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My Strength-Based Approach to IEPs for ADHD

The Origin of My Strength-Based Approach

It’s the Fall of 2005 and I’m in hell. After dropping out of high school once and college twice, I am now a matriculated student at the University of Delaware. I have a 3.5 grade point average, but I am now facing my biggest academic obstacle: learning French.
French class presents two obstacles that are exasperated by my ADHD.

  1. I don’t have much intrinsic interest in learning the language, which makes studying painful.
  2. I am constantly frustrated by how hard French class is compared to my other classes. My sigh-to-answer ratio in class in non bien (not good).

In the middle of class, one in which I have long since lost the thread of a conversation, my professor calls on me to answer a question with “Monsieur Osborn?” I respond with the first phrase I learned in French, “Je ne sais pas” (I don’t know) but, on this occasion, I also add “Je suis mauavise en français” (I am bad at French). My exceedingly kind and patient professor responds by saying, “No, you are not bad at French; you are learning French.” And her words penetrate.

I realize that thinking that I am bad at French is not actually helpful in learning, and passing, French. This change in attitude helped me get through the three French classes I needed to graduate with a degree in history.

My Strength-Based Approach to Writing IEPs

Six years later, I became a special-education teacher. The IEP process I implemented for students then again challenged the way I innately thought about skill building. Instead of centering my efforts around what my students, or myself, were bad or good at, I began to think of skills in terms of strengths and needs.

[Get This Free Download: How Do I Create an IEP for My Child?]

ADHD or not, people need to develop strong self-awareness — a thoughtful understanding of their strengths and needs — to maximize their potential. Thinking yourself bad at something is not going to help you become better at it. Understanding you have a need in an area, and having a desire to improve, is a healthier way to approach challenges. And sometimes, with enough work, a need can be turned into a strength.

I came to teaching through an alternative certification program called the Philadelphia Teaching Fellows. My training in the Fellows did a great job of getting me ready for the classroom in a short period (a 5-week training institute), but I arrived in the classroom with a relatively limited knowledge of IEP (Individualized Education Program) writing. To even finish my first IEP I had to sit down with my SPED supervisor and write it with her.

I knew other teachers (even some with similarly limited experience) wrote better IEPs than I did, but I just kept pushing myself to write better ones. I implemented feedback, and over time my IEP writing became a strength rather than a need — to the point where I was tasked with helping other teachers write their IEPs. This was a process that took four years.

On the ADDitude Support Group for Adults Facebook page, people sometimes ask, “Are you bad at…?” questions, and I think that’s unhelpful. Instead, we should ask, “What are my needs?” and look to use strengths and strategies to build ourselves up rather than letting our self-esteem take unnecessary hits from our own self-talk and self-perceptions.

[Read: Your Own Worst Enemy: Silencing Negative Self Talk]

The world works to put enough limits on us; we should not put limits on ourselves. I would not be where I am today, a special education leader, if I had decided and told myself I was bad at writing IEPs. C’est vrai (It’s true)!

Strength-Based Approach for Students with ADHD: Next Steps

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