When a Learning Difference Becomes an Opportunity

By | January 5th, 2017 | 6 comments

Student Highlighting TextbookDid you know that having a learning difference can be incredibly empowering for a girl?

I 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, 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.

6 Responses to “When a Learning Difference Becomes an Opportunity”

  • John says:

    I like the perspective given in the article about how a learning difference can become an opportunity. I had a really good friend in college that struggled with dyslexia, and he was able to turn that difficulty into a strength. With a lot of effort on his part, and a good school that helped work with his learning difference, he was able to eventually graduate! I think success with a learning difference is possible as long as you have the growth mindset mentioned above.

  • Jamie Lee says:

    What I love about this is how the same principles will apply to a woman’s life beyond girlhood and into womanhood. Any girl or woman who has to negotiate a life and career with limitations (and don’t we all have them) will need to lean on “assertive, authentic self-expression.” Thanks for this!

  • […] creative pursuits and still trying to be the best at everything, including niceness. I recommend this blog post in which Rachel Simmons talks about how a learning difference helped one thoughtful girl stay free […]

  • Rachel Simmons says:

    Thanks, Vaunie and Barbara! Vaunie, I credit you with helping me to make these connections about learning differences and girls. Remember that fantastic conversation we had in your office? Am hoping for more! Have a great return to school….

  • Vaunie Graulty says:

    … so well said! both by Sara and by Rachel. What a relief it is for a girl to be given permission to reveal self-doubt and turn it into an opportunity for honest self-appraisal! I believe a learning difference is a kind of yin and yang situation. The every day challenges can feel like crises, but from them students learn to discover their resources and to take charge. I am looking forward to continuing these encouraging and insightful conversations with Rachel. Her connection with us at MHS and within our Academic Skills Center has been so productive. She has given us a new lens through which to view and then crystallize the work we have been doing with girls.

  • Barbara Newman says:

    Just read this and truer words were never spoken. You framed it so well: Balanced, Growth Mindset and Self-Advocate. All things that she has learned both intuitively and as a MHS student. Sara has grown to understand that one can make lemonade out of lemons!!


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