Moving from reliance to resilience

Here is a copy of the article I wrote which was published in the March 2016 edition of Dyslexia Voice, the magazine of Dyslexia Scotland.

Moving from reliance to resilience. 

During my 22 years as a teacher, outdoor instructor, and educational consultant, I have often seen Autism, PDA, Dyslexia and ADHD co-occurring in the children with whom I work. I am also a parent of three wonderful children, one of whom is dyslexic-autistic, and one who is dyslexic-ADHD.  Diagnosing one aspect of neuro-diversity often appears to lead to another condition being flagged up and thereby doubling the enormous stresses that both the parent and the child face in learning to read, in their writing and organisation, and in the sheer fact that they think, and therefore act differently, to the majority of the population.

The challenges that occur as a result of multiple diagnoses are numerous and often seemingly insurmountable when you start out in supporting your young and impressionable child.  With co-occurring diagnoses, the child is given a doubly difficult time trying to conform to the rigors of our traditionally Victorian education system which inevitably knocks their self-esteem.  Perhaps the most important challenge to achieve is that of enabling our children to develop lifelong positive self-esteem and resilience.

We all know Maslow showed in his triangle of needs that positive self-esteem was required in order for individuals to achieve their true potential. I am going to suggest that true self-esteem doesn’t come from receiving stickers, rewards and a smile from the adult in charge.  True self-esteem, which can lead to lifelong self-actualisation, needs to develop intrinsically and it is essential that we support our neuro-diverse youngsters, (as well as our neuro-typical youngsters) in achieving this goal.

As a parent, I have encouraged my children to look at the positive aspects of neuro-diversity. Their amazing, unusual and creative problem solving skills, their motor-skill abilities, their spatial awareness including both their ability to map-read accurately as well as follow complex pictorial instructions. I have talked to them about their advantages in thinking dyslexically and autistically.  They have positive self-esteem and when they take knock to their confidence, it doesn’t take long for their developing resilience to bring them back to reality, for their confidence to reassert itself and for them to try again.

As a teacher, I believe it is essential that we also enable the youngsters with whom we work to also achieve this lifelong treasure of resilience and positive self-esteem.  All too often I have seen neuro-diverse children struggle with our traditional education system which wrongly develops the reliance on ticks, stickers, praise from the teacher and the requirement to get it right.

In this ‘right or wrong’ educational culture, the neuro-diverse children are unfairly discriminated against due to the way their brains are wired and therefore the way they think.  With the creative and diverse opportunities that are presented within the Curriculum for Excellence, we as teachers can finally start to support the neuro-diverse children in experiencing positive self-esteem and in developing the innate treasure of internal resilience.

So how do we achieve this goal?  How can we actually teach in a way that develops lifelong resilience?  How can we support neuro-diverse children in their everyday learning? One of the children in my class in which I had just started to teach one day a week, was facing some low level taunting from other children about her dyslexia.   Her self-esteem was suffering and she was beginning to feel she wasn’t any good at anything.

In class, I took this opportunity to start a dyslexia discussion, which included talking about the usual famous people with dyslexia and the advantages that dyslexic thinkers have over neuro-typical thinkers.  We also discussed the fantastic diversity of thinking presented by ADHD and Autistic children.

The children began to ‘research’ the topic and then inspired by others in the class who had dyslexic family members, they chose to produce an informative assembly for the rest of the school.  The biggest point being that the children had autonomy over this project and due to their autonomy they were inspired and so the project was a success.  In reviewing the successes and failures of the project, the children came to understand that mistakes can be made and when we learn from these we grow and develop our skills.

With their self-esteem boosted by their initial success, they quickly jumped into another project in the form of fund-raising for Water Aid.   A wide variety of experiences from coffee morning to comedy show in which each individual child was able to follow their own interests. This resulted in success which in turn led again to increased self-esteem.  The outcome wasn’t polished, there were mistakes, the coffee tasted pretty bad by all accounts but I had stood back and the children loved it and had complete autonomy over the event.  Every single child was motivated and not one child was left without a smile at the end of the morning (although that could have been the effects of eating left over cake!)  Their choices, their work, their success, their own increased self-esteem.

Combining this child-led, collaborative-community approach to learning has enabled their mathematical thinking skills to improve as well.  The link may at first appear tenuous. How can maths skills improve because the children have taken part in a couple of collaborative projects which have nothing to do with mathematical thinking?

As you begin to consider the true collaborative-community approach you begin to see the connections in increasing self-esteem and the ability to take part in challenging projects where success is not measured by ticks and crosses, but by the thinking that has gone on behind the apparent result.  This applies to both the dyslexia project and the water aid project in which the children took part, as well as their mathematical problem solving projects.

The latest problem solving project within their maths (and it ties win with H&W very nicely) has been the simple question, “Is it possible to achieve 10,000 steps a day?” From Thinking Through Mathematics, Book 2. Allmond, Wells and Makar 2010.     If I had posed this question to the children three months ago, I would have been met with tears, confusion, and the question of what do you mean?  Indeed, when we first started this type of maths thinking which didn’t result in a page of ticks and a smiley sticker, I was met with tears because their self-esteem relied on getting it right and receiving ticks, stickers and praise from the teacher…not a reliable or healthy long term way to retain positive self-esteem.

Now I am met with questions flying around the class such as “How long does it talk to walk 10,000 steps? How do we measure it? How far is it?  What about old people? Can old people sit down and ‘walk’ by lifting their legs to get fit? Do the P1’s walk as fast as the P7’s? How many times around the playground is it?” and more!

The advantage of this child-led, collaborative-community learning is that all children within the neuro-diverse spectrum can be successful because they are being allowed to work the way their brains are wired.  The success and resultant enjoyment motivates all children far more than stickers and praise ever can.  As teachers and facilitators, we should not keep this type of learning for a one off special enterprise project or a particular assembly that happens once a year.  We should be embedding this type of teaching and learning into our everyday work with the children so we can get it right, every time, for every child.

This style of teaching is initially scary as we release the Victorian control that has always kept us safe and secure, but enabling the youngsters to take charge and pose their own questions and challenges bring immense rewards.  So take a deep breath, discuss opportunities for child-led, collaborative-community learning with your class, give them autonomy and let them learn…the way their minds want to learn.


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