An eye trained firmly on success
Advocate says learning-disabled kids gain if the focus shifts from their problems to their strengths
NEW YORK — When Robert Brooks, a clinical psychologist, is asked to lecture to a group of mental-health professionals, he sometimes begins by asking how many have had classes entitled "Abnormal Psychology" or "Behavior Disorders in Children." Almost every hand in the room goes up.
Then he asks how many have taken a course entitled, "Resilience and Hope in Children." Occasionally, a hand or two go up.
Dr. Brooks, who is on the faculty at Harvard Medical School and gives about 120 lectures a year to colleagues, parents, and teachers, says he is always struck by how many colleagues - as well as teachers and parents - focus less on the strengths of learning-disabled children, than on what's wrong with them.
What's needed, he says, is a greater awareness of the strengths and talents these children may already possess, and greater willingness to find ways of allowing them to shine.
The label "learning disabled" is applied today to about 2.7 million American schoolchildren. About 35 percent of these kids typically drop out of high school - twice the rate of children without disabilities - and fewer than 2 percent attend a four-year college, despite the fact that many demonstrate above-average intelligence.
Brooks became interested in this problem in the 1970s, when he was nearing burnout from his job as principal of a school in a psychiatric hospital.
Even as he struggled to reach a number of "tough kids," Brooks became intrigued with a question: Why did some of the children at the school eventually make progress although they were widely expected to fail?
"Often they were kids I didn't think had a chance of making it," he says. "Yet they ended up finding contentment, having real friendships, making a place for themselves in life."
It was then that it struck Brooks how rarely mental-health professionals tended to focus on what went right in these children's experiences.
"A lot of what I was doing and was trained to do was just giving diagnoses," and was focused largely on pathology, he says.
To Brooks, it is crucial to give children a feeling of hope, a link with a caring adult, and activities that will allow the child to make a meaningful contribution to others.
Much of what he preaches - and what he discusses in his forthcoming book, "Raising Resilient Children" (Contemporary Books) - appears to be simple common sense. And yet, he says, some seemingly obvious basics are often overlooked when children are diagnosed with learning disabilities.
"I often say to my audience that the best compliment you can give me is to say that this is just common sense," he says. "But I add that what we know is common sense, we sometimes just forget."
One of Brooks's main concerns is the damage that can be done to the self-esteem of a child struggling with a learning disorder. He recognizes that the term "self-esteem" has become a loaded one in educational circles, due to some faddish attempts in recent years to strengthen children's feelings about themselves through empty praise and minor accomplishments.
But Brooks says what he's talking about is something quite different. He encourages those working with children tagged as learning disabled to seek out and use each child's "islands of competence."
That phrase occurred to him one day as he realized how many such children feel themselves to be drowning in a sea of inability. Brooks says he thought to himself, "If there's an ocean of inadequacy, there must be islands of competence."
He began to focus on the strengths he found in each child, and to ask himself how that particular strength could be used to advantage in a school setting.
One young boy, for instance, talked to Brooks about how unhappy he was in school because he felt he wasn't good at anything there. Yet the same child readily acknowledged that he was "excellent" at taking care of his pet dog.
He was then appointed "pet monitor" of his school and placed in charge of taking care of any animals there. This was a role he accepted with such enthusiasm that he eventually wrote a pet manual to be placed in the school library, and lectured on the topic to all the classes.
This was especially remarkable because writing had been one of the areas most difficult for this child, but when it came to this project he worked eagerly with teachers to improve his skills and produce a good manual.
Another student who struggled to keep up with her classmates turned out to have a talent for working with small children. She was offered a chance to tutor first- and second-graders.
She succeeded so well with her young charges that their teacher eagerly recruited other tutors from the girl's class. At the same time, her own motivation to learn increased markedly.
"When a third-grader reads to a kindergartner who says, 'Oh, you read so well,' that's worth about five years of therapy," says Brooks. "These kids need the opportunity to shine in areas valued by other people."
The idea, he explains, is never to overlook the need for strengthening reading and other academic skills, but rather to allow these children to discover how success feels and to develop a more hopeful mind-set that can be transferred to other fields of accomplishment.
Children who struggle time and again with schoolwork sometimes lose hope of ever achieving anything and begin to experience what psychologists call "learned helplessness."
But Brooks says his breakthrough was to realize that if helplessness can be learned, "there can also be learned optimism."
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