When the IEP team focused on my strengths, it made all the difference

Have you ever heard that story about a child with ADHD who struggles in school, gets the right support and ends up thriving academically? Well, that wasn’t me. Yes, I have ADHD. And I struggled in school. But I don’t think of my education as a success.

Today, people would say I was a child with . But really, when you boil things down, I just could never get anything done.

My most distinct memory from grade school is always being called out in front of class for not finishing my work. Spelling was the worst.

“Mr. Hager, did you finish your homework?”

“You know, I was going to get it done, but then — ”

“So you didn’t finish it?”

I could hear the other kids whispering.


One moment like that can hurt for a lifetime. Now imagine it happening to you every day, in every class, for your entire childhood. I nearly lost any sense of who I was.

Throughout grade school, I spent a lot of time in the resource room. I actually didn’t mind going. It was a bit of an oasis, my special getaway, where no one saw me and I could just be me. What really bothered me was feeling ashamed about not being good at school.

It was confusing because I was a bright, precocious kid. At family gatherings, I would end up talking with the adults, asking questions about their lives and work.

The teachers were confused too: This kid seems smart — why is he failing? Maybe he’s just lazy and needs to try harder.

But I was trying my hardest.

At school, I became a guinea pig for all sorts of educational quick fixes. I remember at one point wearing headphones with classical music blasting in my ears to see if it would help me learn. Then there was the time the school literally put up a set of walls around my desk to block out distractions and help me pay attention. None of it worked.

I do remember school staff caring about me. They tried their best. But what they did wasn’t consistent and never lasted. I think they looked at me as something that was broken and needed to be fixed, and it was frustrating that they couldn’t figure out how.

By the start of high school, I was in a bad place. My parents and the school decided to have me start attending my IEP meetings, hoping that would help. Every meeting started off with a laundry list of what I was doing wrong. “Hasn’t turned in homework.” “Disorganized.” “Not following through.”

I became quite introverted, almost a loner. I’m not sure if that was because of my struggles in school, or because I was a teenager trying to figure out who I was — maybe both.

Change came from an unlikely place. In 10th grade, I ended up taking a standardized assessment and doing really well on it. My history teacher was shocked by the results. He’d attended my IEP meetings before, but this was the first time he’d seen a solid piece of data about what I was capable of.

At the start of my next IEP meeting, he said: “Kevin, I knew you were smart, but not this smart.” Then — and my mom still talks about this — he said to everyone at the meeting:

“Let’s just start with something Kevin is good at.”

Then I wondered, what am I good at?

Slowly, the other IEP team members started offering suggestions. “He’s very resilient,” one teacher said. There were a few nods. “He likes to ask questions,” someone else piped in. More nods.

My history teacher then turned to me, “Hey Kevin, what do you think you’re best at?”

In the last two years of high school, that one question changed my life. I’m not going to say I became a success at school — because that didn’t happen. (Though I once did get a 100 percent on a history test, which I was very proud of.)

Instead, the question shifted the way I thought about myself. Until then, I always considered myself to be a failure at school. My history teacher gave me the freedom and possibility to think that I might have something positive to offer the world.

As high school went on, I ended up spending a lot of time after class with teachers exploring what I was good at. I learned how to talk about my strengths: I’m resilient. (Being called out in class so often, I had to be.) I’m good at connecting and talking with people, just like I did with adults when I was a kid. I see the big picture. I have a strong work ethic. And now I could start building on those strengths.

Like I said, I don’t really consider my education to be a success story. But thanks to my history teacher and the IEP team, I carry a whole lot less shame. They cared enough to ask me about my strengths, and it made all the difference.

Learn how to recognize strengths in your child. Read about strengths-based IEPs and how they can help kids with learning and thinking differences.

Kevin Hager is the founder and president of Hager Advisors, a philanthropic advisory firm. He previously served as vice president and chief digital officer for the National Center for Learning Disabilities (NCLD) and as managing director of Understood. He is pictured above on his high school graduation day.


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