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

Gene Disorder Linked to ADHD. Finding bolsters idea that condition has biological basis,

I've been writing about this for 15 years. ADHD is actually Hypoism and ADHD is caused by dopamine activity deficiency, the definition of Hypoism. Volkow and Wang, et al., JAMA. 2009;302(10):1084-1091.

BJ's picture

I have several students in my regular education classroom with diagnosed disabilities. I love that you said that a child's weakness can sometimes be their strength. Talking about their weaknesses will build a type of unity in the classroom, because everyone has a weakness. I love the idea about discussing them in the classroom instead of keeping them hidden. I feel that sometimes these children try to hide their struggles. Letting them know that they have a support system may help them to flourish in the classroom.

Kimberley's picture
Intervention Specialist

Some educators are so quick to judge our children instead of giving them a chance to show what they can achieve. Labels are put in place in order to help direct educators in the right direction when it comes to individualizing instruction, unfortunately some would rather judge the child based on that label. Although many student's struggle with some aspects in their academic process, these same students tend to excel in different areas yet never get the recognition for their effort. The important thing to remember is that no two individuals are the same and that the point of labeling them is to be able to provide the individualized instruction based on their individualized educational needs. It is very unfortunate that all teachers have not yet figured this out.

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

Too often, Kimberley, labels are affixed for bureaucratic purposes, to gain government funding or to give excuses for not raising testing scores. It's important that people realize that ADHD or hypoism is not a disability, but more of a "differently oriented" mind that doesn't function with the common rewards system. These children need to be ultra-stimulated, not patronized. They must be constantly challenged, not patted on the back and told that "it's okay if you can't do that." Some of these children can be ultra-achievers in tomorrow's world, but schools have done more to handicap them through benign neglect than facilitate them. Charter schools that are oriented toward excellence and push students toward achieving their best can provide astounding results. The babysitter/patronizer model that lowers the bar so all can "pass" is the bane of modern education.

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

BJ, while I understand your point, the idea that unity can be built be exposing weaknesses has the inherent danger of allowing exploitation. Some secrets are best left unsaid in a classroom environment simply because most teachers haven't the psychological training to deal with the likelihood that inappropriate revelations are likely to be made requiring the adult{s} to address them without judgment or punishment.

Sarah Dautrich's picture

I think that many of our special needs students are so stigmatized by society in trying to "normal" that they lose some of their unique individuality. I try to instill in all of my students that just because they struggle to read a book doesn't mean they can't tear an engine of a vehicle apart and put it back together. IN college, we are taught that we should assess students according to their learning style. Yet, they are ridiculed by their peers and society if they do not "fit" what society thinks they should be like. I think all students should be celebrated for their strengths and weaknesses. It's part of who they are.

Sarah Dautrich's picture

I agree that autism is often misdiagnosed as extreme ADHD. On the other side of the spectrum though, many students who have autism many have a very difficult time socializing and communicating effectively with others, yet are very bright academically. I also agree that we should not stifle their abilities or creativity but find a way in which to channel it positively. We never really know how our actions as educators impact our students, but I would hope that our actions are done in order to help students be the best that they can be. As educators we should celebrate our students for their individual strengths and weaknesses.

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

Sarah, teenagers are locked in an interminable struggle to be "unique" all the while trying to "fit in." Striking out on their own can leave them isolated, a fear often amplified by social pressures to conform. Teachers are tasked to instill "discipline" which necessarily requires the yet-experimenting teens to give up certain aspects of individuality for the good of the group. We rarely discuss how this balance can be achieved. Too little conformist pressure and we have narcissists nearly void of human empathy. Too much pressure and we produce automatons with little ability to think for themselves.

Autism may be an extreme form of ADHD, but the label should not matter. In education, a label is simply a means to get funding but cost/benefit issues must be considered, since such labels can stigmatize or lead to further segregation for those who struggle to make friends already. Innovative approaches are needed to address students afflicted with extreme cases of ADHD, but this may involve mind-stretching activities that put them in the realm of "nerd" or "weirdo" further complicating the teenage dilemma.

Computers are a double-edged sword for those so inflicted. On one hand, they can find others with similar mental paths and societal problems, but these people may be distant or disingenuous and the issue of relating to those within one's environment remains.

What's lacking is the honest, often moralistic discussion of scholastic goals and social norms. Given the task to educate, rarely is them time for reflection and introspection afforded in a lesson. I have not been in a Houston-area school that structures any forum that allows teachers, parents, and students to have open, frank discussions that would consider the concepts of "community values" and "group norms." At a point in their lives where parental input is crucial, too often the parents are left out of the activity cycle altogether.

Chelsea Jones's picture


I really appreciate how you point out that these children are just as capable as other students, despite their presumed "weakness". Too often, teachers and students alike tend to write off these students as lazy, incompetent, or just not interested in taking responsiblity for their learning. I love that you have a classroom set up in which communication can be open, and students can talk about their differences, and begin acquiring a better understanding of their peers. I agree with a great deal of understanding and patience, these students can realize and reach their full potential. I also agree that it would be extremely beneficial to allow students with ADD and ADHD, as well as numerous other "disabilities" to see others who have found sucess, despite their "weakness". As others have said, your students are extremely fortunate to have you as their teacher and I applaud your own ability to look deeper into your students and their potential!

depeatdoda's picture

I wonder if in the eyes of those who have these "weaknesses" see themselves as having a weakness. Sometimes I wonder if those who don't take the time to understand the student's situation deeply, call it a weakness because they cannot handle it's uncommon characteristics. Heather, I really like your idea about considering what we call "weaknesses" as "superpowers". Imagine - how would that change the way our students see themselves? How would that change the way we approach teaching and learning to all our students?

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