I have someone very close to me who holds a university degree, and is currently working on a medical degree. She is one of the most humane, creative, intelligent, and caring people I know. While trying to better understand herself as a learner, she was recently diagnosed by a psychologist as being attention deficit. On one hand, the diagnosis has helped her, as it has given her access to some technology and funding which has certainly been useful for her. On the other hand, though, it has deeply undermined her self-confidence. She has told me that she used to learn in her very disorganized [to me] sort of ways, and they worked well for her—she earned a 3.9 GPA, after all. She felt that she knew nothing else. Now, though, she second guesses herself and wonders, constantly, if something is "wrong" with her.
The short answer is 'no'. And, to me, at least, the long answer is 'no', too.
A particular student I knew could not read in grade 6. For years he was his diagnoses, and did not have the cognitive toolbox to see himself as anything but. When groups of well-meaning and caring adults tell you that you are x, you will likely internalize that over time and act as if you are x. Because of this, he was actively disengaged, frequently absent, and presented a variety of coping strategies to avoid embarrassment. When I had a chance to work with this student, I set out to see past the diagnoses. I knew he could not read. He also knew he could not read. We didn't need to start by reminding him.
For a year we set out to treat him as if he were a kid, not a label. He came around, and rather quickly. The goal was to make him feel okay, a part of the community. He made movies in the computer lab that he could narrate. He gave oral presentations. He made poster-boards at home that his mom could scribe for him, away from the eyes of his peers. We put good audiobooks on an ipod for independent reading time. Reading and writing text would come: once he was ready. About May of that year he came to me: "I want to work on the reading." Progress.
We worked together to find some things he was good at, and that started the ball rolling. We let him do what he could do. He did it. He felt good. He was happy. Progress.
I tweeted the other day after talking with my medical school friend about her frustrations at the university's lack of understanding about cognitive diversity. Heidi Hass Gable (@HHG) replied and gave me a line that I really like, one that is helping me to reorient again: "let's get him loving learning again. Then we'll know if there's anything to worry about!"
That line has resonated with me, and is one I think I will utter many times in my career. With so many amazing things in the world to marvel at, and with so many tools to support diversity in thinking, how is it possible that a kid not be engaged in learning something? When we face challenges with a student, our instincts tell us us to find a reason, a diagnosis. First, though, we need to see what really gets them going, what fires them, what they are good at, and work with that. When kids feel successful, they feel confident. Confidence, in turn, sets them up for success. Find the good in people and build them up—raise the peaks and the valleys will follow.