Building on a Child's Strengths

When I'm called upon to assist a child who is struggling in school, I find the spotlight is invariably focused on a child's weaknesses. This is particularly common for the child with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), as poor social skills have brought additional negativity into play.

Years of remedial effort have been poured into fixing what's broken, rather than capitalizing on what works. In other words, if a child can't read, hours are spent teaching that child with methods that didn't work in the first place. If there are behavior issues, the same punitive measures are used over-and-over, yet there's no improvement.

When the spotlight shifts onto areas where your child shines, in his/her areas of strengths and personal interest, there are often very dramatic improvements in work effort and negative behaviors often significantly diminish.

Areas of Strength

Child psychologist and recognized authority on ADHD, Dr. Robert Brooks, developed the term "islands of competence" in reference to these areas of strength. I interpret his concept in the following way:

Everyone has strengths, but sometimes they're not obvious. We must find those areas of strength and build on them. Every person must feel they are making a contribution to their environment. If we accept both these concepts, the obvious thing to do is to build upon them.

I've used both concepts in helping a parent obtain services for a child suffering from academic failure and low self-esteem. Every child must feel important and every child must taste success.

Once academic needs are determined and appropriate services are in place, it's extremely important to begin building self-confidence and self-reliance. It's essential to have a concerted effort both at home and at school, with clear communication between the school officials and the parents.

Dr. Brooks likes for each of his young patients to have a special job at school in an area related to the child's interests and needs. It can be something like feeding pets or taking attendance to the office monitor. This can take creativity and ingenuity, but it's essential.

The schools I visit are usually resistant to this effort. After all, many have never tried this positive approach to resolve behavior issues or low self-esteem problems. School personnel look at us like we've lost a few screws. But it works! Inappropriate behaviors diminish, the child walks taller, often begins to show improved self-confidence, and demonstrates reliability. He feels needed and recognized for his efforts.

Sadly, the child with ADHD is often the last picked for helping out with different tasks. In reality, it's one of the single most effective tools to help your child gain self-confidence.

Ways to Help Your Child

The focus of scholastic effort must also be on the child's strengths. Following, are just a few examples and suggestions for compensating effectively for weaknesses and building on strengths.

  • If your child has excellent verbal skills and creativity, but writing is a struggle, you might ask for daily use of a computer. If a child demonstrates such a need, (and I see this often in ADHD and learning disabilities), than the school is responsible for providing that assistive technology. Remember your child doesn't have to settle for the broken computer in the corner of the room (which happens all too frequently). Any needed equipment must be in working order and be made available in the regular learning environment. If you're concerned about the condition of equipment, you can stipulate in any 504 plan or IEP (Individualized Education Plan) that the equipment be in working order and located in an area immediately accessible to the student.
  • Perhaps your child grasps math concepts, but has difficulty performing the actual calculations on paper. A calculator is a great assistive device for such children. Sometimes there are complaints that the child has to first learn math the "old fashioned way." Practical experience has taught me that if a child can't perform very basic math calculations by, say, the fifth grade, it will probably always be somewhat difficult. Is he/she going to suddenly become proficient in this area when an adult or count fingers? Most likely not. This person will buy a calculator for as little as $5.00 and finally become successful in performing practical arithmetic calculations. Why not start early to help the person with a math disability progress rapidly with the concepts by using a calculator to bypass the disability? This is not to say a child should not continue to work on mastery of calculations as well.
  • Or take the fifth-grader who's struggling with second-grade spelling, perhaps spending as much as two hours a night trying to learn a list of twenty words. The most common modification, if any is made at all, is to cut the list in half. What if we let that child spend spelling time becoming computer literate? With the use of a spell checker and word processor program to offset organizational difficulties and spelling difficulties, children suddenly blossom into creative authors.
  • A child who is very distractible in the classroom can show dramatic improvement when work is produced on a computer. Many children with ADHD tend to lose the thought somewhere between brain and pencil, but are excellent writers when using a computer. There seems to be an instant direct connection between brain and screen. Organizational skills show improvement. Problem solving skills are also honed on the computer, bypassing faulty circuitry that gets in the way of real learning. In each of these instances weaknesses are diminished by technology that levels the playing field for people with disabilities. The spotlight then shifts from the writing weakness to the content strengths.
When the strengths are brought forth and allowed to flourish, so does the whole child.

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APA Reference
Staff, H. (2007, June 7). Building on a Child's Strengths, HealthyPlace. Retrieved on 2024, June 22 from

Last Updated: February 13, 2016

Medically reviewed by Harry Croft, MD

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