Focusing on Student Strengths

In advance of the upcoming 25th Annual Model Schools Conference, The Spark had the opportunity to interview Temple Grandin, world-renowned autism advocate, educator, and author. Dr. Grandin shares her own school experiences and her wisdom on how to encourage, motivate, and ensure college and career readiness in students who learn differently.

Q: As you reflect on your experiences in school, what do you think impacted your career the most?

TG: I believe that strengths in kids begin to appear in grades 3 to 4. During these grades, kids may need to be moved ahead in certain areas based on those strengths. There’s too much emphasis on the deficit, and not enough emphasis on building up the strengths into a career. I’ve done a lot of biographical research on successful people who learn differently:

  • Thomas Edison was a hyperactive high school dropout. He said “I’m not a mathematician, but I can always hire some.”
  • Einstein had no speech until age 3.
  • Steve Jobs was a bit of a loner who brought snakes to school.

When I was little, my abilities in art were encouraged and developed, and that became the basis of a career in designing stuff for the livestock industry.

Q: What are your hopes for students today?

TG: I want to see these kids who think differently get out there and be successful. So what if a kid doesn’t know algebra? What if they are good at geometry? In many schools, those kids aren’t able to take geometry and may be screened out of graduating from high school because they can’t do algebra. Why is that? Some kids might excel at computer programming instead of traditional math classes, and we need to get more kids exposed to a variety of things they may experience in work and life. For kids today, I want good outcomes, for them to get out and get good jobs, advance in their careers.

The skills kids need to learn today may be different from when I was a kid, but there are many jobs that won’t be replaced by artificial intelligence that are really good jobs. Welding is one of those jobs. Welding is a class that could save a lot of kids from going to jail or dropping out of school and not getting a good job. Shop teachers can help save kids. The relationships that teachers build with their kids can make the difference, so they can live productive, successful lives. Not everyone needs to be the next Thomas Edison or Bill Gates, but they do need a support system. My science teacher was a great mentor for me. He spent a lot of time with me doing projects. Mentor teachers can turn a kid around. Online learning is a popular idea but kids still need to interact with their teachers in a face-to-face way.

Q: What strategies do you suggest for supporting students who learn differently?

TG:

  1. Help kids be more creative. Nobel prize winners are more likely to have a hobby, such as building things or playing music, than other scientists in the science association.
  2. Basic reading and writing are important. Make sure kids can read a USA Today article on something that interests them. I have to have my college students learn to do research online—they find four journal articles on a specific topic and write a half-page summary. For one-third of the kids it’s a simple task, but for one-third this is something they haven’t learned before. It’s a really important skill.
  3. Increase work ethic. Encourage kids to take on small jobs starting in middle school. Getting job experience and learning how to work has to start with volunteer jobs and summer jobs. Have them usher at church, work in an animal shelter, walk dogs for neighbors. If it is raining they still have to walk the dog. They could help with food at a community event—learn to interact and shake hands with people. Or help an old lady with groceries. These are simple things they can do in the community. My mother got me work with a seamstress in the neighborhood. Learning a work ethic and finding these jobs won’t cost anything. Kids need to get summer jobs in the real economy.
  4. Emphasize basic skills and don’t take away skilled trades, art, and theater. Work math and English into some of these other classes. Cooking is a great way to teach percentages. I was talking with our specialist in animal science, and he said some college kids can’t figure out percentages of different ingredients in meat processing so they have to have a special section on teaching percentages.

Q: What do you suggest leaders do to support change in their district?

TG: We need to look at what are the outcomes we want. Kids need to be able to go to college or get a job and keep it—a skilled trade, for example. Even within school districts, different schools have “site-specific” needs and ways of doing things. My advice is to start one school at a time, and write about it. Celebrate success. I took this approach in my work—it’s how I made changes in the cattle industry, one ranch at a time, finding specific examples of things that work, things that don’t work, and then writing about them to document and celebrate those so others could learn from them. For example, I tried to fix a pig breeding problem with equipment but the root cause of the problem was genetics, which couldn’t be fixed with equipment. That’s how I learned you have to find the root causes of problems. Find out the root causes of problems in your schools, with your kids, then put a plan together to support the outcomes you want.

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Dr. Temple Grandin will be presenting on this topic at this year’s Model Schools Conference, June 25–28 in Nashville.