“My brain won’t write what I think.”, Alex said to me at our first counseling session. The 4th grade boy did well with math in school and was a good reader, but struggled with writing tasks, particularly those in social studies. His class was learning how to answer Data Based Questions (DBQ’s), a form of constructed response question students would face on state assessments starting at 4th grade. The stakes were high, and his teacher felt Alex ‘could do it’ based on his class participation and his oral responses in discussion with her. She would work with him discussing the questions, and he would come up with great answers orally. She would move on to help other kids telling him, ‘Ok just write down what we talked about’. Ten minutes later, he would have but one sentence written, often a simple rephrasing of the question. She assumed he was goofing off. Instead, Alex struggled with linguistic intelligence. Hearing and writing might be wired together for most of us, but not for Alex.
Howard Gardner’s 1983 book, Frames of Mind: The Theory of Multiple Intelligences, described intelligence as a composite of eight intelligences: musical-rhythmic, visual-spatial, verbal-linguistic, logical-mathematical, bodily-kinesthetic, interpersonal, intrapersonal, and naturalistic. Alex’s brain simply didn’t work like other kids’ when it came to writing, or verbal-linguistic intelligence, and he was as frustrated as his parents and teachers. Alex was motivated, social with classmates, and hardworking, but just couldn’t put the words and sentences in his mind on paper.
Alex required targeted interventions to strengthen the neural pathways associated with writing. Much like a muscle when exercised regularly, Alex’s brain required specific exercises that would make writing more automatic and seamless, consuming less valuable working memory and energy in the process. The boy also needed a safe environment free of stress or anxiety associated with writing tasks. It is the system activation or arousal which humans experiences as stress and/or anxiety that impairs the ability to focus on the task – in Alex’s case, writing. For children, and adults, the outcome is task avoidance. Hence the ‘he won’t try’ refrain or blaming the victim for doing what the brain tells you to do in anxiety provoking situations – get the hell out of there.
Fortunately for Alex, he had a caring and able teacher, loving parents, and a competent psychologist. His teacher collected data to document his needs, his parents supported their son and the school through the entire process of remediation, and his psychologist understood Gardner’s theory and the deleterious impacts of stress on brain plasticity and neural pathway development. The supportive environment provided in school and home helped Alex process his unique challenges that could otherwise have spiraled into a full-blown fight or flight case of learner helplessness. Alex would become more proficient at DBQ’s and writing, though his strengths would remain in math and other academic areas. Over time, his writing would no longer be problematic as his other intelligences thrived.
- Gardner, H. (1993). Frames of mind: The theory of multiple intelligences. New York, NY: BasicBooks.