Focusing on Potential and a Growth Mindset

“Everyone wants to live on top of the mountain, but all the happiness and growth occurs while you’re climbing it.”

– Andy Rooney

At the last parent-teacher interview at the Montessori, the last year before T got booted out, I went into the conversation expecting how it would transpire and I was right. The teacher told us all of T’s challenges: not sitting still, running around the classroom, still needs to work on his pencil grip, not socializing well with classmates. Halfway through the 20 minutes, I asked the teacher, “What would you say his strengths are?”

As a parent, it’s very easy to focus on the things that don’t go well or that need improvement. I can ramble off T’s challenges in my sleep. On the flip side, it’s easy to take for granted the things that are going well and to neglect finding the time to recognize, celebrate, and amplify the positives.

I started this blog to provide an honest portrait of raising a child with great potential and challenging needs. One of my goals is to help reduce the stigma of the label “special needs.” In T’s case, an invisible disability makes many things hard for him, but with the right supports, I truly believe that he can accomplish great things.

With a special needs child, the day-to-day challenges and the long-term worries consume so much of your finite mental, physical and emotional energy. You are constantly reacting to their behaviour or to the issues that are created due to their behaviour or you are proactively trying to mitigate unpleasant and negative situations. There’s often little time to reflect on the good things.

But it is so important to recognize the many strengths in a child with special needs. As the Edmonton Fetal Alcohol Network noted in a recent blog post, the vast majority of FASD research is focused on the challenges and impairments associated with the disability and the simultaneous lack of strengths-based studies can perpetuate a sense of shame, suffering and victimization and contribute to the stigma already associated with FASD – of which T has an at-risk prognosis of – and thus fail to recognize the immense potential and unique contributions that those living with FASD has to offer.

I first saw this video at a work training session. While the context was about how to manage change, this video resonated with me as a parent. The premise of this “How to Find Bright Spots” video is simple. As parents, we obsess over the things that are not going well. Imagine what happens if we obsess over the things that are going well and to find a way to amplify these areas of strengths.

T indeed has many strengths. He is bright, caring, funny as hell, very athletic, confident, charming, resilient, tenacious, determined, very helpful, very savy with technology and loves to tinker and build things. Recently, we’ve noticed what a great imagination he has and how he is a good storyteller.

We want to continue to build on his strengths. He enjoys our Saturday afternoon family swim time and I look forward to having him start swimming lessons. We get him involved at home with chores. We want to get him to try out a SportBall class this summer to build his athletic and teamwork skills.

Focusing on strengths and potential – while being realistic and pragmatic about the challenges – requires a big shift in mindset. It is not easy and there are many days when I struggle with this.

One thought exercise that always helps is a gratitude reflection at the start of each day. It includes a daily reminder to myself to focus on T’s personal journey and to remind myself the only metric that matters is who he and I are today in comparison to who we were yesterday, and the potential of who T can and will be tomorrow.

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