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Challenging a Struggling Learner Mindset - I Am a Project!

Mark Cooper, Ph.D., L.P.C.

There is much written to help parents and teachers to understand and cope with children's learning disabilities. Larry Silver's book, The Misunderstood Child, was a classic for such understanding. That understanding quickly translated into immediate help for children when parents breathed sighs of relief resting on the thought, "My child is not lazy, stupid, and unmotivated after all. A more important thought that parents seized upon was, "My child can achieve and succeed." Hope was born for many families. Of course, the expressions of hope moved quickly from the living room to the classroom.

The desires of parents to help their struggling learners grew exponentially and their expectations for obtaining what was desired grew at a similar rate. It was as if parents could boldly claim, "It's okay to have hope." In the Anatomy of Hope, Jerome Groopman (2004) writes that, when faced with adversity, people with true hope need a mental picture that not only reflects the challenge, but also reflects the potential treatment of that challenge. Groopman outlines strategies for instilling such hope through comforting, energizing, elevating feelings that people experience when they project in their minds a more positive future. Parents benefit from that mental picture, "There is a treatment for their children's challenges." Children benefit from comforting, energizing, and elevating feelings of support.

A Sigh of Relief and a Two Edged Sword: My Parents Struggle

It was the ultimate summer for Mom and Dad. A team from the Scottish Rites Hospital in Dallas, Texas supervised by Dr. Lucious Waites made the diagnosis—dyslexia. The weight lifted by their diagnostic seal was evidenced by Dad and Mom's expressions of hope. A new mindset emerged; one that projected a more positive future; one that suggested that the academic challenges did not seem like such a steep mountain to climb or as slippery a slope to anticipate.

It was not long before Dad and Mom's relief translated into a resolve to make sure they maximized my learning. Dr. Groopman talks about the comforting, energizing, elevating feelings that people experience when they project in their minds a more positive future. Dad's energizing, elevating feelings were far more pronounced than any feelings of comfort. The thought that his son might not have the potential to achieve and succeed transformed into a thought that his son WILL achieve and succeed. Dad's increased confidence translated into a more compelling thought that he and Mom "must" work harder in their son's behalf. While on the one hand a lack of work ethic or a lack of motivation was no longer an explanation for questionable performance, the solution to the questionable performance required a better work ethic and increased motivation. Damned if you can't and damned if you can!

Thank God for Mom. While her resolve was no less compelling, it was far more comforting. She was able to combine Groopman's feelings of comfort with energy and elevation. She had more tolerable tools—patience, acceptance, and a willingness to protect me from Dad's more powerful assertions that invariably ended with feelings of disgust and despair.

A Project Born

As noted, the diagnosis of dyslexia at approximately fourteen years of age precipitated a parental growth spurt in confidence in their son. Little else changed. Pre-diagnosis and post-diagnosis parental behaviors reflected a very similar work ethic that included long hours and much, much assistance and insistence to perform successfully.

While my parents' confidence in my potential grew, I, on the other hand, was becoming more acutely aware of their sense of me as a planned undertaking. The incessant, never-ending conversations about school-work, Mom sitting at the living room table working on school-related assignments hour after hour, the many diagnostic examinations to better understand strategies of support all reinforced a quiet inner thought, "I AM A PROJECT." It became increasingly apparent that "fixing me" was an agenda they all shared - parents, diagnosticians, and teachers. I was constantly under scrutiny, or better stated, my performance was. I felt like the responsible adults in my life hardly ever noticed the real me; it was always what I was doing - or not doing - that captured their attention. I was a patient who needed healing, a problem that needed a solution, a person who needed a better identity. While I wanted to be enjoyed, appreciated and celebrated, no diagnostic evaluation prescribed such remedies.

Father Dearest

In predictable fashion the "project" grew up, went to work, married, and had children. Charlotte, the round peg that fit perfectly in the round hole came four years before Jim, the square peg who fit poorly in the round hole. Jim's first grade teacher exclaimed, "Jim marches to a different drummer. I don't know what that will mean over a lifetime." It was his fourth grade teacher whose proclamation was most disturbing, "If Jim were not in my classroom, classroom standardized scores would average higher." Jim was evaluated and diagnosed as a struggling learner at about the same time. Rather than come to Jim's rescue with feelings of energy, elevation, and comfort, "father dearest" dug in and became increasingly compelled to guarantee Jim's achievements at whatever cost. Patience, acceptance, and tolerance were not components of the emergency relief. The tumultuous years of my youth were repeated. This time I was not the victim of such emergency relief. I was the perpetrator and Jim was the victim. Jim faced a similar parental mindset that suggested, "Jim, you are a problem to be solved and a patient to be healed." Another project was born.

Parents and Teachers Alike: Seeing Children/Students as Gifts versus Projects

The primary and most significant step in raising struggling learners is to see them and treat them with the unconditional acceptance that parents feel for their children at birth and that teachers feel for their students at the very beginning of the first day of school. In those earliest times thoughts of acceptance prevail rather than preoccupations of a child's future performance. Parents and teachers can see struggling learners as more than a compilation of unfinished business.

The ability of parents and teachers to see struggling learners as gifts as opposed to projects is a tall order. In my case, I had to embrace my imperfections more gracefully and worry less about misguided perceptions that suggested, "I am no more than someone's project." It was necessary to see myself as a gift before I could see the gift in others. This transformation of thinking gave me a freedom to proclaim, "I AM A GIFT!" My newly acquired self-perception allowed me to better see my son as a gift, as well.


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Brooks, R. (2004). The Self-esteem teacher. Loveland, Ohio: Treehaus Communications, Inc

Cooper, M. (2005). Bound and Determined to Help Children with Learning Disabilities Succeed. Weston, Massachusetts: Learning Disabilities Worldwide

Glasser, W. (1997). Choice theory and student success. Education Digest 63, 16-36.

Groopman, J. (2004). The anatomy of hope: How people prevail in the face of illness. New York: Random House.

Lavoie, R. (1989). Understanding learning disabilities: How difficult can this be? The F.A.T. city workshop [Motion Picture]. United States: PBS Video.

Pocok, A., Lambros, S., Karvonen, M., Test, D. T., Algozzine, B., Wood, W., et al. (2002, March) Successful strategies for promoting self-advocacy among students with LD: The lead group. Intervention in School and Clinic, 209-216.

Schweitzer, A. (1963). Out of my life and thought (p 74). New York: New American Library.

Shure, M. B., Digeronimo, T. Foy and Aher, J. (2000). Raising a thinking child workbook: Teaching young children how to resolve everyday conflicts and get along with others. Champaign, Illinois: Research Press.

Silver, L. B. (1998). The Misunderstood Child: Understanding and coping with your child's learning disabilities (Third edition). New York: Three Rivers Press.


Mark Cooper, Ph.D., L.P.C. is an Associate Professor of Early Childhood and Special Education at the University of Central Arkansas.


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