The Power of Student Strengths
Stop focusing on rote remedial skills & give learning-challenged kids a chance to shine!
At first, I wanted to say no. I’m an elementary school tutor, and she was a high school student! I don’t feel qualified to teach High School English. I could proofread a paper, sure, but I don’t know the current standards and expectations, so I was going to refer Gabi* to a friend who does. However, her mother was persistent.
“My daughter Gabi is in 11th grade,” she wrote in her e-mail, “but she is not at the high school level. She has several learning challenges and is working at about a 5th-grade level. She will be in special ed online classes, but she’ll still need help with reading and writing. You come highly recommended.”
Okay, then. Fifth grade was very familiar; that’s the grade I taught in the classroom. I agreed to give it a try. However, to put a further wrinkle into working with Gabi, it had to be over Zoom. She lives too far from me to make in-person feasible, and the pandemic started soon after. To this day, I have never met her in person!
As I learned more from Gabi’s mother, her story sounded a bit similar to my son’s. It seemed like her schools had assumed she couldn’t do things because of her diagnosis. She had even been in some of the promising programs we had tried (we put our son on a train to get him to a private school at one point), but all the promises end in disappointment when your child is still not getting what they need.
One of the significant issues I have seen is, even though it has been well-known for a long time that learning disabilities are not a reflection of IQ, special ed programs and some teachers treat the kids like they’re dumb and set low standards for them. The idea of giving them grade-level work with accommodations — or working up to that — does not even seem to be on the table. My perspective is if their intelligence is typical, why do anything else?
I look at what the student can do — a strengths-based perspective — and instead of “working on weaknesses,” we set out to complete what we need to do in the session. I start from the assumption that they can do it, but we need to figure out how to work with the disabilities (something any general education “classroom teacher” should be doing). The special ed teachers, OTs, speech pathologists, etc., are responsible for teaching the student anything they can do to cope with the effects of the disability from their side. The student needs to learn what helps them so they can advocate for themselves.
So, under those circumstances, Gabi came to me with little confidence in her abilities. She did have multiple learning disabilities, but she needed more direct instruction tailored to her needs and level. She was able to learn things when it was just the two of us that she probably couldn’t in a special ed classroom. For example, I would model how to begin a sentence based on the question given and then have her tell me her answer verbally. Then I could hold it in my short-term memory (something impossible for her) and slowly say it back to her while she typed it. It was still her answer, but without this accommodation (which could be done with a recording device for independence), she would probably skip the assignment or give very brief answers that she could manage to remember. With this accommodation, she could provide a complete response more typical of a high school student.
Over the weeks and months, we worked on many aspects of reading and writing, using her assigned work from her high school classes, which was required to be at grade level, but could have accommodations like a recorded version. One nice thing about one-on-one is you can’t blend in and nod your head like you know what’s going on. I knew for sure if Gabi read a word correctly or understood what was going on in her reading. I was kind and patient and gave loads of encouragement, but I didn’t let her gloss over anything. Soon her special ed teacher moved her up to a more advanced group.
As I saw what Gabi could do, I also sent resources to her mom about options after high school. Initially, they were thinking of hourly work, but I was thinking of Community College or a College Transition program. Gabi wanted to work in a dentist’s office, and possibly be a hygienist someday. I suggested she see what courses might be available for concurrent enrollment. At the same time, she and her mother also looked into internships.
This year we continued to work together as she finished high school courses and started at a new Transitional College for young adults with learning disabilities. She started taking the classes she would need to be a dental assistant and began a paid internship helping out at a dental office. Her skills in reading and writing continued to grow exponentially. This last semester she took creative writing. She wrote some fantastic poetry and short stories. In our final tutoring session of the year, she mentioned that she might want to be a writer too! (Be still my heart, right?)
I am so excited to say that she will graduate with honors next week. One of her poems will be featured in the program.
This is what a strengths-based perspective can do.
*Name and personal details have been changed to protect my student’s privacy. All progress information is 100% true!