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Students Who Struggle: Focusing on Strengths

Heather Wolpert-Gawron

ELA Teacher, Middle School, Curriculum Coordinator TOSA
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The first paycheck I ever received sent me to an art gallery to buy a print of an artist I had seen years before. 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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Heather Wolpert-Gawron

ELA Teacher, Middle School, Curriculum Coordinator TOSA

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Cristina's picture

Many of us only listen to the label, but never take the time to truly understand the disability. Many of the students with disabilities have stengths, but many chose to only focus on the weaknesses.

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

I think teachers try too hard to "convince" students, esp. teens. As they get older, taking a less forceful stand allows them a broader opportunity to choose and learn to make decisions on their own. Though I will not contradict a doctor's porders, taking meds is something I'd never advocate. Ritalin does change moods and keeps some people awake at night. It may also result in an underweight kid, since it is an appetite suppressant. While I'll never tell a parent not to give the child meds, I will suggest they check out its side effects (all drugs have deleterious side effects) if they have any doubts. It's also my understanding that if a child doesn't have ADHD, the Ritalin is not prticularly helpful. In addition, there is some research indicating it may weaken hearts. My doctors insist that I have periodic EKGs.

jeff mertens's picture

Heather, what a well stated argument. I was particularly struck by your call for professionals to come forward and point to their accomplishments. I was a struggling student who was only much later in life diagnosed with ADHD. I would also urge my fellow teachers to canvass for support from their acquaintences who may have struggled in school (and life!)due to learning difficulties.

Mark's picture

I guess I'm lazy or overwhelmed by the sheer volume of responses, but did we ever get that list going of the best stories in turning a weakness into a strength? stories, people, etc...

Chasya Bernstein's picture
Chasya Bernstein
12th grade social studies teacher, Broooklyn, N.Y.

AS a high school teacher, one of the first things I do is share with my students my own 'difficulties' in learning. I encourage them to examine what helps them succeed in the school environment (metacognitive reflection) and to make whatever adjustments are needed to their study habits, attempts at behavior control, etc. They know I have been successful in my post-grad work at a prestigious university, and am considered a master teacher in our school, so they realize that 'weaknesses' are only 'situations that demand adjustments, sometimes hard ones'. I agree with the post which said that these are all opportunites for problem solving, but there are limits to what a student can do for him/herself and to the accommodations a teacher can make, given the reality of 25 - 30 other students who also need our attention.

Lynn Munoz's picture

Once again an issue arises that if people in general, students in particular, had more education about the issues, all would benefit.

For instance, I have ADHD. I made it through school and undergraduate school. I was not given medication for the condition until I was 32. By that time, although educated, my impulsivity had wreaked havok on my finances, my relationships, my inability to complete projects, etc. My inability to sit still created difficulties in school, as a child and as an adult.

With the medication, I am a more focused individual. My impulsivity is curbed. My hyperactivity is curbed. I purposely picked online education for my Masters so that I would not be expected to "sit" for a prescribed length of time at a prescribed day and time.

Also, CHADD (Children Having ADD) is an excellent website for information regarding symptomology, research, teaching strategies, parenting strategies and even legalities of dealing with children and/or adults with ADHD.

My son has ADHD as well. It is not a friendly condition; although, it has been linked with increased intelligence. The learning differences are significant. ADHD is also usually accompanied with additional issues, which can happen when the brain is wired a little backwards. My son has Sensory Processing Disorder, i.e., difficulties with regulating external stimulation with internal reactivity. This in addition to his ADHD makes him a special needs learner. But, on a really good day, if he has taken his medicine, if he has had enough sleep, if he has eaten well, no outsider would look at him and "see" a disability. Therein lies the rub. People assume because these kids have a good day once they should be able to replicate it daily. The reality is, we are all bound to our individual biochemistry. Any medication we take or do not take, vitamins, herbal remedies, combine with stimuli in the external environment, combine with our nutritional choices, getting enough rest and/or exercise, etc. The point is, it is complicated and there are a lot of variables.

Trying to create a "fixed" stereotype or definition for all kids with ADHD would be like trying to pull one color yellow from a bundle of yellow variations...impossible. Each person is unique. We learn what their strengths are and use them to their advantage.

For my son, structure, routine, affection, connection, interactive playtime and kinesthetics are all keys to his success. He could not learn how to count to 100 until I had him pace out in groups of 10. He remembers his spelling words by jumping or walking them out. He is a mover, feeler, doer, builder. Trying to get him to sit still is like asking the sun not to come up. But, when he gets in trouble at school the first thing they take away is his recess... movement. The research is clear that for ADHD the number one best treatment is exercise, exercise, exercise. Exercise creates the release of good hormones in addition to helping release all the excess energy.

Sorry, this is a HUGE topic for me.

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

The vaguely worded, inequitably applied laws regarding special education in this country pose a legalistic danger to schools as they continue to continue to ignore the fact that few have grappled with the ADHD issue as anything more than a label to apply in order to get a student medicated into submission. Trouble is, very few special education programs view ADHD as anything but a disability; few see the tremendous opportunity a properly challenged/stimulated child can afford a school seeking to raise its scholastic profile. ADHD students are too often seen as uncooperative, disruptive narcissists who need medication in order to prevent endless behavioral consequences. This shunning extends to maverick teachers, some of the finest minds in education--but often ADHD-inflicted themselves--being shunted into teaching classes of "slow" children instead of the underachieving, but mentally gifted who may need nothing more than a challenge to jump-start their intellectual participation. Many of these are simply bored, but given their proclivities toward mischief, they're often punished rather than given opportunities to demonstrate their special skills. The greatest failure of public schools is the squandering of intellectual talent in the name of molding society and maintaining a degree of obeisance. Some studies suggest that ADHD offers some evolutionary advantages, since the person who does not see things the same as others may actually have a better eye on the future because of it.

An excellent Frontline presentation on this can be found at:

Matthew Kitchens's picture
Matthew Kitchens
Seventh-grade reading/ELA teacher from Ennis, Texas


Your post reminded me of the Bible. In 2 Corinthians 12:7-9, Paul writes, "And lest I should be exalted above measure by the abundance of the revelations, a thorn in the flesh was given to me, a messenger of Satan to buffet me, lest I be exalted above measure. Concerning this thing I pleaded with the Lord three times that it might depart from me. And He said to me, 'My grace is sufficient for you, for My strength is made perfect in weakness.' Therefore most gladly I will rather boast in my infirmities, that the power of Christ may rest upon me. Therefore I take pleasure in infirmities, in reproaches, in needs, in persecutions, in distresses, for Christ's sake. For when I am weak, then I am strong."

I reference this verse many times throughout any given week. And I always come back to two things: God's response to Paul, "My grace is sufficient for you, for My strength is made perfect in weakness." - along with Paul's reflection on his situation, "Therefore I take pleasure in infirmities, in reproaches, in needs, in persecutions, in distresses, for Christ's sake. For when I am weak, then I am strong."

God speaks to me through these sagacious sentences - and I find the strength to continue in my quest to serve Him through teaching and mentoring the youth in my community.

After reading your post, I'm also reminded of "George", a borderline autistic child who, because of AYP requirements, was placed recently in my fourth-period reading/ELA class.

Prior to George's immersion in my class, the boy was not the most popular child at my school. Most kids rarely spoke to him, and several enjoyed picking on him for the sheer pleasure of inciting a rise out of him. When George entered my fourth-period class for the first time, most of the students emitted a collective groan. I instantly and sternly addressed their rudeness. I had time to excrete just one sentence and was drawing breath to deliver more when "Mark", one of our school's up-and-coming athletes, did an incredibly brave thing. "Come here, George," he said, "you sit right here by me."

George took his seat next to Mark and appeared unconcerned by the attention he was receiving. I praised Mark in front of the class for his actions, which I considered so heroic that I called his mother on my lunch break to apprise her of the situation.

George has been a part of our fourth-period family for about six weeks. He and Mark are inseparable. Mark helps George during class assignments. They often capture the attention of the class by laughing out, which, after I inquire as to the nature of the disturbance, I'm pleased to discover that one or both has uncovered some revelation that sheds light on the topic we're covering. Their exploits have even prompted "Eric" and "Billy", two other athletes, to join George's and Mark's table.

About three weeks ago, my classes drew parts to play in our school's "Middle Ages Day", the highlight of the sixth grade's cross-curricular study of the Medieval era. On Middle Ages Day, students and staff come to school dressed in costumes that reflect Medieval social hierarchy and participate in several activities - from archery and bocce ball to pennant making and blacksmithing.

On the day we drew parts, I knew my fourth-period class had taken major strides toward proper maturity when George drew the role of "king" and the rest of his fourth-period family cheered genuinely - and raucously.

Their actions that day remind me why I love teaching. The encouragement my fourth period displayed to George is something a standardized test doesn't - can't - measure. Instead of acquiring some skill that would help the school meet AYP, my students learned a lesson superior in value: They learned to be responsible, encouraging, and caring members of society.

Dominique Blum's picture
Dominique Blum
Seventh grade science teacher from Jacksonville, Florida


Thanks so much for your perspective. My classes are currently populated with children coming from varied backgrounds, ADHD/ADD, etc. I think that middle school in particular are very formative, yet snesitive years, and I believe that teaching our students to recognize things that may be seen as weaknesses and use them as strengths, helps to mold our students into successful human beings who have a sensible idea of how to overcome obstacles and operate in the real world.

Kori O.'s picture

I also feel that building a welcoming,caring, and safe community in the classroom helps to build the relationships between students in a classroom. I have a student this year who has been misunderstood by most people his entire life because he has ASD. He is very high functioning and was not actually diagnosed until this year (5th grade). His world has spiraled out of control this year. He has required a tremendous amount of attention and time from me. His behavior has become intolerable to most of the students in my class and to me at times. However, because of the time spent on creating a caring community in the classroom, the student are responding to him in a positive way. I have been able to discuss his differences with the other students while he has been out of the classroom. We discussed the strengths his has and why he is a good friend and member of our community. We talked about other differences, very successful people who have disabilities, etc. Many of the other students decided to open up about themselves and their difficulties or disabilities. After this discussion, the students gained a new understanding of him. They have learned to appreciate his differences and to include him in activities, encourage him, and even compliment him frequently. The climate has changed, but it has taken a lot of work. I want my students to feel comfortable around other students regardless of their differences. I want them to learn tolerance, compassion, and how to be leaders in their own communities. We have to facilitate these discussions and create and environment in our classes that promote positivity.

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