Students Who Struggle: Focusing on Strengths | Edutopia
Edutopia on Facebook
Edutopia on Twitter
Edutopia on Google+
Edutopia on Pinterest Follow Me on Pinterest
WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation
  • Facebook
  • Twitter
  • Pinterest
  • Share
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.

Comments (80)Sign in or register to postSubscribe to comments via RSS

Aradhna Dhawan's picture

Teaching is challenging and often comes with different solutions depending on an individual. One solution works for an individual which may-not work for another. I think these students have a different way of thinking and seeing the world. I don't think this as their weakness. It is surely bad to label them as their weakness. If we have all our senses working properly they are gifted to something special in them which surely needs to bring out form them so they feel important and respectful and even capable to handling their own problem. I guess building up their confidence is the most important thing which will push them to look forward to any extreme situation.

TeachLa.'s picture

In my opinion, there is not enough research or PLC's within schools to help answer those hard questions concerning those students with labels. More attention should be focused on this issue. In today's society, classrooms are filled with students who are on medications for behavioral and emotional issues. Sometimes, I ask myself, just how easy is it to get a child on medication? How sure are we that these "weaknesses," are really that. Have we considered that maybe these students were labeled only because the parents and teachers did not know how to adapt to the students's individual learning needs? Have we done all we can as educators to research and learn about a particular disorder like ADHD inorder to help the student develop as a better academian? There are so many questions that arise, but there seems to be little information to help us in this area. I deal with students daily who have been beat over their heads from parents and teachers concerning their labels that they literally do not believe that can ever succeed. I believe that with the proper positive redirection, the child's esteem about their own potential will boost a great change in their educational journey a create opportunities for them to see themselves in a different light so that their strengths can be seen.

Terri Sowder's picture
Terri Sowder
Spec Ed Consultant, Teacher, Parent

Student learning isn't a one size fits all system. We all have strengths or abilities, and if we know what works for us and for individual students, then all are empowered to learn and to start internalizing their learning. I work in different schools with many children and professionals. I am also a parent with two children who have special abilities or some may say, disabilities. All of us are special in one way or another and when we acknowledge the strengths/abilities and build upon those foundations, growth truly begins. Embracing individuality in positive avenues and being accepted for who someone is, can promote lifelong community building. Self-awareness and self-understanding come in many forms, whether it be with a label or diagnosis or tendencies, and then one can choose to allow the label to define them or decide for themselves how they want to be seen, heard, remembered. As adults, when we share our daily lives, issues, struggles and joys with others, we are building upon our own community as well. We choose to disclose or share portions of our lives and I believe that as students share their perspectives of their lives with each other, their lives and those around them are forever touched. As others have said - knowledge is power.

Heather Wolpert-Gawron's picture

Thanks for much for your comments, everyone. I'm learning a tremendous amount from those who commented on my post this week. I thought I'd provide this resource for you all as a gift back to my Edutopia readers: I assume that everyone here has listened to this amazing interview? If not, get ready...

What's so powerful is how straightforward she is with her son. Can teachers take a cue from this wonderful mom?

-Heather Wolpert-Gawron

Emily Entrekin's picture

With society wanting to constantly make everyone "normal", it is very difficult to teach anymore. There is no such thing as "normal". We all have our issues and some are more evident than others. We are going through a struggle with a student that is dealing with autism. It is very evident that he is different than the other boys and girls. While this is not in my classroom, I have noticed the impact it is making on the teacher as well as the students. Even though the other students want to understand better about why this student can not talk to them and will not listen to anything they have to say, they want to be with him and by his side. The teacher has done a great job by partnering him up with someone to help watch and teach this student. We are doing the best job to have this child ready for what comes next in his life. He has come such a far way already and it is such a joy to be able to watch the growth that a child with autism can make with patience and love. The skills that the teacher is working on now is to prepare him more for the social aspect and how to ask for what he is wanting. He is already able to say one or two words at a time. The growth is amazing!

Heather's picture

I really enjoyed your post. It is obvious that your students are comfortable with each other to be able to have that type of discussion. I like your "what if" questions, as a lot of people do not see students' 'weaknesses' as something that can be turned into a strength. I do not think that weakness is the right word, but I also feel like it was used was because of the title of the painting you posted. Their "weaknesses" are just another challenge for me, but especially for my student. I feel that working together though with the knowledge we both have on the subject makes everything easier to manage, as well as possibly help the student instead of hindering them.

Terrylynn Skinner's picture


Perhaps you could read some of the stories suggested by Pamela to your class, then discuss with the students how each of us are different in our own unique ways. By teaching empathy at an early age, the students might be able to help this child more and even learn from the experience.

Toyin Adebayo's picture

Students with special needs seem to be on the rise globally,this is quite important to all teachers as we want to make an impact in the lives of our students.In my country(Nigeria),most special needs students are in mainstream schools and most of the time,the teachers are ill-equipped to handle such cases.I honestly do agree with you,that we need to get adults who have been able to scale this hurdle come out and share their experience with the students as ameans of motivating them, thereby causing them to realise that there is ability in every disablity. The diet and the medication that some of the ADHD students are currently being place on sometimes do not have a lasting impacton them, I think teachers should actually focus on their strength and build on it.

Kelly S's picture

I like the idea of changing the students idea that their disability is a weakness and encourage them to view it as a strength. I have a student who really hates taking his medicine and but realizes that he needs to take them. I need to change his view on this to make him realize that he is a step ahead of other kids. Thanks for changing my ideas and helping me change my students ideas.

John Edmonds's picture

One of the ways I teach students to allow others to have different traits, strengths, or weaknesses is to help them give others the benefit of the doubt. I teach middle school and have several students with ADD/ADHD (some medicated, some not) and as a teachers I must teach the ADD student to learn from and with a student that does not have ADD and vice versa. By giving the other person the benefit of the doubt, you help eliminate students who get offended or hurt by someone not listening or cutting them off.

blog Full-Time Comeback: A Reflection

Last comment 1 week 10 hours ago in Teacher Leadership

blog Why "Content Coverage" is Over: A Manifesto!

Last comment 14 hours 37 min ago in Teacher Leadership

Discussion Grant Wiggins on Edutopia

Last comment 4 days 11 hours ago in Education Trends

blog The Era of the Teacherpreneur

Last comment 4 days 11 hours ago in Technology Integration

Discussion How to Overcome Teacher Reluctance to Take on a Leadership Positions?

Last comment 6 days 21 hours ago in Teacher Leadership

Sign in to comment. Not a member? Register.