I started reading American Gods by Neil Gaiman (high brow stuff, right? I know you’re impressed). It was witty and wildly imaginative, but man, was it giving me the most bizarre dreams.
So now I am sticking to the safer choice, Count Me In! Including Learners with Special Needs in Mathematics Classrooms by Judy Storeygard (summary here). (And my husband, who is, literally, tired of my sleepless nights, has told me I’m not allowed to read before bedtime.)
One point that resonated with me in Count Me In! is the way Judy describes the “deficit mentality” children and parents often face. She shares the experiences of parents of special needs children whose parent-teacher conferences are dominated by discussions of their children’s needs, but never their strengths. An autistic student, for instance, has many math-related skills. He’s great at solving puzzles, building with legos, and remembering directions. But, his teacher’s expectations of him in the math classroom are very low. Frustrated with hearing about her child’s limitations, his parent asks, “How can his skills be used to build math knowledge?”
This reminded me of one of my first-ever parent conferences. I’m gonna say it plain: the student was a pain in the butt. And as a new teacher, I was having a hard time managing his behavior. I don’t know what I wanted from his mom, but I do remember — after most of the conference had already gone by — she interrupted me and said, “Alright, I got it. Can we talk about academics already?”
I think it’s easy to fall into the trap of the “deficit mentality.” When something’s going wrong, it can be so frustrating, and we want to know why. Why is this student having trouble? We want to diagnose and label the problem. But what we often need instead is to take a step back and see all the things that are going right. What are all the things the student can do well in math? And, most important, how can we build upon those strengths with strategies that will help the student succeed?
Using what students know and can do to launch them to their next step is crucial in daily classroom practice. It’s also really important during a child study or special education process. The deficit mentality can become part of group think, too, and if we let it, it can become the prevailing attitude in a school. (This is not the attitude in my current school, where I am surrounded by stellar educators. But I’ve seen it in other places, and it’s incredibly hurtful to children.)
So Judy has me thinking more about keeping up my “strengths mentality” this school year, especially when it comes to my role on our school’s child study team. And — as someone who is a really harsh self-critic — I’m going to try to practice it more on myself, too.