Over the years, I have observed so many students get upset by the fact they had “autism” or “Asperger syndrome” or “ADHD.” While they could verbalize these terms aloud, they still didn't seem to understand what their learning challenges actually were.
I have also observed many adults explaining to students that the reason they were having difficulty socializing, studying, and learning was because they had “autism” or “Asperger’s syndrome”, or “ADHD.” I thought this was a really abstract way of explaining to students with limited abstract thinking how best to understand their own learning challenges. I also have observed that many of our smart but socially not-in-step students were using their label as an excuse for not working at learning new ideas; they interpreted the fact that they had a diagnostic label as a reason to not continue to learn.
I have also been inspired by the writings of other professionals who describe learning abilities and challenges within a framework of “multiple intelligences” (see Howard Gardner). Essentially this means that each of us have different types of intelligences and we each have our strengths and weaknesses with regard to our own brain’s design.
Strengths and Weakness Lesson
The lesson I developed is about teaching our students and adults how to understand their social learning challenges in the context of their overall abilities and then how they can use their strengths to learn more strategies related to their weaknesses. I have done this lesson with students as young as eight years old and as old as they come.
The lesson is very simple. To save explaining it all with words, see the chart below.
Here are some basic things I do as I develop this type of chart with the student:
- Each chart is completely personalized for the person I am developing it with. It is not about recording test scores that purport to show competencies. The chart is about how the student perceives his or her own strengths and weaknesses. For this reason, you create the chart using any areas that are individualized to the student.
- To determine the ideas/areas to post on the chart, take time to talk to students and listen to what they enjoy doing and what they feel they do well.
- Always start by graphing out their strengths. It is good to show many perceived strengths. Again, strengths are not about listing academic tasks exclusively. If a student says she is really good at playing a specific computer game or Legos then we make that a category and talk about what number to give it on the chart.
- It is also important to find some areas where students perceive they are just OK – their skills are not good or bad. They perceive themselves to be similar to the average person in that area of functioning, or a “5” on the scale. With kids, you can use language such as:
- “First tell me what you think you are really good at compared to other kids you know.” After you and the student have listed three to five areas on the chart then say,
- “Now tell me something you are just OK at – you’re like most other kids during playing or learning.”
- “Now tell me some things that your brain doesn't make easy for you…things you have noticed most other people can learn easier than you.”
- If students aren't used to thinking about how they function compared to others, I will shift gears to explore the idea that we all think about what others around us are doing. At this point, I will ask the student to tell me things like:
- Who talks a lot in your class?
- Who doesn't tend to do their homework?
- Who is really good in math?
- Who is super friendly?
- Who is mean?
By having this discussion, you help them notice that they are aware of others’ strengths and weaknesses. This often helps them put their own abilities in perspective.
- If students can’t answer the questions, I go back and suggest ideas similar to my earlier conversation with them. Ultimately I am doing this to help them put their learning challenges in context. Our students with social emotional learning challenges are usually not good at spontaneously describing what they don’t do well; this is not something people usually talk about. Some ideas I ask them to consider include:
- How do you do with keeping track of your homework assignments and doing the homework?
- How do you do with writing paragraphs or reports (writing short responses on paper may have been a strength, while writing longer information is often a challenge)
- How do you do making guesses about what you are reading?
- How do you do with playing in a group?
- How do you do with getting into a group?
- How do you do talking to other kids?
- Or I may just ask them about their "social skills”
It’s important not to overwhelm students when discussing things that are harder for them to do. This is uncomfortable for most of us! Choose some main idea to explore based on what concerns exist with a particular student. At this point, students are usually willing to list these as weaknesses compared to the other areas on the chart.
- What to do if students rate a weakness as a perceived strength?
I routinely make a chart of my brain’s strengths and weaknesses so they experience their teacher/leader admitting to weaknesses. Then, I'll write the area they mentioned as a strength on the chart and pause there to discuss it more in the context of the others’ strengths. More often than not, students decide it should be listed as a lower number on the scale. However, I have worked with students who are genuinely afraid to list something as a weakness. In those cases I reassure them that everyone has weaknesses, including me. On rare occasions, I have said to a student, “Actually, this is an area that you are not as good at and this is why you are here today.” Then I lower the ranking on that social area on the scale compared to the other areas listed, while explaining that it is expected and OK that people have learning weaknesses.
- If you are familiar with the teachings of Social Thinking® you will also be able to explain how socially-based learning weaknesses (organizational skills, written expression, social relationships, reading comprehension, etc.) are all related. Making this connection with our students helps them see how they don’t have all that many weaknesses. Instead, there is a weak root system that leads to different areas of weakness. (For more information on this please read about the ILAUGH Model of Social Thinking in the book Inside Out: What Makes Persons with Social Cognitive Deficits Tick. This concept is also the focus of the article, "Social Thinking - Social Learning Tree.")
- You will find your students are usually pretty honest about themselves. It is often amazing how they are willing to talk about the fact they have strengths and weaknesses when it’s presented this way. When they have strengths in language and learning facts, we can then explain how these abilities will help them learn more information in the areas where learning is not as easy or natural to them.
- Once the chart is completed, I then go on to talk about what it means to have a learning disability: that the student has relative learning weaknesses compared to their strengths or even the “OK” areas of learning. Remarkably, many of our students don’t understand what learning disabilities or differences are, so they react to their weaknesses with anger rather than understanding they can usually use some of their learning strengths to help them in their weaker areas. I have worked through anger about learning differences much more successfully using this scale.
- You will find that your students/adults are much more willing to discuss how they learn, what they are good at, and what they are not so astute at learning in this context, compared to simply talking to them about the fact they have ASD, AS, ADHD, etc.
- Once you’ve reached this point with students, the next step is to discuss specific things they can work at learning to boost their area of weakness to a higher number on the scale. I also explain that they likely will never get their weak area as high as their strong areas, because their strengths are what their brain is naturally good at learning. But they can improve how they do in their weaker areas as long as they work at learning!
Once you make the chart you can refer back to it session after session. It is also a helpful tool when explaining to parents/caregivers what our students’ labels really mean in terms of their learning abilities.
A note on language: The language-based explanation, “Your brain doesn't make this easy for you,” helps many of our students put their challenges in context. Make sure you regularly point out when they are doing things their brains do make easy for them, and not only talk about their areas of weakness or areas that need improving.
Final, final note: The “art” of teaching is critical in this lesson. Stay in step with your students emotionally while you go through this lesson. Spend some significant time talking about what they are good at and pretty good at, rather than rush to their weaknesses and then spend all your time on this area. Remember, our students are often really talented when we are not demanding they participate in socially-based situations. Take time to celebrate the many things they do well to give them the strength to talk about what they don’t do as well.