Students Who Struggle: Focusing on Strengths | Edutopia
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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation
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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S. Stewart's picture

This topic is very interesting. Too often our students are view as someone they are not. I think it is all about the language you use and thinking postive about the students. Weaknesses very well can be strengths. Every teacher should meet the challenge of learning to turn the so called weaknesses into strengths.

S. Stewart's picture

This is a very interesting topic. It's all in the language and an individual's way of thinking. Each teacher should meet the challenge of learning to make weakness into strenghts.

AndreaV26's picture
Special Education Teacher from Jackson, MI

I absolutely agree with you. Outside my resource room, I have a small bulletin board. For the beginning of the school year, I filled it with pictures of celebrities who had different disabilities. The caption said "A disability did not stop them.... Do not let it stop you!" and in the middle of all the celebrities, I had a blank picture frame that said "Your photo here". My middle schoolers enjoyed learning about the disabilities of different celebrities. They couldn't believe that Julia Roberts overcame a speech impediment to become an award-winning actress, for example. It really gave them hope. And I think that is what a lot of students need. I really push my students to self-advocate. I tell them "Yes, you have this disability, but you are more than that. You have strengths, and you can go far. You can have help, but you have to put in the effort as well." I have seen a few of my students, within the past year, become incredibly motivated in regards to their future. We can not change what other people think, or how other people treat these students. All we can control is how we ourselves perceive and handle a situation. If we handle it in a way that motivates students, that is a start. Rather than just assuming we can not get through to these students, we need to start somewhere.

Donald Johnson's picture
Donald Johnson
Fired ex-Geography/Journalism/English teacher, Houston, Texas

People like Julia Roberts and Albert Einstein didn't need people to tell them to succeed; an argument can be made that they rose to meet adverse circumstances, in part, because they were told they couldn't. While I'm not saying we should purposely discourage children from even trying, we must adjust our expectations so that every child is constantly challenged, not given grades simply for attendance or cooperation.

One of my introductory lessons was always GPAR (Goal, Plan, Action, Result) a business-cycle concept in which children set goals higher than they thought they could achieve. For example, the the student was asked the highest grade ever achieved in a particular course, then asked to set a goal of grading five points higher. The "Plan" had to be detailed and realistic, with measurable results logged in journals or on charts. The "Action" was what the student actually accomplished, and the emphasis was on an honest appraisal of that effort. If the student did not achieve that goal, they were asked, "if not, why not? Was something wrong with the plan? The "Result" was a re-setting of the goal, then the plans. ("If you already achieved your 'Goal,' chances are it was set too low.").

I was never able to convince my colleagues to adopt aspects of this concept despite its obvious benefits, and occasionally encountered resistance from the parents who accused me of meddling and being too harsh. Even my supervisors suggested that it be nothing more than an occasionally revisited Journal entry.

AndreaV26's picture
Special Education Teacher from Jackson, MI

I should mention that I'm still a young teacher. I'm in my third year. During my first year, I really tried to protect my students by pretty much holding their hands. I realized quickly that I was not doing them any favors by doing this. I am preparing them for a world that will not always include me. I give them strategies for self-advocacy, but I do not necessarily do it explicitly. If they are having a problem with a teacher not making accommodations for them, rather than me speaking to the teacher for them, they now speak up for themselves. I explained to all my students what an IEP is, what the purpose is, showed them a blank form, etc. Then, I started making sure they came to their own IEP's, and I'd put them on the spot with what goals they want to accomplish, what accommodations they may need, etc. Now, when a teacher says that a student can not go to the resource room for some peace and quiet during a test (yes, there are teachers like that), my students are now able to say "Don't you have a copy of my IEP? Because it says that I am allowed a small, quiet setting during tests." If they come to me, I simply send them back to speak up for themselves. As special education students, they are involved in developing their goals, knowing their rights, and making sure those things are being met.

So while my environment is a little bit different, I think we have the same basic ideas for helping students set high expectations for themselves, and helping them achieve them independently.

Sujin Hughes's picture

When I was in 1st and 2nd grade I was a very "WILD" kid who could not sit for a minute. Luckily my parents were patient enough to give some time and wait... Well by the time I hit 4th grade I was one of the well behaving kid in my school. I am glad that my teacher and my parents were trying to help me to learn controlling myself. I feel like sometimes teachers and doctors jump into "labeling" too quickly. I feel sad and sorry for the kids who come to school all drugged, and sleepy. Maybe they are just "late bloomers" like I was.

Cassie's picture

I question whether talking about the students differences in the classroom is a good idea. Some parents where I live are very protective of their students and do not want anyone to know their child is "different". Plus we have to be careful of the whole privacy law.

Like I have seen several people writing, everyone has a weakness. It would be great for all students to understand their weaknesses along with everyone elses. Working together to help with each others weakness is something that most people do everyday at work. Why shouldn't we teach them how to help each other at an early age. I guess we could adjust the way we talk about everyone's "differences" to make sure the privacy law is not broken.

Heather Wolpert-Gawron's picture

You bring up a great point. I think that there's a difference between bringing the labels to the classroom as a teacher and the kids sharing their labels in the classroom community. This indicates a very deep community of learners and one that a teacher shouldn't downplay in its significance to achievement.

I think, too, that sometimes parents don't realize the intimacy of the relationships that build in schools of their students' own growth. They may not want the information out there, but we all know that kids sometimes talk about things at school despite what a parent might want. Sometimes the behavior alone is a notification of "differences" to other students. A student hides what they want, and shares what they want. The conversation with your parent community might want to center around preparing them for the honesty that some students develop with their peers and teachers if it's a real community that develops in the classroom. You can't stop a kid from sharing!

-Heather Wolpert-Gawron

Colleen Hildebrand's picture
Colleen Hildebrand
Elementary Special Education, Learning Disabled

I teach 4th - 6th grade Special Education, and I am constantly trying to get my kids to use their strengths in not only my classroom, but all classrooms. I spend half my day pulling kids out for reading and math, and the other half doing inclusion with the students. It amazes me that sometimes, my kids "get" what is going on before the other students. My students are the first ones to raise their hand and offer help to students who don't understand, they try their hardest on their work (most of the time!), and they are willing to help their teachers clean the board, pick up trash, and pass out papers. My students want to be teachers and doctors, and I am in no way going to stop them. Yes, right now, they may have trouble with their multiplication facts, but I will prepare them for college in 8-10 years, and I will do my best to have other teachers recognize that they have strengths, too.

Cheryl Mizell's picture

I love the way you related the art work to explain it to your son. I too, hope that some day in the future struggling students will be able to use their weaknesses to build strengths. These students are going to be seen more in the typical classroom with other students that may not be going through the same struggles. Wouldn't it be nice, if these students would be more understanding and help the struggling students find their strengths and use them in positive ways?

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