When I was hiking in the forest one day a couple years ago, I noticed a patch of clovers. Of course I looked to see if I could find a four leaf clover. I combed through the patch for some time but couldn’t find one. Then it hit me; I see four leaf clovers every day in my office. I work with children with learning differences who learn best outside of the box. Four leaf clovers are rare, they don’t fit the mold and can be such a delight when you find them. In fact we are taught to not only look for four leaf clovers but to look for them with excitement. What if we could see these kids who don’t fit the mold that way too? With excitement.
If you’re reading this article, perhaps you have a child like this and have noticed that your child isn’t like the other children. Maybe parent teacher conferences feel like a long list of what your child isn’t doing and you’ve tried to get support for your child in reading, writing, math, spelling, attention…. The list goes on. But still, your child struggles with feeling different, misunderstood and unable to keep up at school. Whatever they do, they just can’t meet the standards. Maybe the way they view themselves is very unkind and they begin to think they’re stupid but you’re not sure how to convince them otherwise.
I’d like to share with you what I see.
In my work as an Educational Therapist, my day is constantly filled with terms like dyslexia, dysgraphia, dyscalculia, and ADHD. The etymology of these words is rooted in “difficulty”, “trouble”, “bad” and “disorder.” But these words don’t quite line up with my experience with the children I work with. While the children I see struggle tremendously in school and I work to support them in those challenges, I also see something else that has been missed.
This is what I see when your child enters the room:
I see their strength from tolerating a school day in a system that was not designed for them.
I see their exhaustion from working three times as hard to do their best to keep up.
I see their resilience even though their school day has not gone as they’d hoped. Again.
I also see the things they can do. I see their unique talents and gifts that come so naturally to them. With some of them, it’s on point humor, with others it’s great conversational skills, and sometimes it’s the power of persuasion, or maybe it’s exquisite aesthetic awareness. Or maybe it’s deep, pointed questions that uncover what lies beneath the surface. Maybe it’s off the charts empathy or a deeply philosophical mind. I see these abilities and I value them. I point them out. I recognize them. I feel what a profound gift they can be to the world right now and for the future when they’re older. Even if school doesn’t value these skills, in my office, they are very valuable. I know how important it is that we value all kinds of smart.
Yes, there are profound struggles that come with being a four leaf clover in a school system designed for the more common three leaf clovers.
It’s not easy having an extra leaf and not fitting the mold. Yet maybe that extra leaf on the clover is precisely where their gifts lie. It’s what makes them unique. The current approach to supporting children who don’t fit the mold feels akin to taking a three leaf clover cookie cutter and trying to shape them to make them fit the mold. It doesn’t work and can feel painful. When we try to make them into three leaf clovers, we miss the essence of who they are and the precise things that they can uniquely contribute to their family, classroom and community. We miss out on witnessing their compassion, their insights, their wisdom, their humor, their art, their beautiful aesthetic awareness, their unique genius.
As a culture, we are taught to ask questions like “What is wrong with my child and how can we fix it?” and “What course of remediation or intervention will be the best?” These questions create a lens that affects how we view these four leaf clover children and the children feel the impact of this.
In my own practice, I started to ask different questions and as a result began to view and support children with a different lens. It started to ripple out into how my clients saw themselves. One student I worked with was grappling with his diagnoses and it was affecting his self confidence. One day, after months of using new questions as guideposts for our work, he was talking to me about his many siblings that also have ADHD, and he said to me, “Nicole, think of what we could do together!!!” His excitement and new outlook of possibility was contagious. It inspired me to imagine what all the four leaf clovers of the world could do together.
If you’d like to try out another lens and perhaps see what I see, here are some of my favorite different questions to try out:
“What can my child do?”
“How can I support my child’s challenges and gifts equally?”
“What is unique about my child and how can I nurture that and help them blossom and grow?”
These questions and an alternate lens of viewing your child can help them with their self-esteem, own their amazing 4 leaf clover-ness and help them find their way to their own unique version of success. Imagine what magic might be possible for our next generation if we collectively began to view and support four leaf clover children with excitement.
In education, there are trends that catch on and spread like wildfire. The two that I hear about the most are grit and a growth mindset.
For me, fads, trends and buzz words will come and go, but what never gets old is a deep respect, honoring + encouraging support for all kinds of minds no matter if they fit the narrowly defined box desired by schools or not. There is such an emphasis on changing the child, but we must not forget that we need to change the conditions of education so that each child can thrive and find areas where they shine. Every child I have worked with has shown me the areas where they shine, though many of their gifts go completely unrecognized and un-nurtured in their day to day school setting. Instead the emphasis is placed on how they can't remember their math facts or can't read at grade level or can't tolerate sitting still for hours on end, and then they are encouraged to "keep trying harder." Imagine how it feels to be on the receiving end of that.
The way we view and support kids needs to evolve. Some children may never commit math facts to memory or read at grade level or sit still in a class that is boring to them and that's okay. Likely fulfilling their unique potential and sharing their gifts with the world will not hinge on those things or if they do, they can use tech/work-arounds/get support from those around them.
My hope is that the timeless wisdom of holding deep respect, honor and providing encouraging support for every single child's mind is the next trend that catches on like wildfire.
Recently I was featured on a podcast. I talk about my work in the world supporting amazing kids who learn differently than school wants them to learn.
There is a write up as well. Here is my favorite part: "Nicole really wants to encourage a mindset shift. If you have a child whose gifts are not in alignment with the school system, it does not mean that there is anything wrong with the child… it's just a mis-fit. The American education system has a lot of problems, so shifting that perspective is the best piece of advice I can give –As well as to listen to your child over listening to the testing."
To listen to the whole interview, click here.
While I love to highlight and focus on the gifts and strengths of learning differently than school wants children to learn, the hardships do also need to be addressed. I remember about 5 years ago, sitting in one of my graduate school classes and raising my hand with a pressing question. I asked our guest speaker how to help children with their self-esteem. At that time, I had worked with many children who were hard on themselves and feeling down about struggling at school. I could see how deeply this was affecting them. Unfortunately I did not get a very helpful answer to my question at that time.
However, I stumbled across the work of researcher Kristin Neff and realized that I was asking the wrong question. It wasn't self-esteem that I could help cultivate, it was Self-Compassion! I came to this realization after watching Kristin Neff's TED talk on Self-esteem vs. Self-Compassion. I learned that "While self-esteem comes from comparing yourself to others, self-compassion focuses on being kind to yourself."
I have since used it in my own life, studied it when completing my Master's thesis and use it in nearly all of my work with children. If a child is beating themselves up about making a mistake, I ask them how they would talk to a friend if their friend made a mistake? Bringing awareness to how we talk to ourselves and showing them that there is another way can be very beneficial.
Want to learn more? I recommend watching Kristin Neff's Ted Talk: The Space between Self-Esteem And Self-Compassion.
I agree with the video below that we need an Emotion Revolution in our schools. Here are the pieces of information from research studies that struck me the most during this talk:
5 reasons why emotions matter:
-Attention, Memory, and Learning
-Physical and Mental Health
In a research study to investigate how American students feel at school, the top 3 feelings were tired, bored and stressed. Unfortunately I see this very frequently and experienced it myself. It is my hope that students, parents and educators can work together to help shift this and create an Emotion Revolution in our schools.
Check out the video below to learn more.
When seeking support for your child, it is common to want the best for you child and focus on getting them the best care possible. This can sometimes be an overwhelming process, so I like to ask parents 3 questions to help shift perspective a little bit.
1. What do you value most about your child?
2. What are your child's greatest strengths?
3. What obstacles and difficulties has your child overcome?