From the New York Times Blog "Motherlode"
By Sarah Wheeler
May 13, 2014
Year-round, those of us who have kids with disabilities in our lives spend countless hours discussing them: meetings, consultations, casual conversations with friends. And yet we rarely, if ever, talk directly to children themselves about their challenges.
There are many reasons we don’t do this: we’re afraid, they’re young, we don’t know what to say, we don’t want to make it feel like a “big deal.” But just as children pick up certain words seemingly out of nowhere, children are the first to know when they are different. They carry this knowledge around with them, in conscious and unconscious ways.
And when adults fail to name them, children can learn that their differences are shameful or scary.
As a psychologist, I often tell kids that I am a kind of “brain detective.” I get to find out how children learn best, and that helps everyone (including them) understand them better so they can be successful.
In these talks, there are certain words I do and do not use. I don’t use the word “disability.” I do say that all brains are different, and that every brain has some easy things and some tricky things. Some of these tricky things are more visible than others. Not being able to carry a tune can be embarrassing, but you can still avoid singing in public and belt out songs in the privacy of your shower.
When reading is tricky for a child, it is always a painful and public experience. I verbalize for children how frustrating this can be, stressing that the more they know themselves and make good choices (like practicing reading even if it’s not their favorite thing to do), the happier they’ll be.
In my experience, kids have no problem understanding these concepts. And when I ask them to name some things that are easy or tricky for their brain, they are surprisingly accurate.
When something’s “tricky” it doesn’t mean we’ll never master it or we’re not smart, it just means it takes much more work and practice — and that we will probably need to call on some of those skills that come more easily to lend a hand.
A 9-year-old boy with Asperger’s syndrome told me he had a tricky time “thinking about how other kids feel.” He suggested that he could use one of his strengths, his language abilities, to deal with these tricky moments by verbalizing how the other person might be feeling.
Another student suggested she could use her kindness (something easy for her brain) to ask friends for help when she was having trouble working quickly (something tricky).
Metaphors can be a great way to help children with these complex ideas. With one young “Star Wars” fan, we remembered Luke Skywalker’s initial frustration with his Jedi powers, and how he had to work hard with Yoda to learn to control them.
For another child who was obsessed, as most children seem to be these days, with Minecraft, we decided that strengths are like “shields” and “swords” and challenges are like the “monsters”; you use your strengths to keep your challenges from hurting you. Just like the bombs in the game, he had to notice his anger and deal with it before it “blew up.” From there, we started brainstorming strategies for calming down.
These conversations can be scarier for the grown-ups than they are for the kids. For parents, support from teachers, school psychologists, older siblings and others can be critical in preparing for and even carrying out these talks. But if we do them right, children almost always walk away relieved and excited to be more active members of their own problem-solving teams. They generate amazing ideas and valuable insights.
Unlike us adults, they don’t need this information in a workshop or a two-hour meeting, but can start to explore it in small parts and, ideally, be able to come back to these conversations as issues arise.
Talking openly is the first step for children in the long, important road to understanding themselves, a skill they will desperately need as they enter adolescence and adulthood. As Yoda said, “In a dark place we find ourselves, and a little more knowledge lights our way.”
Sarah Wheeler, a former special education teacher, is a school psychologist in the San Francisco Bay Area. She is a doctoral candidate in education at the University of California, Berkeley.