Among my favorite experiences as a teacher, and there have been many, is highlighting a student’s shining ability. Regardless of documented IQ , each student is assuredly gifted in at least one area. Everyone has a gift, without exception. Students with Intellectual Disability, who struggle with academics and functional life skills, are identified for services in part with a lower “IQ” score. Read the psychologist’s report from the evaluation and match it up with your own experience with the child and you will see a gift in at least one area. Perhaps it is Verbal Ability (excellent communicator), strength in spelling, or they are exceptionally bodily-kinesthetic (physically coordinated). Whatever it is, it is their special skill. Highlighting and celebrating it visibly in the classroom will improve that student’s peer relationships, sense of personal worth and future outcomes. Parents and teachers can advocate for and find those strengths.
I knew a boy who could draw without looking at the paper, while listening to classroom directions. His accuracy was amazing, much like that of Stephen Wiltshire, an artist with autism, who could recall whole cities in his mind’s eye and recreate them in vast drawings. I knew another boy who knew the name of every single person in school and would address others with genuine interest, bringing joy to all he encountered. There is a meaningful place in the world for theses skills, even though language or basic skills may be challenged.
Learners with dyslexia in classrooms without differentiation struggling to read out loud or write on demand without technology may appear unintelligent to their peers. However, they can be masters of debate, comprehension, visual thinking and group work. If allowed to delve into deeper learning, dyslexia is a gift. The settings in which they excel more closely resemble today’s employment settings. I’ve also encountered young people who would barely speak out in a teacher-led class become leaders of their peers in outdoor challenges. The point is clear, everyone has an area in which they are gifted and if we are to teach for the “real world” we need to deliver and prepare for it in the classroom with varied opportunities. Parents can help too by valuing and encouraging their child’s unique talents and confidence. Teaching to Multiple Intelligences builds that confidence and allows each student to shine, with improved peer relationships and respect for each other. Students learn to lean on each other and build on their future work skills, seeking out experts when needed and having time managers and leaders, just to name a few roles that are valued in the work world.
The cookie cutter approach will yield the usual results, some on top, some on the bottom, most in the middle. However, that won’t teach a community of learners that they have something special to offer, or give hope for future opportunities. The well-known autism speaker Temple Grandin tells the world her accomplishments derive from teachers who brought them out in the right settings.
Ms. Grandin was fascinated by livestock corrals and that fascination led to solving problems in the livestock industry of production and humane treatment. In the wrong setting, Ms. Grandin’s special talents could have been laid to waste, illustrating the importance of recognizing and valuing different types of thinkers. Watch her Ted Talk for a fascinating and useful insider’s perspective on thinking in pictures: http://tinyurl.com/GrandinTedTalk. In her talk, she frequently references the importance of her art education and the science teacher teacher who encouraged her special skills.
General education teachers have opportunities to support students who think differently, such as students with autism who may think in pictures, by allowing for choice in the classroom. Special educators ensure students have the specific supports needed to progress alongside their peers. Ms. Grandin’s teaching tips highlight the need for differentiation and specialized supports, including visual tools for grasping mathematical concepts and the use of assistive technology to support writing.
In the differentiated classroom, all students may be asked the same inquiry question, but allowed to answer through a choice of mediums such as art, music or performance. All students have a better chance of achieving higher-order thinking and showing off their reasoning when given this opportunity, rather than being held back, for example, by a specific learning disability in writing. Writing of course needs to be worked on, but there can and should be times when it is not the only avenue of expression, and when assistive technology supports allow for the flow of ideas onto paper.
Parents may contribute a great deal to the success of the student by promoting their student’s confidence in themselves and their abilities, which may be neurotypically different. That’s something to remember when hearing the report on your child stating they have a disability and need for services. Listen for the areas of strength and high performance and build on them for the future. You never know, your child’s love for social interaction or telling long, incredible, stories may make them the next big thing.