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Talking to Children About Their Strengths and Weaknesses


Schwab Foundation for Learning


Raising our Kids

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From Parent Journal, Autumn 1996 by Dr. Mel Levine

"I must be stupid"
"I was born to lose"
"I don't have the brains to right rite"
"No matter what I do, I disappoint my parents"

These statements accompany the pathetic sighs of children who misunderstand themselves. They are students with differences in learning that are causing them to underachieve and lose motivation. They have little or no understanding of why and how they are having to contend with the humiliation of failure in school. The thoughts such students harbor about their own minds are more pessimistic than they need to be. They may not admit to "feeling dumb," but they frequently conceal within themselves such beliefs. These gloomy sentiments commonly lead to a deteriorating attitude toward school, defiant behavior, depression, and plummeting self-esteem. The cycle must be broken. Demystification is a process that can be used to prevent or treat children's dangerous self-misunderstandings.

Demystification educates children about their own strengths and weaknesses. It helps them to see the relationship between their areas of weak function and problems they are having in school. Demystification sessions are conducted by a clinician or an educator. It is helpful if the parents are present, so that they can continue to reinforce the same terminology and point of view with the child at home. The following are some salient points about the crucial process of demystification, which can help children to help themselves overcome school problems:

  • Begin by helping a child understand his strengths. This should never be conveyed through false praise (the ultimate put-down). Instead children need to be made aware of all the things they do very well.

  • Provide children with specific vocabulary for their problems (e.g., "You have what we call a word finding problem that makes it hard for you to answer questions in class"). It is hard for an individual to work on improving something if she doesn't know what to call it!

  • Number the weak areas for the child (e.g., "There are four things that you need to work on making stronger..."). This way, the child doesn't come to feel totally defective or mentally retarded (a very common fear or fantasy); instead he has four areas that need improvement in order to do better in school.

  • Use analogies or visual diagrams to illustrate areas of function that need work. For example, we have developed The Concentration Cockpit (published by Educators Publishing Company, Cambridge, Massachusetts) to help children understand their attentional difficulties.

  • Create optimism by revealing the possibilities for great success as an adult given the strengths that the child now displays.

  • Preserve accountability. A student should not come away feeling that she can "cop out" of work or responsibility because of a dysfunction. Rather, children must realize that now that they understand themselves better, they are accountable for working hard to overcome the effects of their problems.

  • Vary the demystification process depending on the age of the child. It is possible to demystify a 6 or 7 year old using examples, analogies, animal stories, and pictures. (e.g., "You know, your mind is just like a television set. But it has problems with the channel selector--it changes programs too often.") Early adolescents (especially 8th graders) are often the hardest to work with. They want so desperately to be like everyone else that they hate to learn of their differences. They require great patience, persistence, and empathy on the part of the demystifier. High School students thrive on demystification increasingly as they progress through school. They need ample opportunity to ask questions and offer their own personal insights.

  • Inform teachers of what a child has been told. It can be seriously confusing to a student if the school has an interpretation that contradicts what the child and the parents believe.

With a clear understanding of weaknesses and strengths, it is truly remarkable to observe how well a students can help themselves. It is equally gratifying to observe the restoration of motivation and aspiration that occurs when a young person is helped to see possibilities for authentic success in life.

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