In his new book, A Mind at a Time, Dr. Mel Levine proposes that all kids have strengths, and that kids with learning difficulties can often apply those abilities to tackle their changes. I know I’m good about encouraging my son’s strengths and talents, and I certainly help him work through his difficulties. But I don’t always help him connect the two in a meaningful way. How, I wondered, can I apply Dr. Levine’s philosophy to my son’s life?

I was still pondering that point when I met my friends, Ann and Debi, for lunch recently. They’re wise and wonderful women whose kids have learning difficulties and are now successful young adults. As we picked at our salads, I picked their brains for ideas. Our conversation went something like this:

How did you help your kids use their strengths to overcome — or at least work through — their learning difficulties?

Debi: Scott has always been a hands-on, kinesthetic learner. Even as a little guy, he would take things apart and reassemble them without any directions. He’d “back into” a learning situation by doing the task first, then grasping the concept involved. He struggled with algebra because it was so abstract. Finally, his dad pointed out his ability with computer work and math equations and explained that algebra was a concept that applies to both. That helped Scott see the practical applications of algebra — and feel confident about it.

Ann: My twins, Katie and Megan, have ADHD and auditory processing disorder. When their teachers and I provided enough structure, their hyperactive nature allowed them to “power through” many activities. Even when tackling challenging tasks, their energy level helped them keep going.

Both girls have great verbal ability. They weren’t shy about asking their teachers to move them to the front row, explaining that they’d be less distracted and better able to hear and understand directions. They could articulate the problem and solution to their teachers.

So sometimes your kids figured out on their own how to use their strengths?

Ann: Yes, by fourth or fifth grade my girls had learned to advocate for themselves.

Debi: (laughing) Sometimes Scott learned in spite of my efforts to help him. My husband and I used to worry that Scott was too quiet. We nagged him to speak up. Finally we realized his quiet, laid-back manner allowed him to develop excellent observation skills.

Besides learning to work through their problems, what other benefits did your kids get from this approach?

Debi: We taught Scott that every mind works differently and to approach learning from the position of his greatest strength. He became more confident — and less afraid of failure. And he learned not to compare himself to his younger brother, who is gifted academically. Because he struggled, Scott developed great sensitivity and empathy for people.

Ann: Like Scott, Katie and Megan learned compassion for others who struggle, most importantly their younger sister, who is retarded.

How has this lesson carried over into their adult lives?

Ann: My girls grew up with attention “antennae” that filtered very little and picked up almost everything around them. But they’ve learned to manage all that stimulation coming at them and can function in chaotic situations. Katie, for example, is teaching a class full of active, special needs kids and does well at it because she’s so good at multi-tasking.

Debi: Scott is very self-aware. He’s chosen a job that plays to his strengths. He works as a computer “help desk” technician, which requires him to be very hands-on with computer equipment, to solve problems by steady observation, and to stay cool-headed when others are frustrated with their computer glitches.

As we said our goodbyes that day, I thanked Debi and Ann for sharing their stories with me. I headed home with a much better sense of how to help my son leverage his strengths to manage his challenges.

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