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Resource Room Home > Giftedness and Learning Disabilities > Good At Everything



by Joyce Steeves, M.Ed.

Reprinted with permission from the International Dyslexia Association quarterly newsletter, Perspectives, Summer, 2003 vol. 29, No. 3. It's worth joining IDA just to get Perspectives - each issue has many articles like this. The Summer 2003 theme was "the confidence/competence link." Their website is


Sometimes a single difficulty such as dysgraphia or a poor memory for math facts can impede a child's progress in school until he feels he is worthless. In demonstrating what they know, dysgraphic children seem to face the most frustration, especially if they possess a high level of intellectual potential. Some parents, trying to do the best they can for their children, send them to occupational therapists. Obviously, this will not do any harm, but ultimately the child must be taught to write in a way that is socially and academically acceptable. If this is not possible then compensatory skills, such as keyboarding, are called for.

He wants to be ...

It was 7:30 a.m. on one of those brilliantly sunny, yet already enervatingly hot and humid July mornings such as those of us who live and work on the east coast know only too well. Six and a half year old B.J. and I are both morning people, and he had presented himself willingly before his day at Camp Discovery to work on handwriting. But handwriting was hard for B.J. and he would rather talk. We had an unwritten agreement that he could unwind verbally for about two minutes at the beginning of every meeting, and on this particular moming he began;

"Do you know about Multiplication?"
"Yes," I said and was immediately tested.
"What's 12 times 12?"
Teacher: "144 !"
BJ: Wow! You're good. Ask me one!
Teacher: What's 7 times 8?
Teacher: How do you know?
BJ.: I just know! And I never forget numbers. Do you know I can do addition, subtraction, and multiplication, but I haven't had division yet. Will you explain it?
Teacher: Well, we need to do what you came for now. If we work really hard on handwriting and have some time left at the end, I'll tell you about division.

 Of course I was hoping that a) he a might get carried away with his performance in forming letters, or that b) he might forget he needed division so desperately, although I knew in my heart that there was little chance of either.

As I often do in my tutoring work, I mentally blessed the parents who had allowed this little boy to do well in everything for which he showed an inclination. They took the time to listen to him, to observe him, and to provide professional help where they, as parents, could not remediate. That moming, when he looked at his previously learned and arefully reviewed letter-writing and commented, "Look at my magnificent M," I was assured that his self-esteem was still intact. Forty-five minutes later, after practicing sky-writing, board work, patteming, learning. a new letter, and further review, B]. rernmded me, "Don 't forget; we have to leave five minutes for you to teach
me division."

Five minutes? For the whole concept of division? Such confidence can neither be demanded nor bought; the con.fidence of individuals who have a passion for topics that interest them and a burning desire to learn more and become more adept at solving problems creatively, while manipulating materials or ideas which lesser mortals will regard as immutable.

As long ago as 1983, Professor Julian Stanley at Johns Hopkins University, best known for his Study of Mathematically Precocious Youth, was quoted in one of the first books to give credence to the concept of gifted children with leaming difficulties (Learning-Disabled/Gifted Children, Fox, Brody and Tobin, 1983.). Stanley had searched for youths who, at an early age, had reasoned superbly in mathematics. He reported that they had obtained extremely high scores on tests intended for much older students, thus he equated precocity with specific academic talent. Here, indeed was a mathematically precocious child. Who could refuse his request to learn? Certainly not I!

So B.J. and I attacked division in the last five minutes of our tutoring session,  and my reward was to hear the words, "Oh, I see. Just like subtraction is the opposite of addition, division is the opposite of multiplication." "Yes," I meekly added, "We call it 'the Inverse'."

When B.J. left, I turned again to the projected Leaming Plan his prestigious private school staff has sculpted for his year in first grade. They had tried hard to make it adequate, and I turned to the comment from his last year's Kindergarten teachers. "This little boy thinks he should be good at everything." Wouldn't you? I certainly hope that he is able to progress as far as he can, as fast as he can, and not have to wait for the non-disabled students to catch up.

Summer Camp

At 6:45 a.m. on a crisp summer morning I closed my cabin door half way up a mountain in Colorado, took deep breaths of the sparkling air, and wondered whether I had lost my mind. Those of us who dare to impose our theoretical views on concerned teachers and parents must believe that it is important to keep in touch with their children in classrooms and in one-to-one situations. So here I was, the Director of a Summer program, and on my way to .teach math to a group of adolescents from all over the United States, for whom this experiment with Summer Camp could be mostly described as a last ditch endeavor. They were all students who had been having difficulties in school for several years, but whose parents believed in them enough to give up their presence in the home for six weeks to see if intensive tutoring every day would enhance their meager language skills.

As administrators, my colleagues and I had struggled mightily with curriculum and scheduling. We wanted these children to have enough time in the day to enjoy the mountains and all their accompanying outdoor sports, but we knew that there also had to be room for all their academic needs: one-to-one tutoring, writing workshops, technology facilitation, art, creativity, quiet study time, reading for pleasure and MATH. These children do not live in isolation and their learning difficulties often spill over into every aspect of their lives. It was incumbent upon us, in this six-week program, to try to meet all of their needs. The only available time for the one math class was 7-7:55 a.m. daily! Before breakfast!! This, for students whose parents reported, "He doesn't like to get up in the mornings." or "We could drive a Mack truck through her bedroom and still she would have to be physically hauled from bed."

About a dozen parents had asked for math instruction for their children and for various reasons. Some of their offspring were considered "lgood math students," but not doing as well as expected, while others were described as having a specific math learning difficulty, or dyscalculia. The students' ages ranged from 12 to 16 years, so individualized programs were imperative. I remembered how they had looked when I met with them the day before, and, as always, I remembered some more clearly than others.

...I mentally bless parents who allow their children to do well in everything for which they show interest... to take the time to listen, to observe, and to provide professional help where they could not remediate as parents.


There was the six-foot something New Yorker, bonded to his Yankees baseball cap and "shades", who had lived for 16 years exuding black charm and audacious personality. His immediate greeting to me, "I don't know why I'm here. I'm a good math student, provided it's not Word Problems." And the other New Yorker, a sweet, fifteen year-old girl, with even more- and more genuine- charm, whose records showed that she, also, was a good math student in that, given a method, she learned it and was able to push numbers around on paper fairly efficiently, and always to the satisfaction of the teacher. Then there was the curly, red-haired 13 year-old looking like a BotticelIi angel who had a long history of failure in all subjects, despite his beauty and brightness, and who had been moved frequently from school to school for social and personality difficulties.

I knew we had to talk more before I could implement my carefully prepared and ambitious six-week program, so I took another, deeper breath and tried to stride purposefully into the classroom. Naturally, I was the first to arrive, so I used the time to make a beautifully written and color-coded list of matters to be addressed on the large white boards we had bought very cheaply from a local plumber.  

One by one they drifted in - girls first, with wet hair and sleepy expressions, then the boys, either looking belligerent or sleep-walking. Fortunately, I had given them their individual folders as they entered, complete with clean paper, a sharpened pencil and a simple practice sheet at an appropriate level..

To get their attention, I said, "Pencils down! We need to talk." I told them first that I knew what they were feeling, having a background in both language and math - wherein should lie wonderful opportunities for discovery and enjoy- ment, as well as difficulties of various kinds - and that my latest learning had been in the area of teaching gifted children. Some listened; others slept; and when I said to them that the most important facet of teaching the gifted was allowing them to individualize and to go i as fast as they can, they began to wake up, : and someone murmured, "I've heard that! before!" I ended my part of the talking by saying, "SO!What that means in this class, is that we all have the same rights and privileges, except that I am the teacher, and therefore in charge. I shall treat you all as gifted people. Now I'm going to give you two minutes to think , about what that means to you in this class."

Some took the full two minutes, but there were others like our six-footer from NY who raised their hands with  
alacrity. They were ready to have a "Gripe Session." I told them that whatever they said in this class must be couched in positive terms, which stopped them in their tracks, and caused them to think. They finally began to talk and realized that the program was for them, and that each one would be able to try to meet his or her own needs. I won't say that the whole six weeks were idyllic. We did problem solving each day, we had time for discussion each day, we had multisensory and "hands-on" instruction, and there was a time for serious, quiet, written calculation where each child was working at his or her own level. Not everyone changed ovemight, but everyone made some growth, although we sadly had to send home our curly haired thirteen year- old just when he was getting it together. Too many years of being the "odd man out" in too many situations meant that he still had a pattem of attention-getting which was harmful to other children outside of the math classroom, and growth in the math class could not com pensate sufficiently for all he had suffered. I hope that, in the future, he will find some benefits from his early morning run down the mountain.

If the students came early they could have snacks before class, and even if they were late, they would always be first for breakfast, since the hungry ones wasted no time getting to the dining hall. They all were successful at their own levels, and we also practiced problems for the whole class with points awarded for the number of mathematical operations used. No math teacher could have any greater joy than to have a shy, introverted boy who had formerly failed in math, seek her out. in the middle of the day to tell her, "I have made 342 points this week. Do you think I might win?" How can a seventh grader beat the tenth graders? But you can bet your life he did! The class soon leamed that putting in a little extra time and effort paid off.

There were congratulations from parents at the end of the summer, when just one hour a day had changed their "ok" math kids into enthusiastic and exciting thinkers. However, my favorite ending to the saga came only recently, and had nothing to do with math, when the mother of our charming New York young lady called me for help. Her daughter is a freshman at an Ivy League College and she happily tells everyone that she is the "Vocabulary Buff" for her year, that she is "in love with the English language," and that everyone comes to her for help with writing. Unfortunately, and I don't understand how this can be, she seems to be doing too well in college, and the college has decided she no longer needs accommodations in test-taking. It seems to me rather a sad indictment if our institutes of higher learning would penalize a diagnosed and documented dyslexic young woman because she is giving more than 100% and succeeding in a difficult program. That successful summer in Colorado helped her feelings of self worth. I hope that will continue.

Vaguely Familiar

Throughout my whole life the most unwelcome sight for me to witness has been that of a child who is sad. I don't mean the trembling lower lip of my toddler daughter when she thought she was not going to get her own way, but the large eyes, hunched shoulders, and haunted expression of the child who knows he is not keeping up with his peers, although everything about him tells the world of a superior intellect. This is not the child who will create a situation in the classroom to divert attention from his difficulties, nor is he one who argues with his peers or resorts to angry expressions in an attempt to "hit back" at someone who is having an easier time. Many of these children are clinically depressed; some are not, and it was my great good fortune and joy to work with one child who was both - in different situations.

Jake was what his teachers called l"a slow processor." He was a slow reader, a slow speaker, and had difficulty in spelling, and in handwriting. He worked extremely hard, but was never praised for his work because he never finished. He had weekly visits with a psychiatrist for several years, but nobody seemed to share the joy he showed when he was trying to beat me in math games, or giving me problems to solve which he had devised in bases other than ten. Nobody talked about the intensity of his love and talent for music. Again, I thanked God for his parents wl\o had tried all they could to make him successful. He shyly came to see me one morning before school, and said, "I've started a band. We practice before school. It's a lot of fun." I said, "Congratulations! Does your band have a name?" "That's the trouble," he said "I chose the name, but the others don't like it. Do you think I should change it?" "Well, what is it?" I asked. He began, in his slow, careful way of speaking, much too, articulate for a nine year old. "Well, you have to understand. We are all very young, and we don't always play everything as the composer intended it, but we do work at it, and you can almost hear the correct notes. So I thought we should call the ensemble, "Vaguely Familiar." "No, don't change it; it's perfect." I said, and he smiled, too. "I'm glad you agree with me. I shall tell them you said it's okay, so it must be." "No," I said, "tell them your reasoning is perfect, and the name stays." "Are you sure? I never do anything right?" "I'm sure," I said, holding back the tears. "Have a great day, Jake." "I will" he said, "I feel good!"


Why is it that after so many years of available research and training, so many educators do not realize that one aspect does not make a whole child? How can a child be dismissed as unsuccessful when we look only at his failures? These are three examples of student behavior, which are affected by school failure, and which can be changed by success, if the intervention is begun early enough. Certainly the interventions I have mentioned were not as early as they might have been, but we must not give up, even with older students. Involved, caring parents, and high teacher expectations are two very salient factors in keeping the psyches of children with leaming differences intact.


Joyce Steeves, Ed. D. is an Associate Faculty member at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, MD, and a University Supervisor in the Master of Arts in Teaching program. She is also a consultant for several private schools, and does tutoring in her home. Dr. STeeves is a past member of the IDA Board of Directors, and has served both as Vice President and Treasurer for IDA. She is a frequent speaker at IDA and other conferences, both in the U.S. and abroad.



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