“Preach! Write! Act! Do anything save to lie down and die!” - Hester, in the Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne
I come from a product design background. In graduate school we were taught that after we had a test subject use our product, we should ask them first ‘what are the worst three things about it?’ right away, before they said anything else. We did this because people are reluctant to criticize something they think you made, so if we don’t ask them that first, we’ll just get a bunch of useless platitudes about how great the product was, and we’ll never know what we need to improve.
How very ironic and sad that when it comes to children, the most well intentioned people typically do the opposite. If you’ve ever sat in on an IEP meeting or been called in to a parent-teacher conference to discuss some issue with your child, you know exactly what I mean. In the education world, albeit with the best intentions, the ‘worst three things’ are often what we focus exclusively on. It’s time to flip the script. When considering our children, we need to discover -and focus on - the best things. The strengths. The curiosities. The passions.
Strengths vs. Interests
Strength-based programming talks a lot about ‘strengths’ and ‘interests.’ What’s the difference? Strengths are things/subjects which your child is good at, which seem to come naturally to them. Interests, on the other hand, are things which your child is curious about. They’re what your child enjoys spending time working on and thinking about. You may discover that your child may be strong in one academic area, but not really excited by it. Or you may find that your child has an interest in an area which might require some extra effort for them to be successful. Or, you might find overlap - a child who both has a strength in an area, and has a passion for it. Of course, if your child is the latter, you’re in luck! As Dr. Susan Baum says, “Magic happens at the intersection of strengths and interests.” But all three combinations are valid and worth encouraging. If your child has an interest which isn’t squarely in a strength area, this is a great opportunity for them to find value in the struggle and make meaningful progress. If your child has a strength that they’re not really interested in, remind them that it’s great to have an area where things come naturally for them, because it means they’ll have more effort capacity to expend in other areas. Encourage them to continue to seek out interests which may or may not overlap their strength area.
My younger daughter recently was invited over to an older classmate’s house on a Sunday. The older classmate, Sarah, had written a play and had cast several children of various ages in the roles. Everyone was excited. When I came to pick my daughter up, Sarah was filming the play in her front yard. You could see spray paint on the grass which were Sarah’s blocking marks, indicating where each actor should stand. She kept yelling ‘cut’ and directing the children on how to stand, how to deliver their lines, how to have stage presence. You could tell that Sarah was serious about getting this production performed. No one was eager to leave, so I went over and talked to Sarah’s mother for a bit. She told me that she was floored that this was her daughter. Sarah hated school, and consistently resisted writing. She did the least amount that was ever required on any assignment. How could this be the same girl who had stayed up all night writing this multi-page script? Who had organized various children in different grades, and brought them together on a weekend to put on this play? I was nearly brought to tears. This was a beautiful example of interests in action. Sarah was able to write and produce work when reframed in an area of interest. Sarah came alive when writing for the stage, imagining how the actors would move, and visualizing the play. I eagerly await her first feature-length production. I can say I knew her when.
In order to successfully identify your child’s strengths and interests, you need to start by opening your mind to the possibilities. See the child for who they are, not who you may want them to be. Once you understand what makes them light up, you’ll be able to support, encourage, and nurture it. Below I discuss seven strategies which will help you identify and get the most out of your child’s strengths.
Success Strategy #1 - Observe & talk
Observe your child as they play and work. At home, provide a variety of materials to experiment with and activities to try, and see what they gravitate towards. In some circles this is called the “strewing strategy.” For example, place a book on butterflies in the living room, leave some paint and clay out in the playroom, and set aside some space in the garage for some building materials. Every so often, switch out what’s available. Now sit back and observe what your child gravitates to on their own. What materials do they experiment with? What books catch their interest? What other interests do these materials and choices spark for them? What are they curious about?
Talk to your child. Ask them about their interests. Ask them what they feel they are good at. Discuss with them what you are observing, and what they’ve observed about themself. Together you can generate ideas, and come to agreement on areas of strength and current interests.
Here are some questions to ask your child:
What are some things you are curious about right now?
Are there any activities you’ve heard of that you’d like to try out?
Are there any activities you’re currently doing at home or in school which you’d like to do more of?
What do you like to do when you have free time?
This can also be done at school. Hopefully, your child’s teacher has various interest stations around the classroom on a variety of topics with a variety of materials. If not, ask if this is something they might consider doing. One way to uncover strengths in the classroom is to observe what roles students take when they work in groups. In fact, one of the best ways to uncover strengths happens when a teacher provides choices for students as to how they demonstrate their knowledge. Perhaps there is a unit where the students can choose to show what they know by writing an essay, or producing a skit, or creating a photo essay. Set up a time to meet with your teacher and ask them where your child focuses during their choice time, what roles they choose to play in group work, and what ways they choose to show their knowledge.
Your child likely has a support network (tutors, therapists, after-school enrichment teachers) of other people, all of whom are a great resource for this kind of observation and talk. Or maybe they’re close with a grandparent, aunt, or other family member. Their siblings may have some interesting insights. Camp counselors, extra curricular coaches, and parents of your child’s friends are all other great potential sources of new information.
Here are some questions to ask others in your child’s life:
What gets my child excited?
What subjects/things seem to come naturally to my child?
What does my child seem most interested in?
What does my child choose to do during free time?
What types of projects/assignments does my child gravitate towards?
What are the best three things about my child?
Success Strategy #2 - Use tools
There are a variety of tools available which aim to help you understand your child’s strengths and interests. Some are available for free on the internet, and others are administered by trained professionals. If you’re looking for a lightweight way to uncover some interests, you can find a huge variety of quizzes and forms online for free. One example is the “interest-a-lyzer”, developed by Dr. Joseph Renzulli, an expert on gifted education.
At Bridges Graduate School we are trained to administer the Suite of Tools, which is a great way to have an outside expert help you identify your child’s personality profile, their interests, their strengths, and identify some potential ways to nurture these sparks. You walk away with a written report detailing all the potential and greatness of your child. The best private evaluators will also provide this information in their write-ups.
Success Strategy #3 - Provide opportunities for children to know, show, and grow their strengths
Now that you have some ideas about what your child might be interested in, and where their strengths lie, you can begin to nurture those sparks.
Depending on your own availability and your child’s age and independence level, you can find ways to do this either through outside clubs, classes, and activities, or by working with your child on your own. Here are just a few ideas to get you started:
Entrepreneurship activities: help your child identify a simple business idea (Lemonade stand on the corner? Craft stand at a local park?), write up a budget, and try their hand at selling something on their own. There are also classes for kids who are interested in entrepreneurship, including several online options.
Creative expression options: enroll your child in an art class, a local theater production, a sculpting studio class, etc. There are nearly endless options! Alternatively, your child may enjoy watching learn-to-draw videos on YouTube or other online, independent tutorials.
Deep dive into a science topic: if your child is interested in a particular topic, such as outer space, you can support this interest in a variety of ways. Take them to the local library and help them find age-appropriate books. Help them do research on the internet. Look for local classes or enthusiast meetups on the topic.
Sports: encourage your child to join a sports team or class.
Gaming (card games, board games, social games, etc): don’t be afraid of gaming! Within reason, even video game playing can provide lots of interesting fodder for thinking about storytelling, plot, cooperation, and many other skills. Beyond the world of video games, there are lots of other interesting games out there, including meetups for Magic the Gathering and Pokemon, board game parties, Dungeons & Dragons classes (online as well as in person), live action role playing (LARP) clubs, and more. There are plenty of online classes and tutorials available on how to design and develop engaging games.
Don’t worry too much if your young child tries something out and decides they don’t like it. While it is true that as they grow older, they will benefit from sticking with activities for a longer time, when they are just starting out it is primarily important to teach your child to not be afraid to try new things. It is part of normal development to change one’s mind. Think back to the squiggly line which charts success!
Things to try: Partner with your child to find interest- and strength- based activities One strategy which has worked well in our family was to set expectations and provide options. I made it clear to my children that they should be spending time on at least one independent interest each week. It did not have to be a class or an activity; it could be something they pursued on their own. I asked them to make a list of all the things in which they were currently curious. I then took that list and did a bit of research. I found online classes, in-person classes, clubs/interest groups, and came up with some independent project ideas. I presented this list to each child and had them pick one they wanted to try. In this way my children felt some level of control and choice, while also understanding what was expected of them.
I recommend being very clear what the expectation is for your child - how many classes will they be signing up for? - and when the decision points will be where they can decide if they want to continue or pivot to something else. Try to always reflect on what they learned - what did they like about an activity? What would they have preferred to have done differently? This can help you as you look for the next interest to pursue. Eventually you and your child will get better at identifying promising ‘leads’ and should begin to settle in on some areas on which to focus.
Things to try: Model growth - create a family goal chart Everyone is a lifelong learner! Model your own learning and growth with a summer chart. At the start of summer, everyone in our family - parents included - identifies at least one goal that they have for the summer. Last year, mine were to write daily and read more non-fiction, my daughter’s were to learn to ride a bike and swim at least once a week, and my older son’s was to teach himself calculus. We create a daily tracker on a poster board (one box for each day, for the full 10 or so weeks of summer) and hang it somewhere everyone in our house (like the kitchen) sees it regularly. As the summer progresses, we gather and check-in on progress, marking daily when each person has made progress towards their goal, and celebrating milestones as we all learn to learn together.
Remember, experiences should be joyous. Let your child, especially at the novice level, take the lead on finding and growing their curiosities and interests. And model lifelong learning! Above all - make sure there is time in your child’s day every day to do something that they love. This is something that every human being deserves.
Success Strategy #4 - Don’t gate the strength
Now that you have some idea of what your child enjoys doing, you may be tempted to use it as a carrot on a stick. Resist this impulse! Don’t use the strength as a reward or take it away as a punishment. Don’t tell your child that they can’t draw in their room until their tutoring homework is done. Don’t make your child sit out of theater practice because they didn’t finish an essay.
At school, don’t let your child be forced to sit out on a subject they love (including PE and recess!) in order to finish work or participate in a tutoring other intervention session. It is critically important that your child get to do the things they love at school, not just the things they hate. It sounds obvious as I write this, but all too often this is exactly what happens to kids at school.
A happy and engaged student is one who will take on challenges. Knowing that you are good at something builds confidence, self-esteem, and self-efficacy and it transfers to all other aspects of your life. When you hit an obstacle, or are asked to do a particularly challenging assignment, knowing that you have been successful at other things will give you the confidence needed to persevere.
Success Strategy #5 - Separate the content from the medium
When you ask an author what their job is, they’ll tell you it is to craft great stories. Not to write a series of words onto a big stack of paper. The reason they write is to convey a story through language. Words can be consumed in a variety of ways.
If your child is struggling with reading, do not confuse that with a struggle to understand and appreciate literature and process information. Audiobooks and graphic novels will enable your child to experience fantastic worlds through works of fiction, or challenging social situations through novels. Without having to process written words on a page, children can dive into research about space, dinosaurs, or ballet.
When trying to evaluate what your child knows, it is important to consider how they are being tested. Make sure the evaluation is on content mastery and not on their ability to take traditional tests. Sometimes, the goal of a unit might be to improve writing skills, or reading comprehension, so a test which uses writing or asks a student to read and then choose among multiple choice options is appropriate and makes sense. However, sometimes the unit is on something else entirely, like Ancient Egyptians, or Friction. In cases like those, make sure that your evaluation mechanisms actually get at understanding what the child knows about the topic itself - not just whether they can write a short answer, or choose from a multiple choice list about it. Remember back to our ‘perfect day’ thought experiment - let the child choose the way they feel most comfortable demonstrating their mastery of the material. Besides being better in terms of quality, quantity, and how you make your students feel, these final results should be much more interesting - you may get a report, a creative play, a diorama, a Rube Goldberg machine, and a song!
When teaching a lesson at home or at school, consider alternative ways of introducing material. There are many creative ways to incorporate hands-on projects into lessons on abstract ideas. Curriculum can be designed to incorporate movement. In my son’s school while learning about the layers of the rainforest, the teacher had them all lay down on the floor, then slowly rise up all the way to kneeling on their desks, while shouting out as they moved, “Forest floor! Understory! Canopy! Emergent!”
It is common practice among private schools to spend a day evaluating potential student applicants. For middle school entrants, schools often give students a creative prompt, such as “you find yourself in a dark forest with a box,” and ask students to write a short story from there. It is a fun and interesting way to learn more about the child, as well as assess their verbal skills. However not all schools allow the students choice in how they demonstrate their work. Some will not allow computers - no typing or dictation allowed - requiring the students to hand write their responses. So now the evaluation will also be on penmanship and spelling. Others will be more flexible and allow various options for students to produce their work. The most creative schools will also allow the student alternatives for demonstrating their work, such as allowing them to set aside the writing and simply tell their story. All of these are legitimate options, so long as the school is intentional about what they are assessing and why. They should also clearly communicate these assessment expectations to the students and parents so together you can make an informed decision on which school will work best for your child.
Success Strategy #6 - Reframe
Sometimes, all that is required is a shift of focus. For example, many ‘symptoms’ of ADHD can be reframed as positive traits of creativity*:
Hyperactivity - vitality
Distractibility - a divergent mind
Impulsivity - spontaneity
Hyperfocus - passion & flow
Poor executive function - a creative imagination
*Bonnie Cramond, Professor of Creative Studies at University of Georgia, 1994.
Reframing requires a willingness to be creative, to shift your focus and see things differently. If you allow space for creativity in your home and in the classroom, you may be surprised at the new perspectives you gain. I once observed a science classroom where the teacher had the class watch while he put two cans into a bucket of water - one Coke can, and one Diet Coke. The Coke sank, while the Diet Coke floated to the top. The teacher asked the students to think about why. They all diligently began scribbling ideas and notes onto their papers. One student raised his hand and asked, “I was just wondering, what would happen if we put the Coke can on top of the Diet one? Would it push both down? Or would the Diet coke push the Coke up and make them both float? And also, given what I know about currents - that hot water floats on top of cold water - what would happen if we heated the Coke can, would that make it float?” There are a lot of interesting things going on here! The original experiment is engaging, but there are also a wealth of other tangent paths to explore in this child’s mind. The teacher could shut this student down, and consider them disruptive. Or they could nurture this creative thinking and encourage them to experiment with these alternatives.
Success Strategy #7 - Find your community
My last suggestion - don’t go it alone! There are numerous supportive online communities and local support groups (including ours here at REEL!) where you can find others on similar paths as yours. Your community may be among other neurodivergent folks, or it may be among others with similar interests. Your child’s communities may be different from your own.
Remember to take time for yourself and do something that brings YOU joy every day. All of us deserve the wonderful feeling of being able to spend time doing something we love, accomplishing something we’re good at, each and every day.
If you’re looking to learn more, I encourage you to check out REEL’s 2e Topics tool, where you'll find recordings, materials, and other great information on a wide variety of topics concerning neurodivergent learners, including a section with more resources on strengths. I also encourage you to visit our parent resources page.
Whether you find your community online, in-person, with us, or elsewhere, remember - we’re all in this together. Welcome to the journey!