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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation
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Students Who Struggle: Focusing on Strengths

Heather Wolpert-Gawron

Middle School teacher by day, Tweenteacher by night
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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John Bennett's picture
John Bennett
Emeritus Faculty in the School of Engineering / University of Connecticut

While noone wants to be stereotyped, it's too engrained in society to respond to situations and individuals based upon stereotypes. In this case, all too often, individuals are considered based upon the "norm" or stereotype. The lives os all involved will be greatly enhanced by the expectation that everyone has both limitations and capabilities. Facilitating the optimization of the capabilities should be the goal of all who have contact - including the teachers and administrators in the school system, BUT certainly not limited to them.

Angie's picture

I believe that labels only work as much as they help us find tools that
Work. It's the word you type into the search engine on google.
It's only one way to find answers and solutions to try.
And just as any mistake, miscalculation or imperfect attempt leads us towards
betterment... A disability with a label only helps us as a word to find out more
About improvement. People like me with adult ADD can be successful if we view our
Inefficiencies as design solution tasks. :)

Amy Jackson's picture
Amy Jackson
Strengths Consultant, Director of Continuum Academy

Heather,
I totally agree that these qualities (that are seen as special needs) are the kids' strengths, but I think it a misnomer to call them weaknesses. They might be perceived as weaknesses in a traditional classroom and they might "weaken" a teacher who does not understand how to coach and channel that child's strengths, but they are not themselves weaknesses. I don't think this is an issue of semantics, either, but an important point in the challenge to create a language of strengths in our schools. Teachers, parents, and kids must be taught to speak this language!

Heather Wolpert-Gawron's picture
Heather Wolpert-Gawron
Middle School teacher by day, Tweenteacher by night
Blogger 2014

I agree, Amy. The naming of things is important. Yet if we are frightened to use the words to describe what is perceived, than we will never be brave enough to mount the reform. My point is that they are not weaknesses. These qualities can be challenging. They can be difficult. But in order to change the language, we must be willing to pinpoint the language we want changed.

I agree, weaknesses is not the point. Neither are flaws or foibles. However, perhaps there is a way to look at these words, not in a negative way, but through the lens of the person willing to learn and grow.

Thanks so much for your comment and your point of view. It's an important one to bring to this issue.

-Heather Wolpert-Gawron

Sue King's picture

What a beautiful, beautiful post. Your students are very fortunate to have you for a teacher.

Pamela DeRossitte's picture

I like that idea of teaching weakness can be a strength, and think that good literature, books, movies, bios, info from real life success stories, etc. can be very helpful. A few quick examples: The Tortoise and the Hare, The Little Engine that Could (good old stand-bys), The Frog Prince (original fairy tale), Forrest Gump, Abe Lincoln, Bios from minorities who succeeded, Jay Leno & Tom Cruise - dyslexic, physically disabled who have made great achievements .... we could get a long list going!

Angie's picture

I don't think anything can be called the word "weakness "
Only opportunities to problem solve and test solutions
A weakness only becomes one if we ignore a solution which could improve upon what is.
I have ADD traits. The word helps me read the evidence and research of others' in depth studies.
The solution for each of us lies in many words and searches for solutions
In our own lives and those of our students. Each student is an opportunity to
Optimize their life potential. That's what it's all about!

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

Or so the lawyers I approached told me to my chagrin. Afflicted with a case of ADHD, I was told by administrators to take the medication (Adderall) and fired for the alterations it made in my behavior. As anyone who has taken it knows, it puts the brain into overdrive, causing me to work at school every night until 7-8 pm, assign homework every day, and turn in as many as 35 grades per grading period. This was unacceptable to administrators who told me I was overloading the poor children, and that assigning computer-based homework was unfair to those who didn't have computers. Besides, they had perfectly good lesson plans that had been under development for the last decade and who was I to change it?

Jamie Wolf's picture

I agree, Heather, that many qualities can be viewed as strengths, if we understand them deeply enough. I do my best to support my students at their level and to accommodate their needs. My current challenge is how to support a five-year-old who arrived with the label AUT next to his name. If it were just him and me, I would have a much easier time with supporting and accommodating. With 23 other students to serve, his random frequent outbursts, name-calling (Crybaby! Liar!) and accusations (He pushed me!) with no basis, running out of the classroom, hitting and spitting at other children, and his insistence on always being first in line make supporting and accommodating him in my Kindergarten class (while doing the same for everyone else) a very challenging task.

Most of the previous posts concern adults who are very aware of their "conditions" and have learned, I imagine, first to cope with them then to make best use of them. I'm wondering how we help children who do not yet have that self-knowledge in the context of a classroom. How do we best serve everyone when we include kids whose brains seem to work very differently from the rest of the brains in the room and the accompanying behaviors make it difficult to maintain an effective learning environment?

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

Autism is sometimes seen as an extreme form of ADHD, whereby a child loses all outside perspective, focusing totally on his own needs and desires. While medicating these children may seem to be an easy escape, much better to focus on serving those needs. I'll argue that a classroom atmosphere with all of its distractions may not be the best environment for those with special needs. trouble is, few people have a handle on just what ADHD or autism is. I'll suggest that "hypoism" (as defined by Dr. Dan Umanoff) might be a better term, since it suggests that there's nothing really "wrong," just extreme. Perhaps this may turn out to be an evolutionary advantage, but in the meantime, the child is going to suffer at the hands of a society that attempts to rein all in. We have to decide, as a society, then, if we're going to hold all high-functioning children behind in the name of "discipline" or if we're going to place them in an environment-- albeit a more expensive one--with the probability that it will somehow be worth it someday. After all, these diagnosed ADHD kids may yet turn out to be top research scientists or ultra computer nerds.

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