Weaknesses.

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Jessica Walker's picture

Heather, I completely agree that our society focuses too much on peoples' weaknesses. I believe the reason society views people who learn, function or perform differently as having a weakness is because life as we know it revolves around the "norm". People are expected to function in a particular way and if that is not cohesive to a particular person's traits, then they are considered to have a weakness. Society as a whole, expects people to conform or be labeled as weak. This is especially evident in our schools. We wouldn't expect someone in a wheelchair to stand up and run a race, yet we get frustrated when a student who has ADHD can't sit in one spot and write for an hour. Why do we have unrealistic expectations for students and then label them as having weaknesses? I think our greatest assets is gaining knowledge about these "weaknesses". If we equip ourselves with information about each student, then we can capitalize on their strengths instead of patronizing their weaknesses. Let's create an environment where students are praised for their strengths, not labeled for their weaknesses.

S. Stewart's picture

This is a very interesting topic. It is all in the language and attitude of the teacher. This one really makes you think. I have to evaluate myself to see if I am focusing on the strengths.

Rachael's picture

I think it is important for students/teachers to try to understand ADD/ADHD. Establishing a community in your classroom is very important. This trust opens students up to sharing personal feelings, problems, and opinions freely letting others gain insight into the way that they are feeling and thinking. I teach 4th grade and all I hear about one of the students that I have is that he was in trouble all the time in 3rd grade. It is really unfortunate that he and his classmates have to be constantly reminded of his past behavior, especially when he tries so hard to be "good".

Ashley's picture

I teach in a center based program for EI students. Each student there has a "label" as to what disability they have. I love that you said "a child'sweakness can sometimes be their strength." For me, I find this to be a huge problem with the local schools in my area that send their students to us. They are so fed up with the behavior problems, that they are just ready to get rid of the student. They come to our school where we too see the behavior problems, however those students are surrounded by other students who are making the same poor choices. We provide them a consistant, highly structured environment that gives them clear boundaries and consequences for their actions. They can start to feel comfortable because they are learning how to behave in a more appropriate manner, by seeing it modeled and practiced rather than just having it preached to them. Although my students have a certain "label" they don't feel that when they walk in the doors. My hope is that we can as a society can become better with these types of kids and accept who they are, model what you like, and acknowledge that you care about them. It is amazing sometimes how just putting that little extra effort in with a student can make all the difference. These student are not any different than any other human beings. We all have a label for who we are, I am a teacher. That is my "label." I shouldn't be treated any different because of that. Just as a student with an EI or ADD or ADHD or Autism label should be considered anything different than a child/student that deserves a chance. I too love this idea of our students knowing what their label is and sharing it with others. I feel it gives my students a chance when they return to their home schools of helpin others to realize. Sometimes the negativity comes from the fear of the unknown. Well with our students becoming more educated in themselves and their peers, they can continue to pass along: A label does not change who you are as a person. It might help someone to get a better understanding of you, but a person is a person still without their label. Awesome original post Heather!

Liz Young's picture

I have cerebral palsy and am a substitute teacher working on my masters in special education. I feel a connection to my disabled students and hope that I can be that one to show them that a disability doesn't have to hinder. Many of my students I see on a regular basis like that I'm "one of them" and I like it, too. I was once in their shoes, with the PT and OT and orthotics and even with the social struggles of being the "different" kid. I'm proud to say that one student with similiar c.p. to me is now in college to be a special ed. teacher. We connected over c.p. and in role reversal she's been an inspiration to me ... each student to his or her own ability and that limit is up to each one. They just need the motivation to reach their potentials.

Kareen M. Kalvin's picture
Kareen M. Kalvin
M.Ed. Certified Multiple Subjects and Special Education teacher

This is a subject very worthy of discussion and needs a shift in terminology. We have learned that it is an environment that presents a student with a challenge to learn in the manner requested of them. My teacher education was that we are facilitators of student's learning and that we need to create the environment that allows them to learn. My preference is to use the word challenge to describe what has been referred to as a learning weakness.

Carrie T's picture
Carrie T
Elementary Special Education Teacher (Learning Center Support)

This is what I strive for in my special education program. I want my students to know what the label is that we adults gave them, and why. I want them to know the information that can help them build on their strengths. I want them to know that even if they have a "Learning Disability," if they have ADHD, if they have "Emotional Disturbance" and they learn different than their peers, that they too can go to college. They too can be whatever they set out to be.

And I am here to help them get there. I think it is important for students to know, as they enter into middle school, that the choices they make today effect them down the road. So when they get to high school and want to take Advanced Math, they will know that everything they have done so far has helped them get there.

In my years of teaching, I have seen my students in two types of classrooms. Some have a teacher that works hard to build on their strengths rather then work around their weaknesses. Some have a teacher that focus on making their weaknesses as their areas of need. I do see my students in the first class become more socially accepted and engaged in their own learning. I do often see the students in the latter classes to become discourage with school.

I think Heather is right. We need to build on students strengths. And give them models of people who have done the same.

Erica B.'s picture

Your post was inspiring and uplifting. I am a new teacher, and already have experienced negativity in the few schools I have worked for regarding how to best support students with special needs. These comments were not made in anger, rather they were made in frustration. The frustration is due to the overwhelming workload, stress, and pressure of meeting the demands of administration to acheive higher test scores. Sadly, the students who are struggling, usually get left farther behind due to pressure to keep moving forward and cover the content. I truly believe these standardized tests are not an accurate measure of what a student knows, or a predictor of how successful they will be in the future. I agree with your thought process that the students who are labeled with these "weaknessess" can acheive great success, and that we can help facilitate this by shifting the viewpoint that weaknessess can actually be strengths. Teachers can play a major role in this shift by building students' self-esteem and confidence.

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