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7 Ways to Banish Shame: Helping Kids With Learning Disabilities Celebrate Their Strengths

Categories: Learning Disabilities, Parenting

Anne-Marie MoreyThis richly informative guest post comes to us from Anne-Marie Morey, a California-based Board Certified Educational Therapist. Anne-Marie shares tips and tools for educators at BayTreeBlog.com and, in her private practice, works one-on-one with students who have language-based disabilities like dyslexia. 

When your daughter tells you, "I don't want to have dyslexia!" what can you say? If your student says, "I can't do anything right in school," how do you respond?
  It's heartbreaking when you discover that a child with learning disabilities thinks that he's not as talented or intelligent as his peers. A fourth-grader once said to me, "I look happy on the outside, but I'm sad on the inside." She was desperate to catch up, but every school day was a struggle - she was ostracized at recess, mystified in math class, and humiliated when asked to read aloud. This was just too much for little shoulders. After finally receiving a diagnosis of dyslexia, the fourth grader was profoundly relieved. With appropriate intervention, she made huge strides in school. And yet, she still hadn't regained the confidence that had once earned her the nickname "Miss Sunshine." As soon as we began to set off an exploration of her personal strengths, her confidence skyrocketed. She volunteered in class, read to her little brother at night. Best of all, she began to stand a little taller.

Diagnosis and Intervention Aren't Enough

We need to do more if we want our students to grow into happy, confident, and successful adults. How can we make sure that children with learning disabilities aren't shackled by shame? Students with learning disabilities need to leave school with a sense of competence and confidence. Decades of educational research have revealed how to do this:
"When children discover their islands of competence, they are more willing to confront those areas that have been problematic for them." (Goldstein and Brooks, 2012)
We need to prioritize identifying students' strengths! If we can show students exactly how to uncover their strengths and harness them, we're setting them up for a lifetime of success. As an educational therapist, I've spent thousands of hours teaching children with dyslexia. In my practice, I've found that great literacy intervention is indeed the foundation for academic success. However, my most successful students always leave my office with something else - something more valuable than improved standard scores. Confidence. These confident learners are the ones who can talk about their disability and their strengths. In one breath they'll reveal how they're struggling with their latest writing assignment, and in the next breath they'll gush about the model airplane they designed over the weekend. How do we help students gain confidence? We show them their strengths! Two decades of longitudinal research tells us that successful adults with learning disabilities are self-aware, so they can recognize and prioritize their talents (Goldberg, Higgins, Raskind, & Herman, 2003). Similarly, other researchers concluded:
"Finding success in one's inner life is perhaps the most compelling factor in living successfully with dyslexia." (Nalavany, Carawan, & Rennick, 2011)
Teaching to students' strengths is great for teachers and kids. In the short-term, it helps develop rapport, motivation, and engagement. In the long-term, we're helping kids develop resilience in the face of adversity. Today, I'd like to share with you the time-tested strategies that have helped my students uncover their strengths and grow into self-assured individuals:

1. Teach Students How To Uncover Their Strengths

Most kids love talking about their strengths. Most of the time, to learn about a child's strengths, all we need to do is ask, "What are your strengths?" If the student can't answer this question, you've got an urgent problem. These students need your support to pinpoint their strengths. Here are two ways to do that:
METHOD 1: Use Strength Cards for Kids for children in elementary school.
  • Create or purchase a set of strength cards.
  • Flip through the 40 Strength Cards, reading them aloud to the student.
  • Encourage the student to identify the cards they see as "Super Strengths" and others as "Sometime Strengths."
  • Spend about 15 minutes discussing and recording their answers.
METHOD 2: Use the Headstrong Nation Strengths Assessment for children in the upper grades.
  • Encourage the student to visit the strengths assessment website.
  • The student completes a 40-question, multiple-choice survey. It includes questions to identify verbal, social, spatial, kinesthetic, visual, narrative, and musical strengths.
  • Spend about 15 minutes discussing their answers at your next session.

2. Highlight Top Student Strengths

After the student has identified their strengths, have the student rank them. Can the student identify personal core strengths? Most of my students find approximately a dozen. I've found that creating a visual representation of a student's strengths is a powerful way to keep these talents at the forefront of our sessions. For this example, I've used Google Docs since it is freely available with a Google account.
  • In a spreadsheet program, record each strength in a column:
  • In the adjacent column, the student then assigns a value between 1-10 for each strength:
  • In Google Docs, go to "Insert" and then "Chart." Select "Pie."
  • Display the Strength Chart for easy reference. I like to keep one copy near the student's IEP and another in the front of their folder. Think about sending home the Strength Chart, perhaps by e-mailing the parents.
  • Use the Chart to help you provide specific, relevant praise. I sprinkle the language of student's strengths into my conversations with them. For example,
    "Wow! That took a lot of determination to design your own dog website. I can see that you thought a lot about which dog pictures to include."

3. Work With an Evaluator Who Highlights Students' Strengths

An effective evaluation includes more than a diagnosis and recommendations; it identifies a student's strengths. Lisa Maheras is an educational psychologist practicing in San Mateo, California. She uses the information from formal assessment and clinical interview to develop an intervention plan that integrates a student's strengths. In her years of clinical practice, she's discovered that the most effective interventions nurture and enhance a student's strengths. Maheras says, "Students become self-aware and accept their learning differences as only one aspect of who they are. Their weaknesses do not define who they are as people." If you receive an evaluation that doesn't mention strengths, other professionals can help. For example, the admissions team at the Westmark School in Encino, California (which serves students with language-based learning differences) reviews neuropsychology reports to uncover students' strengths. As Polly Brophy of Westmark explains,
"All too often [students] come in unaware that they have any strengths. We go through the neuropsychological evaluations and we see the strengths in there. Every class has academic counselors. They write students' learning plans and work with the students to develop their personal goals. The teachers catch them at all the things the kids took for granted and point those strengths out to them. We offer multiple programs in the arts and athletics to help students find their passions. A strengths-based education allows these students to develop their potential, go to college, and become productive adults living meaningful lives."
It's this kind of whole-child approach that motivates and builds confidence. Brophy adds, "We want our students to understand that they add up to 100 as a person, not to define themselves by what's hard for them."

4. Keep a Wins Journal

Kids with learning disabilities have increased risk of developing an external locus of control for positive events (Mather & Ofiesh, 2006). Simply, this means that when good things happen, students don't see how their strengths, thoughts, or behavior contributed. For example, imagine praising a student on her fluent reading. She says, "I guess it's just my lucky day." We want students to feel a sense of control over their lives since this has been identified as a critical factor in adult success for individuals with learning disabilities (Gerber, Ginsberg, & Reiff, 1992). If you're not responsible for any of your successes, why bother? The "Wins Journal" is an effective, simple way to help kids develop an internal locus of control. Students use the Wins Journal to record personally meaningful accomplishments. Here's a free template you can share or use together with your students.
  • Encourage the student to use their Wins Journal after a personal accomplishment.
  • You may need to help the student identify successes.
  • If you can, stay away from grades and external markers of success. Instead, focus on accomplishments like:
    • Completing a five-paragraph essay.
    • Remembering to turn in the book report on time.
    • Sticking with a nerve-racking public performance.
  • Ask guiding questions to make it explicit that the child's effort contributed to the positive outcome.
    • For example, think about the student who wrote a five-paragraph essay. Did she use a graphic organizer? Did she meet with the teacher to ask a question about the assignment? Did she break the assignment into small pieces?
  • Generalize by helping the student recognize when she can use these strategies again.
    • If the graphic organizer was useful, help the student identify other opportunities to use the tool. Where could she store the organizer so it's ready to use again? Could she use the graphic organizer in another class?
As a variation, some students may prefer to photograph their accomplishments.

5. Carve Out Leadership Roles at School

Can you imagine feeling like you never measure up at work? That's what school can feel like for some of our students. Creating a space in school for the child to have an "island of competence," (Goldstein & Brooks, 2001) helps students feel connected and respected. Here are some of the best leadership roles I've seen for kids with LD:
Student Buddy - Informally or formally pair the student with a younger student at the school. Can the student tutor a child in a younger grade? Read aloud to a kindergartener? Serve as a welcoming "ambassador" for new students? This is a great strategy for students who have strong interpersonal skills. Gardener - I know one keen gardener who lived for recess when he would weed and water the small garden plot at school. He even offered adult guests a nibble from the lettuce plant. Artist - Ask the student to contribute their art to a school mural. Talk about the successful feeling of "making your mark." Special Jobs - Teachers can find all sorts of high-prestige jobs for students. Could a squirrely student run the attendance to the office every day? Could a rule-loving student be in charge of properly cleaning the white board each week?
Children who come from homes where their strengths are prioritized may intuitively create opportunities to use their strengths at school. One of my former students is a gifted artist and storyteller. At lunchtime, she and her friend enjoyed huddling at a picnic table writing and illustrating fantasy stories. When I asked the student's mother about it, she said,
"You give her a pencil and she creates amazing masterpieces. We have her beautiful art in frames and signed. We sign her up for art classes and workshop. Our praise and action are ways we communicate and nurture her strengths."
What a beautiful model for nurturing the strengths of our own children!

6. Help Students Describe Their Strengths as Developing, not Fixed

Much has been written about growth and fixed mindset. As much as you can, frame the students' strength as developing. When strengths or talents are absolute, missteps become huge setbacks. Help the student reframe, "I'm a natural athlete," into, "I love playing sports and I work really hard on the soccer field!" If you're not already familiar with Carol Dweck and growth vs. fixed mindset, here's a great introductory video:

7. Leave Pollyanna at the Door

When kids come to us in pain, it's tempting to rush in and reassure them. We want to make everything OK, right this second. I'd encourage you to pause for just a moment. When a child is in pain, it's not the right time to talk about strengths. Instead, empathize with them. Legitimize their feelings and give them the space to talk about their feelings. Kids may surprise you by talking about their strengths themselves! This is the moment when we realize that our students are growing into resilient, tough people. Here's a resource from my blog about instructing with empathy.

We Owe It to Them

It's not easy to be the student pulled out of class. No one wants to be the kid who visits the educational therapist twice a week. If we can help students recognize and celebrate their talents, their learning disabilities don't have to hold them back. In fact, through the lens of personal strength, a learning disability doesn't feel disabling at all. As one of my talented, confident students puts it, "Dyslexia is a beautiful brain." Anne-Marie Morey
Anne-Marie MoreyAnne-Marie Morey Board Certified Educational Therapist Anne-Marie Morey shares tips and tools for educators who work with children with learning disabilities at BayTreeBlog.com. She is a Board Certified Educational Therapist in San Mateo, California. If you'd like to receive educational resources and blog updates from Anne-Marie, you can sign up here.


Brooks, R. & Goldstein, S. (2001). Raising resilient children: Fostering strength, hope, and optimism in your child. New York: Contemporary Books.

Gerber, P.J., Ginsberg, R.J., & Reiff, H.B. (1992). Identifying alterable patterns in employment success in highly successful adults with learning disabilities. Journal of Learning Disabilities, 25, 475-487.

Goldberg, R. J., Higgins, E. L., Raskind, M. H., & Herman, K. L. (2003). Predictors of success in individuals with learning disabilities: A qualitative analysis of a 20-Year longitudinal study. Learning Disabilities: Research & Practice, 18(4), 222-236.

Goldstein, S., Brooks, R., & DeVries, M. (2012). Translating resilience theory for application with children and adolescents by parents, teachers, and mental health professionals. In S. Prince-Embury & D. H., Saklofske (Eds.), Resilience in children, adolescents, and adults (73-90). New York: Springer.

Mather, N., & Ofiesh, N. (2006). Resilience and the child with learning disabilities. In S. Goldstein and R. Brooks (Eds.), Handbook of resilience in children (239-256). New York: Springer.

Nalavany, B., Carawan, L., & Rennick, R. A. (2011). Psychosocial experiences associated with confirmed and self-identified dyslexia: A participant-driven concept map of adult perspectives. Journal of Learning Disabilities, 44(1), 63-79.