I was just reading an article in The Watertown (NY) Daily Times about a seventeen-year-old named Christopher Durgen who has ADHD and autism. As a young child, he had trouble getting along with classmates and was frequently suspended from school. That all changed around the end of his sophomore year in high school when he disovered electronics. He enrolled in a two-year program in electronic engineering at a local technical school. One of his first projects was building a radio. His teacher believes that it was being around students who shared his own interest in electronics that helped him gain confidence in himself. Significantly, the article states: “the hands-on electronics program provided a better outlet for his energetic personality than sitting in an English or social studies classroom.” Now, he is a member of the National Honor Society and the National Technical Honor Society, and is competing in the computer maintenance technology contest at the SkillsUSA National Leadership Conference in Kansas City, Mo.
This student was adrift until he found something that he was good at. This led to his establishing better relationships, a deeper sense of inner confidence, and expertise in a career directed field of study. As I read the piece, I kept thinking of how important it is that people find their niche in life. These days, if students have labels, they usually end up in special education programs that focus on their disability. The adults who are responsible for them get together in IEP meetings to discuss their needs and what they require help with, and usually end up drawing up goals connected to their areas of difficulty. But educators rarely discuss how to create a niche where the students’ abilities can be utilized and celebrated. It seems to me that this should be the single most important focus of an IEP meeting, or any other meeting to discuss a troubled or troubling student.
Think of it as a bird creating a nest. Or alternatively, think of a fish out of water — this is what it’s like for many students who are failing in our schools. Nobody has given much thought to how the environment can be restructured so that the gifts of a student are what predominate. The first step in this process is finding out what the student is good at — educators and parents need to be “strength detectives” and make an exhaustive list of all the skills, talents, abilities, intelligences, and aptitudes of a student. The second step is looking at the resources available in the home, school, and community for developing these positive attributes: programs, mentors, technology, strategies. These are the twigs in the nest, or the ingredients of positive niche construction. The big question is how to convince the schools that this is the most important thing they can do to help a struggling student.
What’s frustrating is that this is not rocket science. It’s incredible simple. Yet school culture is so filled up with bureaucracy, schedules, labels, testing, procedures, paperwork, and more, that this very basic process of honoring gifts and finding resources to match those gifts, gets lost in the shuffle. Fortunately, there are students out there like Christopher Durgen, who can point us in the right direction, and show us how dramatic the change can be when the focus is on what a student does right.