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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depeatdoda's picture

I wonder if students who have "weaknesses" see themselves as having these weaknesess? Too often I think for those who do not try to understand a student's situation deeply, call it a weakness as a way to cope with their own lack of understanding.

Heather, I really like your idea of thinking and calling a student's "disability" as a "superpower". Imagine - how would that change the way students think about themselves? How would that change the way we approach teaching and learning?

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

Imagine - how would that change the way our students see themselves?

Rhetorical question; you know the answer.

How would that change the way we approach teaching and learning to all our students? The amount of change we'd see is commensurate to the amount of community involvement engendered. From what I've seen that answer is shockingly small, partly because the school districts in the inner city communities are vulnerable to political vicissitudes that necessarily interfere with any program that veers from the "ordinary."

Angie's picture

I think there are many strengths that result from learning disabilities. I work for a company called Reading Horizons that helps students with learning disabilities learn to read and from studying dyslexia and other reading disabilities, I've come to agree that teachers should focus on the strengths these conditions do offer the student. For example, dyslexics are very right brained and creative, a very beneficial skill, but when they only focus on their reading difficulties they fail to see that they naturally have one of the most beneficial strengths: creativity. I agree that the strengths of these students should be harnessed.

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

It takes an imaginative and creative person to do so, Angie, something NOT encouraged in the modern public school environment. Deviation from the prescribed Lesson Plan is grounds for termination, particularly for those more expensive older teachers who often have issues with using computers. Despite their professed support of multiculturalism, diversity of thought is typically not sought by administrators who far too often are products of the pedagogical structure rather than innovators of it. Perhaps what is most needed is a re-evaluation of what makes a good administrator and a REDUCTION in the pay they receive relative to teachers.

Destiny Hoffman's picture

I think that your idea of turnin the disibilities or even characteristics of students that are normally seen as a negative into a positive is a great idea. This can only be done with as you said a great classroom community. I think that sometimes we are so worried about our day to day activities that we forget to incorporate community building into our classrooms. However, I have also seen students that do have true ADHD and are not treated be very much disliked by thier peers , and their peers often complain about them at home to their parents. So though I see that students need to know and understand eachother so that we can turn their negatives into positives, there are some instinaces where that isn't goting to happen until they are appropriatly reined in possibly by medication. With this particular student I know that once he was medicated the students began to see him in a whole nother light and accepted him and worked with him,

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

Idon't know "that we we forget to incorporate community building into our classrooms," Destiny; it's more a matter of being told not to. Instilling moral values is perhaps more carefully monitored in public schools than whether the subject matter is taught. The exigencies of administration is that they'll be in more trouble for allowing something controversial to be discussed than they will if nothing of substance is taught.

Diagnosing ADHD is something only doctors can do, but as someone with a genuine, full-blown case of it, I have a pretty idea of who does and who doesn't. I'm also thankful that my parents were never given the option of drugging me as a youngsters, for although I may have had fewer problems dealing with my peers, it would have shaped my adult character in ways I cannot say for sure would have been for the better. the problem with drugging teenagers is that we do not know how the medication will affect their moods or whether the modified behavior is even an improvement.

I'm not an absolutist on this; I do think some children would be better off with small doses of ritalin (as opposed to, say, an anti-depressant), but I'd hate to make that judgment.

LACampbell's picture

I believe that by seeing the qualities that special needs students have as gifts to the classroom, then each student can learn a lot more than they ever thought they would. I currently have a student who is struggling in all aspects of learning in my classroom. She, however, is eternally happy and shows everyone around her the joy that life brings. Every single student in my class jumps at the opportunity to be her partner or help her in any way possible. Why? This is because she's constantly seeing the beauty in learning, in life, in the opportunities that they have on a regular basis, and she brings it to their attention. I'm constantly hearing wow's whenever a student works with her. She opens their eyes to a world full of potential, hope, and excitement. She is a gift to each of my students and me! Her eternal happiness is a strength that challenges and helps learning. She never gives up and will always eventually overcome whatever it is she's struggling with because this quality allows her to be a magnet to those around her.

Erin Elliott's picture

So many interesting comments, one main thread amoungst them all, can differences in students really be considered weaknesses? I don't believe so. I see these differences or weaknesses as challenges, as new ways to learn or different ways to learn. I see my ADD as a way to do multiple things at once. It's all in the way that you view it. If you're told that you have a disability, I believe you live that way. I look at my little preschoolers in the special education program that I teach, they just see other children surrounding them and they adapt to each other. If we all see each other as people some with different abilities than others, then we should be able to see the differences in the way that we learn as well.

kara's picture

Your statement at the end about how we can change the thinking of our society from stereotypes to strengths is such a powerful and positive way to think. I teach in the special education field and I believe that "all students can learn". No matter what it is or how small it may be, everyone can learn something. I also spend countless hours teaching and preaching to other teaching that my students can be successful as well if they just knew.. if they just knew how to handle students with ADHD, Autism, Emotional issues or if they just knew how to switch up their instruction. I believe in this with all my heart and I feel that it is my job to advocate for those who can't. In a world that can be so negative, you statement is very powerful and uplifting!

Lisa Pizzuti's picture

I love your suggestion of special needs as super powers. As a parent of an autistic child, I have always felt that these children have a uniqueness to them. Everyone has his or her strength, and I believe that these students are generally very creative.

As a teacher, I can see that value in this creativity in the classroom. These students bring a lot to the table, but it is not always in the traditional sense. I appreciate your sharing the story of the two boys who shared how their ADHD affected them. I hope that the experience did help the other students to empathize with them and better understand their contributions to the classroom.

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