The Science Behind Strength
Research supports a strength-based approach. Carol Dweck, Ph.D., a pioneering psychologist from Stanford University, has spent her career proving the value of a "growth mindset" over a "fixed mindset." People of all ages achieve more and feel more motivated and enthusiastic if they believe they can learn what they need to reach their goals and grow into the person they want to become.
A growth mindset can be taught and learned by anyone. If you work and study hard, the sky’s the limit! Since there are Nobel, Pulitzer Prize, and Oscar winners who have ADHD, as well as billionaires and CEOs of major companies, that limit is not an exaggeration.
Positive psychology, which has invigorated the field of mental health over the past decade, supports a strength-based approach and the positive emotions it generates. People overlook how much emotion matters to learning. Until the person has positive feelings about himself, learning will never be optimal. The father of positive psychology, Martin Seligman, Ph.D., writes in his book, Flourish: "Greater well-being enhances learning... Positive mood produces broader attention, more creative thinking, and more holistic thinking. This is in contrast to negative mood, which produces narrowed attention and more critical thinking."
Anyone who spends time at a school quickly notices that kids of all ages disparage the students in "special education." So-called "sped" kids are, in the words of other kids, “stupid,” “retards,” or “losers.” The stereotyping elicited by learning differences is the last widespread, unaddressed prejudice, the last “ism” spreading through our schools, breaking the spirits of millions of children.
This should not be. The documented damage done by stereotyping, in which a stereotyped group performs down to expectations, is called “stereotype threat.”
But we are one attitude shift away from changing that. As world-renowned psychologist Timothy D. Wilson writes in his groundbreaking book, Redirect: "One remarkable thing about these deficits in performance [related to stereotype] is how easily they are corrected [emphasis mine]. A simple reinterpretation of a meaning of a test can eliminate the achievement gap. So can attempts to reduce the salience of the negative stereotype — by, for example, emphasizing positive aspects of one’s group or introducing people to a positive role model from the stereotyped group (for example, a female math whiz)."
Lots of research proves that playing up a child’s strengths instills attitudes that lead to success and well-being. All people work harder and perform better when they believe they can grow and flourish, when they feel optimistic about their futures, and feel they can excel, despite disappointment and defeat. Their beliefs allow them to greet each day with "Look out world, here I come!"
Ned Hallowell, M.D., is founder of the Hallowell Centers for Cognitive and Emotional Health, outside Boston and in New York City. He is the author of 19 books, including Worry: Hope and Help for a Common Condition.