When dealing with exceptional students, it’s all too easy to end up just focusing on their difficulties, to the exclusion of their strengths. Sometimes even the strengths become seen as weaknesses (which is a whole ‘nother story – stay tuned).
You get statements like, “He’s a good writer, but he has major problems with spelling.” That word but seems to overwhelm all the student’s compositional abilities. It mentally halts the flow of positive qualities and of plans, not unlike when we say, “We were going on a weekend trip BUT I got sick.” “She could move up to pre-algebra BUT she doesn’t know how to do fractions.”
Sometimes the difficulties are problems that impede progress. One needs to know how to handle fractions in order to work with algebraic processes. In situations like that, “but” is an appropriate term.
On the other hand, we tend to become so overly focused upon problems that we end up using “but” way too often. Thus, we inadvertently limit our understanding, we limit our plans for future work, we limit what we provide for the student in the way of accommodations or services, and ultimately we limit what we and the student expect that they can achieve. In other words, it becomes something of a self-fulfilling prophecy, a perceived limitation that becomes a semi-real one.
Try this on for size: “He’s a good writer and he has major problems with spelling.” By substituting an “and” for the “but”, we now have a student who remains a good writer, and also needs some kind of assistance with the spelling issue. When we say “and” we do not lose sight of the problem, but we do not as easily run into the issue of false limitations.
“If” can also be a strong word. That sounds strange, doesn’t it? The most wishy-washy, uncertain, provisional word can actually be a strong thing. It’s preconditional, meaning that something can be accomplished when something else is arranged first. Millions of programmers know this to be true; the basic (er, BASIC) If-Then statement is one of the most important phrases around. “If we give him a Palm Pilot with a detachable keyboard, then he can type his class notes and thus will be able to take more complete notes.” This If-Then formula not only acknowledges the issue and the ability, but takes it even further to recommend how to move past the problems to stay focused on the abilities.
Small words don’t earn you very many points on a Scrabble (R) game board, but they can create a surprising amount of results in everyday life. Try seeing how many times you can substitute an “and” for a “but” in everyday conversation. It will seem awkward at first, given decades of saying but-this and but-that all the time. Keep at it, as you remember at times. If you give it a try with your family, your coworkers, your school people, then I think you’ll find a growing trickle of small changes, like the melting icicles of early spring.