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Stop Acting like Your Child's Diagnosis is Written in Stone.

Today it is widely accepted that all kinds of abilities, and even intelligence, are molded by what we do. Okay I know what you are thinking, nice platitude Deb, but what does that mean for my kid with special needs? It is true, no amount of effort, no matter how Herculean is going to erase a chromosomal abnormality or mend a severed spinal cord, but what we as parents do and what we encourage our children to do matters, a lot. Sure, the name for the condition or syndrome may hold, but what we do has vast implications for the quality of our child's life, and how present or absent specific characteristics predicted by the diagnosis are in our child's life. Simply put stop acting like your child's diagnosis is written on a stone tablet delivered by Moses.

Anyone who has flipped through the pages of Mindset (Dweck, 2006) or Grit (Duckworth, 2016) knows that the notion of fixed intelligence has gone the way of Myspace, Blockbuster Video and fax machines. “Effort creates aptitude”, a concept developed at University of Pennsylvania’s Learning Research Development Center (Resnick, 1986), means exactly what it says: what you put into any pursuit determines what you get out. Aka. “aptitude”, that illusive property of human intelligence or ability, is not doled out in fixed portions, but changes based on how hard we try.


Given this world view, low expectations are an effort killer. Furthermore without effort you cannot impact results. These beliefs became the foundation for the environment I worked to build for all my children, but particularly for my son who was born with a rare genetic syndrome. It is important to tell our kids that that "they can do it", but telling them is not enough, not by a long shot. It is the subtle, recurring, and sometimes insidious messages that our children get from adults and the world around them that impact their ultimate success.

Consider this example:

In the carpool line a parent asks her child Jorge how school was, when he pauses, struggling to find a response, she moves on to his sister, effectively letting Jorge off the hook. Then later in the evening when making Father's Day plans, mom tells Jorge to let his sisters make the cards, "we'll buy one for you to give Dad". In both cases, through words and actions, Jorge gets the message that his mom thinks he is not up to the task. These messages are harmless, right? Likely so, if Jorge on balance gets many more incoming messages from his mom and his environment that he is capable. But if not, these “less than” messages pile up in Jorge’s psyche, and research shows that over time Jorge himself comes to believe that he can’t.


As the most influential people in our child's life, the messages that we parents send on a daily basis through our words and behavior are critical. They can send the all-important, life-changing message that we believe our child is capable, or they can send the message that we are fearful and believe our child is somehow "less than".

-Dr. Deborah Winking, Capable


This line of reasoning is universally true, but the stakes are particularly high for our kids with identified special needs. What we believe about our children, impacts our thoughts and behaviors toward them. The game changer is that these thoughts and behaviors can actually impact our child's success over the long haul.

Ask yourself the following questions:

1. What do I say to my child that communicates that I believe he is capable, and what do I say that communicates otherwise?

2. What do I say within earshot of my child that communicates that I believe he is capable, and what do I say within earshot that communicates otherwise?

3. What actions do I take that communicate that I believe my child is capable, and what actions do I take that communicates otherwise?

Try it on: Keep a journal for a couple of weeks of the things you say to your child (including those that you say within earshot of your child) as well as the actions that back up your words. If you have a partner, review each other’s journals. Review your journal(s) in light of the questions above.

Next time:

We will begin to discuss how to change those messages, but for now I want you to reflect on your beliefs about your child and the messages that follow from those beliefs.

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