This post is a response to yesterday's post, written by Angela, from a teacher's perspective.
At first, watching the kid who wouldn’t take a seat made me squirm in mine. I was observing Angela's writing camp that week in order to study empathy in action. Within moments of arriving on that very first day, it was clear that we would have plenty of opportunity to practice it.
One student, in particular, was making it clear that he had no desire to participate. He wandered the room, ignored our requests, and while he wasn't disrupting others, he was doing something just as worrisome: he was refusing to connect with the group at all. He had his own plans, and they involved a whole lot of movement.
This experience stirred up uncomfortable memories for me as I thought back to all of the times I got calls from my son’s teachers, school administrators, and even principals over the years, from Kindergarten through high school.
“Your child is disrupting the class and can’t focus. I think you should get him tested for ADHD. Maybe you should put him on medication.”
Those words cut deep, especially to us as parents of an only child. We did get him tested, in elementary school, and later in middle school. We even went to a neuropsychologist, who, after a five minute visit and no data, sent us out with a prescription for adderall (we never filled it). Ultimately none of the psychoeducational evaluations came up with the diagnosis of ADHD.
You see, my son was born with great enthusiasm, and his exuberance and difficulty sitting still presented a challenge for his teachers in the classroom. But he was not a behavior problem. He was never mean or antisocial. He was able to focus when he was interested. When he wasn’t, he was fidgety, preferring to engage his body in movement in order to engage his mind. Not to mention all of the questions he had about everything and was sometimes allowed to ask.
I was anxious to see how Angela would respond to the kid who wouldn’t sit still, and I felt an instant connection to this child’s mother, whom I had not even met.
Empathy Invites Us to Look and Listen Before We Respond
I could tell that Angela was grappling with how to handle this kid who was in constant motion. We made eye contact several times, and since she knows my story and knows my son, I like to think she counts on me for perspectives that may not be popular inside of traditional classrooms.
I hoped she would allow him to keep moving, Instead of scolding or punishing him for what he was doing "wrong." i hoped she would shift her attention to what he might have to offer, instead. I knew that if she did, she would give herself permission to get to know this child for who he was and truly see his strengths as they began to emerge. Rather than making an example of him for breaking the rules, she might be able to help others see what could be gained from learning beside and with a kid who likes to move.
The boy shifted from standing to leaning to swinging between the desks, and Angela kept looking over at me, smiling from time to time, as she taught from the opposite corner of the room. Then, another teacher approached her. I learned later that this teacher had worked with the boy all year. She knew him, and because she respected him, she also knew how to teach him well. She told Angela all about his strengths.
That week, he was never asked to sit down.
I wish that my own child had teachers who understood that not all children learn in a state of physical stillness. What would have been different if instead of always trying to correct his weaknesses they focused on his strengths?
When teachers see the positive attributes and character strengths in their students and create a space where their classmates can see and appreciate them for who they are, students can thrive and stay motivated.
I’m so grateful that I learned about the VIA strengths prior to our visit. I'd brought the strengths mat and cards with me that week so we could use them during the writing camp. It was so much fun to watch how the kids were naturals at spotting each other’s strengths, and they really got into the “Twister”-type game we played, using their bodies to stand (or lay down) on their strengths.
What I Wish I Knew as a Young Parent
As a parent, I wish I knew about the VIA strengths when I raised my son. It would have given me a framework to understand and articulate what I instinctively knew back then -- that there was nothing wrong with my kid, that it’s ok to experience the world through movement, and that he had great qualities like leadership, curiosity, creativity, humor and love of learning that would serve him well as he grew into a thriving adult.
I knew all of this in my gut and did my best to piece together a community of professionals (some of whom were educators who got to know my son) and other parents to support my perspective. And the proof is in the pudding. Our son is now a successful broadcast journalist, always on the move, pushing boundaries, chasing the next story to tell, and using his strengths to make the world a better place. If there is anything that I want to tell the parents of kids who are like mine, it's this: there is so much that is right about your children. Listen and look for their strengths, and lead with those.
Some Resources for You
For more about how parents can use the VIA strengths in raising their children, I recommend The Strength Switch: How the New Science of Strength-Based Parenting Can Help Your Child and Your Teen to Flourish by Lea Waters.
For another perspective on seeing our kids' strengths, which is drawn from the wisdom traditions, I recommend developmental pediatrician Stephen Cowan’s Fire Child Water Child: How Understanding the Five Types of ADHD Can Help You Improve Your Child’s Self-Esteem and Attention Although the book had not yet been written as I was parenting my child, I learned about this perspective from a friend who is our family's acupuncture physician. This approach had a great influence on me as I continually sought to appreciate the good in my child’s nature (he’s a Wood natured child who experiences the world through movement).
Angela and I also developed a strength spotting center for use in classrooms. If you'd like it, just subscribe to our site. You'll find the button on the home page of our site and our blog. We plan to share many free resources here and hope you'll provide your feedback on them, too. Come chat with us on Facebook or on Twitter. We're @EllenFeigGray and @AngelaStockman there.