A child’s reality is created by the words adults use to describe him. If adults continually talk about student deficits, the student will define himself by what he lacks. This is often the case for kids with attention and learning disorders, who are reminded daily of the skills they’re missing. They think: If they see themselves as deficient, then what’s the point of trying at school?
Using a strengths-based model of teaching kids with disabilities gives kids the chance to redefine themselves and their education in terms of what makes them great — and kids with ADHD have a lot of great qualities. They tend to be more creative, innovative, hyperfocused, and have an incredible sense of humor, which are among the reasons I so love working with them.
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Kids come with strengths and weaknesses, and harnessing the strengths leads to improvement across the board. It also creates a more engaged learner. In fact, a collection of Gallup data reported that kids who were taught in a strengths-based model earned higher GPAs and were absent from school less often. This is also true in the grownup world. We choose jobs based on our natural strengths, and probably wouldn’t show up to work if we didn’t have opportunities to use our skills on a daily basis.
Helping a child discover and leverage his unique skills helps him develop the confidence to be a learner, and the courage to overcome his weaknesses. Creating that positive atmosphere also makes collaborating with other teachers more productive and enjoyable as they begin to acknowledge one another’s aptitudes.
While adopting a strengths-based model consists mainly of shifting to a positive mindset—acknowledging and creating opportunities for students to let their skills shine— there are some tricks to effectively shift the balance.
1. Measure strengths. Some kids have an idea of their own abilities, but many don’t know for sure. Even if they do, taking a quiz gives them a chance to say, out loud, what makes them great. You can find a series of great tests at UPenn, which contribute to a body of research. You can also find a lower-key Multiple Intelligences questionnaire for free at Scholastic.
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2. Notice and tell kids’ about their strengths daily. It’s important to a) identify what exactly students did well, and b) pair it with an acknowledgement of their effort. Talent alone doesn’t get anyone to the Olympics, my friends, and hard work needs its due credit. If you’re feeling like something is missing in your classroom, challenge yourself to compliment each student daily.
3. Bait for success. Some kids give up on school at a young age when they feel like a perpetual failure. As a teacher, it’s difficult to acknowledge a student’s talents if she never demonstrates those talents. It’s very important — especially for difficult students — to create situations where those learners can be successful, in order for you to point out how skilled they are. They might have a creative solution, a unique insight, or the ability to be helpful when no one else was around. Give them bonus points if they see that no one else was able to accomplish that task (even if it’s because no one else was there). Every day, find some way to tell them: “Man, I am so lucky to have you as a student!”
4. Give options. It can be hard to plan for a group with wide-ranging abilities. Did I say “hard?” It’s impossible. Almost. Providing options for a kid to show what he knows allows him to put his talents front and center and to take charge of his own education. This increases engagement and creates a more independent and self-advocating learner. It is an investment.
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5. Teach collaboration. None of us accomplishes anything alone, and nobody is good at everything. Allow children to recognize each other’s specialties and use them together to create something great. Plan group projects, teach students to ask each other questions if they get stuck, and compliment one another throughout the process. Then watch your class collectively develop a great attitude as they learn!”