Harnessing the Strengths of Diverse Learners

Like many people who support students with diverse needs, I have a personal connection that fuels my passion. Growing up, a close relative was labeled a “special education” student with a social disability. He had difficulty interacting with others and was thus removed from mainstream classes and placed in special education classes that were supposed to provide him with more support. However, the label of “special ed” haunted him throughout his middle and high school career, which in a small town can often mean bullying from other students and a focus on his weaknesses instead of his strengths. Ultimately, the social exclusion that he felt because of his disability was too much to bear and he moved to another state to finish his high school career.

My relative grew up believing that he was disabled, that there was something wrong with him. In part because of this, expectations were lowered for him, people viewed him differently, and his confidence was eventually shattered. How different would his life be if, instead of stigmatizing students who receive special education services or who learn differently, we recognized that all students are unique learners? How different would his path have been if he wasn’t bullied for his differences but supported for his strengths and encouraged by his teachers to learn in the way that best suited him?

These questions and experiences have ultimately shaped my life and are the catalyst behind the work I do now. As a Teaching and Leadership Advisor for Teach For Australia, my role is to support teachers in helping all of their students learn and grow. I do this because I believe that every student is unique, special, and deserves to have someone to lift them up instead of pull them down.  Too often in education, we approach instruction with a one-size-fits-all mentality that misses the mark for many students and has serious repercussions for diverse learners.

Last year, I became a part of Teach For All and the Oak Foundation’s Learning Differences Fellowship, a two-year program in which teacher coaches from across 13 countries learn together about approaches to working with students who have learning differences. Through this learning community, I have come to understand that we too often focus on the weaknesses of our students, trying to improve what they are “bad” at. Instead, I often wonder about what additional impact we might have on kids if we focus on harnessing their strengths, holding high expectations for all students, understanding how our students learn best, and tailoring instruction accordingly.

When I work with teachers in Australia, I keep these thoughts at the front of my mind. Does excluding a student from class help him or her feel like part of a community? How are our actions and words influencing our students? How are our mindsets about our students’ abilities impacting the way that we work with them? These are the questions that I ask my teachers.

The education sector needs a mindset shift, and it will only happen when educators engage in tough conversations and ask themselves difficult questions. What labels and judgments are we placing on our students? And how might these actions influence kids—day in and day out—who are still new to interacting with the world?

As educators, we need to understand how the preconceived notions we have about students with learning differences might be impacting those children—the consequences are too great to not do so.  Our students deserve better and I know we can deliver.