Welcome to the Crucial Conversations Blog. In this space, we will present insights from parents and practitioners involved in twice-exceptional education. The following is authored by Anahid Koumriqian, a former public school teacher, holder of a master’s degree from Bridges Graduate School of Cognitive Diversity in Education, and a parent to a 2e child.
How early can children differentiate between peer behavior patterns and how do they define what is different? My child started to pay attention to these elements in himself and his classmates in kindergarten, and by first grade announced that he was “the worst one” in his class. Clearly, I was heartbroken that a six-year-old could come to this conclusion. At the same time, I was sure he was mistaken. Where could this type of messaging come from and how does it affect a child’s confidence?
As important as it is to lay early building blocks ensuring the love of learning, it is equally important for adults in our children’s lives to be aware of incidents that can sabotage their self-esteem.
As parents, many of us look to expose our children to different types of experiences, hoping they find a passion or two that can be developed throughout their lifetime. I know I was paying attention, helping to point out my kid’s personal strengths, and trying to create topics of interest to see what could stick and grow in the future. Early on, I noticed he was creative, spending time during car rides designing towers and skylines in his head, then imagining them on screens. Sometimes he would tell me about them and other times he would require silence because he was thinking and couldn’t be disturbed. Great, I thought. I will follow his lead and expose him to building with Legos, drawing, creating with clay, and, when he gets a bit older, I will introduce him to digital design and coding classes. I developed a plan, doing what most parents do, guiding my child in a direction that follows his interests and what seems to come naturally to him. What I didn’t realize was that I was also helping him develop a mode of expression he would come to rely on most during the early elementary years.
It turned out my child experienced differences in learning that didn’t follow the normal progression compared to his peers. He was bright, that’s for sure, and when tested in school, he would come to the same conclusion as others but go about a completely different method of solving problems. I didn’t know it then but his brain took information in and processed it differently. He was a visual and spatial learner who gravitated toward creative methods to express understanding, such as drawing and building. By first grade, he would naturally gravitate toward drawing to participate in classroom activities and to compensate for underdeveloped writing skills. I saw this as fascinating and encouraged him to spend time creating in any form that kept him engaged in learning.
It worked for me, but my son’s ability to engage in learning didn’t match the standard output his instructor was looking for. This created a tense learning environment for him where he became frustrated, noticing his method was not acceptable — and even worse, he got the message that every attempt he made needed fixing. In my six-year-old’s mind, this translated to the idea that he was broken. He needed to change and take a different approach to learning, and that came with great difficulty. He was no longer using his natural learning ability to grow. The learning process became disrupted, resulting in a low self-worth, recognition that he was different, and finally, very sadly, anxiety in his learning environment developed to the point where he was frozen in fear.
How could this possibly be healthy? Instead of engaging in the flow of learning, my kid was internalizing shame and trying to imitate his peers. In first grade, he was constantly reminded that being different was a bad thing and that his processing and producing methods were wrong. He eventually concluded that he was “the worst one.” As a classroom volunteer I saw this first-hand. He worked diligently on a poster, but his work product had drawings and very few words. It was ridiculed in front of his classmates and dismissed by his instructor because he didn’t — couldn’t — produce like everyone else. He wasn’t following directions even though drawing was his natural accommodation because letters and words were developing at a slower rate in his mind. Although he was trying his best to learn and produce, his inability to create work product in the only form acceptable in class eventually became the focus of his failures.
How heartbreaking was it that his skills and abilities were dismissed and his shortcomings in learning were singled out because he couldn’t follow procedure? What message did he get and how early did he realize he wasn’t like everyone else? Do unique processing styles and educational production methods translate to failure in a six-year-old? It oftentimes can because the focus shifts from actual learning to the importance of producing in one acceptable method.
I knew my child wasn’t the worst one, but trying to explain that to him in a learning environment that doesn’t support my opinion was like swimming upstream. In the end, the only way I found to combat this negative thinking process was to make a change to a more empathetic and patient environment where his differences were celebrated and encouraged. It took me a long time to find a place where my child could shine, but as a result, over several years, the negative messages he had received were reversed. It was a long process, but I found a way to dismantle the hit he took to his self-esteem. Thankfully, he is now proud of his accomplishments and believes he has something unique to offer his fellow classmates. I can only hope that this positive shift in personal attitude continues into a bright future as he engages in a journey of lifelong learning.