When asked what his favorite subject is, my son answers, “English.” This always comes as a surprise — for years he proclaimed he hated writing, and getting him to write always engendered a fight. The reason he now likes English is not a surprise. He will tell you that it is “because of the teacher — she is really nice.”
This anecdote highlights the power of teachers to make enormous differences in their students’ lives. As some of the most underpaid, undervalued, and underappreciated professionals, educators may not realize their value and the impact they have on the families with which they work. Teachers’ words and behavior have the power to elevate a child or to crush his soul.
It may be easier to praise and appreciate the achieving student who is well-behaved, a good friend to others, and a quick learner. Yet, the National Center for Learning Disabilities reports that one in five students is neuroatypicalor “differently wired.” These students possess a variety of challenges that make it hard for them to learn in a regular classroom. These challenges include learning disabilities, ADHD, autism, anxiety, and sensory or other processing differences as well as giftedness.
These are students with invisible disabilities or differences who may look “normal” on the outside; they are expected to behave and learn in a way that is typical, even though in some ways they are different on the inside. Many of these differences are positive, such as having deep interests or lots of energy, or being creative thinkers; but as students, they may pose challenges in standard classrooms, which are generally set up to serve neurotypical students. These students will show up in mainstream classrooms. Are the teachers prepared to work with them?
Students who are differently wired are vulnerable. They are often criticized for the ways their brains naturally function. It is important to keep in mind this simple but powerful message by parenting expert and psychologist Dr. Ross Greene: “Kids do well if they can.” Teachers may incorrectly assume that students are choosing to be challenging.
Katherine Reynolds Lewis, author of “The Good News About Bad Behavior,” explains that children’s “misbehavior,” whether it be withdrawn or acting out, is an indication that they are struggling. Even though it may be difficult, it is at this particular time of challenge that a teacher needs to support and speak to these children with kindness and empathy. Additionally, if a teacher acts in a kind way toward a struggling child, it can serve as a model for the other students to respect and support learning, social, and emotional differences. This tone of tolerance and acceptance is one we want to achieve both in our schools and in society at large.
The parents of these neurodiverse students are vulnerable as well. Throughout their children’s schooling, they have been told that their precious children are not “normal” and are in some way broken. Taking in these negative sentiments can be deeply upsetting or even traumatizing. Countless parents have expressed to me their feelings of hopelessness and extreme stress when encountering a school environment that focuses on the perceived negatives in their children.
My advice to educators: When you go back to school this fall, remember that your attitude toward your students and their parents makes an enormous difference in their lives. When children are struggling, be that educator who discovers and teaches to their students’ strengths. Convey to parents the positives and demonstrate the fondness you have for their children. Research your students’ learning differences and seek assistance in how to best teach them. Ask the parents, who know them best, to help you help them.
Speak to parents with the utmost sensitivity about challenges and enlist their partnership in helping their children succeed. Know that through kind words and deeds, and creating an accepting attitude in the classroom, you have the power to change a child’s life and influence society as a whole.
Wishing you much success in the new school year in working with your diverse body of students!