When a Learning Difference Becomes an Opportunity
Did you know that having a learning difference can be incredibly empowering for a girl?
I recently interviewed Sara, 17, for a Teen Vogue article about The Curse of the Good Girl. Like many girls, Sara has struggled with the Curse, the pressure to conform to a version of girlhood impossible to attain: to be friends with everyone, nice all the time, flawless at schoolwork and completely selfless. But having a learning disability has introduced Sara to a new set of skills and abilities that have buffered her against the unhealthy pressure to be perfect.
As a student at a boarding school in the northeast, Sara’s learning differences are especially challenging in the intense pressure of a college prep environment. “I have a truckload of learning disabilities,” she told me. “I’m in the 5th percentile in processing. Everything I do is just twice or three times as slow as everybody else.”
Turns out, this was one of the best things that ever happened to her. Sara is a self-described recovering Good Girl. She spent most of middle and high school determined to be the best. “I was friendly to everybody. There wasn’t a single person in the hallway that I didn’t smile at,” she remembers. “I was always, like, ‘Gotta be the best, gotta be this, gotta be that, gotta be on top.”
Sara’s learning challenges threw a bottleneck in her drive to be perfect. In the process, it made her a much more reasonable, balanced young woman. Here’s how it empowered her:
- Balanced Self-Image – The Curse of the Good Girl expects girls to be perfect. Having a learning difference encourages girls to face their imperfections head on. Ignoring her difference is not an option for Sara. In order to succeed with a learning difference, she needs to get comfortable with her limits. She can’t flip out and give up every time she makes an error. “I have had to come to terms with the fact that my C in math just like isn’t gonna be a B even if I’m working my hardest,” she told me.
- A Growth Mindset – Girls who have learning differences learn not only to accept mistakes, but to expect them. This makes it easier to take a risk and try something new without the pressure to be perfect the first time. Carol Dweck calls this a “growth mindset,” an approach to life and learning where you regard yourself as a work in progress. Girls who try to avoid mistakes take fewer healthy risks. They are the students who raise their hands only when they have the right answer, or avoid classes where they fear they can’t get an A. “I have had to work extra, extra hard to get maybe the same place as someone else, and that’s been a struggle. At the same time, I guess that I’ve never backed down or like not tried as hard because I had learning disabilities,” Sara said.
- Self-Advocacy – In order to succeed with a learning difference, a girl needs to communicate early and often with her teachers. She must assert her limits and her needs, and request help as soon as it’s required. The terms of her success are built on assertive, authentic self-expression. These girls don’t get a chance to practice seeming perfect to others. They don’t try to put up a front.
I don’t mean to suggest having a learning difference is ideal. But there’s no question that the experience builds profound resilience. At Miss Hall’s School, where I served as Scholar-in-Residence last year, the learning specialists approach learning challenges as an opportunity to empower girls.
Learning these skills shouldn’t just be reserved for girls who face challenges. All girls should be required to communicate with teachers about their needs and limits. Girls are under particular pressure to tie their self-esteem to a single failure. This could be one of their most important lessons.