When children are diagnosed with special needs (e.g. dyslexia, ADHD, autism etc.), the initial efforts to support them almost always revolve around helping them to fit in with the environment around them.  This of course is very important, but it leaves out a much-needed corollary to these efforts and that is:  changing the environment to fit the unique child.

I like to use a term from evolutionary biology to talk about this second need:  niche construction.  What this means is changing the environment to enhance an organism’s chance for survival.  Animals do this all the time in the natural world:  bees create hives, ants build ant hills, birds build nests, beavers build dams.  They are all modifying their environment to optimize their personal strengths.  We should be doing the same thing with children and teens with special needs.  Here are eight ways to engage in what I like to call ”positive niche construction” whereby the adults working with children actively modify the surroundings to optimize their ability to succeed.

  1. Find out everything you can about the child’s strengths.  Once a child is labeled with a diagnostic term, there’s a tendency to focus on the things that got them labeled:  not reading well, not able to pay attention, not able to socialize, and so forth.  In other words, the focus gets placed on the child’s negatives.  We know now that this represents a formidable obstacle to that child’s sense of self worth.  To combat this, parents and teachers should do as much as they can to find out about the strengths, talents, abilities, interests, and other assets of the child. I’ve created a strengths inventory consisting of 165 items to help caregivers be comprehensive in their survey of a child’s strengths.  There are a number of other formal assessment tools that can also be used to assess strengths.
  2. Expose the child to positive role models with disabilities/neurodiversities.  We’re increasingly becoming aware through the media of individuals who have been diagnosed with learning disabilities, ADHD, autism, social and emotional disorders, and sensory and physical impairments, who have succeeded in their chosen profession.  Kids with special needs should know about these people.  These role models send a strong message to kids:  ”If they can do it, so can I.”  Examples include:  Temple Grandin (autism), Marlee Matlin (deaf), Stephen Spielberg (ADHD), Chris Burke (intellectual disabilities),  Nobel prize winner Carol Greider (dyslexia), and Ellen DeGeneres (depression). Surfing the Internet can provide many more examples (Google ”famous people with disabilities”)..
  3. Use assistive technologies and Universal Design for Learning (UDL) tools to help kids get around learning obstacles.  There’s a treasure trove of riches in terms of technologies that can help people navigate around their difficulties in furthering their education.  We’re most familiar with wheel chairs, walking canes, curb cuts in the sidewalk, and Braille.  But there are literally millions of tools out there to help people with neurodiversities/disabilities. Dyslexics can use text-to-speech apps that translate the printed page into oral language.  People with spelling disabilities can use spell checkers.  Those who have difficulty communicating (e.g. those with intellectual disabilities and/or autism) can use augmentative alternative communication apps like Proloquo2go. Individuals who are prone to depression can use mood tracker apps like Mood Kit.  People with executive functioning difficulties (e.g. ADHD), can use schoolwork organizer apps like iStudiez. This is just a start.  Look on Apple’s App Store, or Google Play Apps, for thousands of other UDL possibilities.
  4. Teach using strength-based learning strategies. Too often the learning strategies used in special education are those developed to build up areas of weakness.  This is the wrong approach.  Instead, educators and parents should use a child’s strengths to help them tackle areas of difficulty.  So, for example, if a child has trouble reading but has visual-spatial strengths, they should be given graphic reading materials (e.g. images and words), and watch videos with subtitles.  Or if a child has problems communicating with others but has a special interest that they focus on (a situation that fits many kids diagnosed with autism), then let him share his interest with his classmates during a ‘show and tell’ at the beginning of class.  Or if a child has been diagnosed with ADHD and has trouble focusing on schoolwork, but learns best by moving around, then assign him math problems to work on that are distributed around the classroom, where he must go to each of these areas to do the work.  The best way to organize this is to make two lists:  one with the child’s learning needs, and the other with their strengths.  Then look for creative ways to meet the needs while using the strengths.  Kids just naturally do better when their strengths are addressed.
  5. Enhance the child’s human resource network.  Every child with special needs exists in the midst of a network of human relationships at school, with friends, teachers, classmates, administrators, specialists, and other individuals.  These relationships belong in one of three categories:  enhancing, debilitating, and neutral.  An example of an enhancing relationship is the child’s favorite teacher who responds empathetically to his needs.  A debilitating relationship might be a bully who teases the child and threatens him with physical harm.  A neutral relationship could be the school secretary.  The trick is to first put down on paper all the child’s relationships at school (by putting the child’s name in the center and then connecting him to people like spokes in a wheel), and second, to strategize how to strengthen the enhancing relationships (e.g. more time with his favorite teacher), how to eliminate the debilitating relationships (e.g. implementing an anti-bullying program), and turning the neutral relationships into enhancing ones (e.g. exposing the child to possible new friends through a collaborative learning group).  The overall emphasis should be tweaking a child’s human resource network so that it is full of positive relationships that can support him in his school experience.
  6. Present the child with the possibility of positive career aspirations.  So many parents (and educators) of kids with special needs have dark clouds over their heads as far as envisioning futures for them (e.g. ”I just don’t know what’s going to happen to him when he gets out of school and into the real world”).  However, we’re increasingly becoming aware of careers out there that make use of the strengths that kids with special needs have.  One of the best examples of this is the active recruiting by software companies of people on the autistic spectrum (since they have strengths with systems, coding, and careful detail work).  For dyslexics with high visual-spatial abilities, careers might include graphic artist, architect, surveyor, or entrepreneurial careers (since this is also a strength for them).  For kids diagnosed with ADHD, high stimulation careers are out there including firefighter, emergency room physician, marine biologist, and FedEx employee for starters.  What educators and parents should impart to their students/kids, is that they have just the right strengths that people out there in the world world are looking for in their businesses.
  7. Make environmental accommodations.  Sometimes it’s the physical environment that a child with special needs finds himself in that needs tweaking or adjusting in some way.  So, for example, a child diagnosed with ADHD may need ”fidget furniture” where they can wiggle around (e.g. stability ball, standing desk, Bouncy Bands etc.).  A student diagnosed with intellectual disabilities may benefit from having ”way finding aids” such as color-coded storage boxes, folders, and closet compartments.  Since many children on the autistic spectrum have sensory sensitivities, using earphones that block out noise might be a useful accommodation.  The big question to ask is:  how can I change the way the classroom/school is organized so that the child can more easily navigate it (physically, cognitively, emotionally, socially).
  8. Provide your child with ”inner resources.”  In addition to letting kids know what their strengths are, we can also teach them self-help skills that serve to motivate them to do their best.  Some of these approaches include:  teaching them how they learn best (e.g.see my book for kids You’re Smarter Than You Think , teaching them how their brain works (see the children’s picture book Your Fantastic Elastic Brain by JoAnn Deak), and teaching them about the difference between a ”growth mindset” (where you believe that you can get smarter through effort) and a ”fixed mindset” (where you believe that  you’re either born intelligent or not).  Also, teaching kids self-regulation skills can equip them to cope with the inevitable ups and downs in school.  One method that is especially helpful (and supported by research) is mindfulness practices, where kids learn to pay attention to each present moment in time with an attitude of nonjudgement (see, for example, my book Mindfulness in the Classroom: Strategies to Promote Concentration, Compassion and Calm for information on how to do this).

I think you can begin to appreciate how different this approach is from one that is based upon shoring up deficits and remediating weaknesses.  The emphasis is totally upon the positive in building assets, enhancing relationships, empowering through technology, developing inner strengths, creating a responsive classroom, and building positive career aspirations.  I’d like to think that this model could be the special education program of the future!


For more information on positive niche construction and creative positive school environments and positive futures for kids with special needs, see my book Neurodiversity in the Classroom:  Strength-Based Strategies to Help Students with Special Needs Succeed in School and Life.

This page was brought to you by Thomas Armstrong, Ph.D. and www.institute4learning.com.

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I'm the author of 19 books including my latest: If Einstein Ran the Schools: Revitalizing U.S. Education - https://amzn.to/2KAxT8F.

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