Guest Blogs

“How I Learned to Appreciate the Magical Brains I Teach.”

“Students with mild cognitive delays are expected to function in our society just the same as neurotypical individuals. But our society is not designed to support them. My goal as an educator is to change this. Having a better understanding of ADHD has been an important step toward this goal, as it has helped me provide a better educational experience to my students.”

Elementary school kids raising hands to teacher, back view

My adult ADHD diagnosis almost instantly flipped the script of my life. It turned out that my brain wasn’t broken, but wired differently. It can actually do things that many others cannot. It is a magical brain.

While my diagnosis didn’t wipe away a lifetime of frustration, it did provide me with a path forward to deal with the shame and self-doubt I had developed. It also came near the start of my career as a special education teacher, and I’m now a better educator and advocate for my students because of it.

In 2017, at the start of my career, I began teaching students diagnosed with mild cognitive delays. Most students in my class have a comorbidity or two; ADHD is the most common. At the time, and newly diagnosed myself, I understood very little about my how my students’ brains worked, let alone mine. My lack of understanding unfortunately depleted my patience with them (and myself), as I was frustrated to have to repeat lessons and concepts over and over again. Why were they not getting it?

A few years later, I had the great fortune of attending a professional lecture specifically about my learners. There, Dr. Stephen Shaw of McGill University, who researches intellectual disabilities in young students, said something that would forever change how I view my learners and the direction of my career: “They don’t know [that] they don’t know.”

In that moment, I saw it. I was missing this important piece, and it was impacting my relationship with my students. Soon after, and for the first time, I was able to see how beautiful my students’ brains truly are.

[Click to Read: 9 Things I Wish the World Knew About My Students’ ADHD]

We often incorrectly assume that all the neural wiring is “faulty” in children with intellectual disabilities. This unfortunate assumption puts the focus on what connections or abilities they lack, instead of the abilities that shine. This perspective translates into a terrible message directed at these learners: that they are useless.

Most people have an inaccurate image of what intellectual disabilities look like. Peer into my classroom, and you likely wouldn’t assume that my kids have cognitive delays. You would see students who are unique and quirky, who carry interesting conversations, who tell jokes, and who make you feel like you are the best person ever. You would see students who are accepting and kind, displaying a higher level of empathy than they’ve probably seen from other children.

Individuals with mild cognitive delays are expected to function in our society just the same as neurotypical individuals. But our society, including our education system, is currently not designed to support them. My goal as an educator is to help change this. Having a better understanding of ADHD — in myself and in my students — has been an important step toward this goal, as it has helped me provide a better experience for them.

Mild cognitive delays and ADHD affect the prefrontal lobe in the same way. With ADHD, however, symptoms are often amplified. I clearly see this dynamic in my dual-diagnosis kiddos compared to my non-ADHD students. But to the benefit of everyone in my class, I teach with ADHD strategies in mind.

[Read: Teaching Strategies to Help Every Child Shine]

I regularly observe that my students are clearly able to learn and pick up new skills – they just need lots of practice and repetition. Every lesson follows the same pattern now; I do, we do, they do, they do, they do, and then off to work independently. With this method, we are slowly catching up to grade-level work, a feat few thought my learners could achieve. That is, few except for me and my educational assistant – we always knew they could do it.

I need the world to believe in my students. They can do what they set their minds to, and they are capable of so much. They add value to our society. This population, so misunderstood, struggles to get recognition and advocates on their side.

Imagine what our world would be like if we focused on helping everyone become their best selves? While your magical brains may not share the beautiful components of my students’, make it your duty to better the world for them. They all deserve it.

Students with Intellectual Disabilities: Next Steps


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Updated on March 16, 2021

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