“Get Your Gifts Unwrapped:” Why Connections Matter for Kids with Disabilities

This afternoon, I attended a lecture given by Dr. Edward Hallowell. Dr. Hallowell is one of the nation’s experts on attention deficit disorders. His book, Driven to Distraction, co-authored with John Ratey, and its companion book, Answers to Distraction, provide easy-to-read information and guidance about ADHD.

Dr. Edward Hallowell

Hallowell’s positive attitude inspires a different way of thinking about ADHD and other diagnoses. “Almost invariably,” Hallowell said today, “talents are wrapped in disability…and we need to be in the business of unwrapping gifts rather than treating disabilities.”

In order to do this, Hallowell said, children must feel connected. He cited his book The Childhood Roots of Adult Happiness, stating that in his research, the level of connection in childhood is a primary predictor of future contentment and success. (Not SAT scores, grade point averages, starring roles or varsity letters!!) In addition to feeling connected to their parents, Hallowell said that children must also feel connected in their neighborhoods and at school. Connection and community is so important, he said, that the lack of it can cause serious health problems. In his research, he found studies that show that social isolation is as dangerous a risk factor for early death as smoking cigarettes.

To explain the importance of connection, Dr. Hallowell related an experience from his own childhood. As a first grader, he struggled with reading fluency and was, in time, diagnosed with both dyslexia and ADHD. In the 1950’s, services and supports were scarce, and children were often labeled “lazy” or “slow.” Thanks to a special teacher, however, Dr. Hallowell persevered. He told about his first grade teacher, Mrs. Eldridge…every time he was asked to read aloud, Mrs. Eldridge sat right next to him and put her chubby arm around him. No one in the class dared to laugh or ridicule him, so protective was she. At the end of the year, Dr. Hallowell recalled, he was STILL the slowest and least accurate reader in the class. However, he felt a sense of pride and belonging because of his connection to this special teacher: “Mrs. Eldridge’s arm was my IEP.”

Despite his difficulties with language, Dr. Hallowell (still a slow reader) has made a career that is largely based on language…all because a teacher took the time to give him a sense that “it’s safe to be who you are.”

Dr. Hallowell said that when parents comes into his office, very often, they’ll say, “My child has a disability.” His response? “Great! Now, let’s work together.This is a place to get your gifts unwrapped.”

What a lesson for the Church.


Want to read more about this topic? Check out Dr. Steve Grcevich’s series…excellent insight from a doctor who cares.

The BLAZE Conference at Montreat: “Young People ARE The Church”

Last week, I had the privilege of teaching at The Blaze Conference for Youth Leaders at Montreat. What a treat! If you’re looking for an opportunity to meet and learn with some amazing, dedicated, welcoming folks…this is it! I was taken with the genuine hospitality and eagerness to learn I observed in all of the conference staff and attendees. In addition, I was astounded at the intensity of attention~ during lectures, worship and workshops, folks were focused and interactive…cell phones were turned off and laptops and IPads were conspicuously absent. I couldn’t help but think, “The kids who are served by these folks are incredibly lucky to have such a passion and focus for learning.”

The keynote speaker, Michelle Thomas-Bush, provided not only excellent information and insight, but modeled sound teaching strategies as well. Many times, people think of a keynote address as a formal lecture. Michelle blazed a new keynote trail by involving her audience in every aspect of the two sessions. Audience members watched a movie clip, took a quiz, worked in groups, sorted and categorized topics, and observed role-plays. By teaching this way, Michelle modeled how to engage kids and keep their attention. She might not know it, but all of these strategies are essential when working with students who have issues like ADHD, anxiety and other hidden disabilities. Plus…her style made the sessions riveting!

A few takeaways from Michelle’s lectures:

  • Kids today communicate much differently than their leaders did when in middle and high school; as leaders, we need to understand and learn how to communicate with them
  • With social media and texting taking a huge role in youth culture, it is critical to have communication and safety policies in place. This not only protects the students, but the adult staff and volunteers as well.
  • Students identify their parents, teachers and youth leaders as role models BEFORE their sports heroes or pop icons. This is great news! Young people also indicate that they want role models who have overcome adversity and who have achieved goals. Michelle pointed out that it’s important to share our struggles and how we’ve managed them…kids want us to invest time and attention in them. AND…they’re watching us! They want role models they can emulate.
  • Youth ministry is about more than signing kids up for retreats and lock-ins; it’s about connecting with kids and developing relationships.
  • When college students reflect on their middle and high school youth group experiences, they say that they wish they’d had more time for in-depth discussions and service opportunities.
  • Students need guidance and boundaries. Youth leaders and parents who use an authoritative approach help students to learn how to develop their own standards and boundaries as they gain independence.
  • Finally, Michelle emphasized that we need to shift our thinking about youth. “Young people are not the future of the church…Young people ARE the church.”

Michelle told the group on the final day that as the Church, we share! To that end, she has created a free online resource so that you can use and enjoy the resources she created for this conference! Her lectures will also be posted the Montreat website soon; I will post the link when they’re available.

Thanks, Michelle, for the information and inspiration!

Happy Monday, everyone!

Peace: Wholly Holy

This is the final post in my series on peace during the holidays.

As I write this I’m sitting in my cozy corner of the family room. The Christmas tree lights are casting a glow from the living room and Mitzie is snoozing at my feet. The subtle sounds of the first day of winter break provide a calm heartbeat…a teenage daughter padding about in jammies…the murmering of father and son talking sports over lunch, faucets turning on, the dryer cycling with clean sheets.

And in my head, the list of “to do’s” scrolls like movie credits. It’s not unusual, of course to feel a bit fragmented this close to Christmas…there are cookies to be baked, last minute gifts to wrap, notes to be written, travel plans to make. Every year, I find that I seem to be racing toward the “finish line,” not so much to have Christmas behind me, but rather, to bask in that finally-finished feeling….knowing that the preparations are complete.

My race-to-the-finish had a bit of a detour this year. My great Aunt Catherine (also known as “Great Aunt Cate”) is in the hospital with pneumonia and congestive heart failure. She’ll likely be there for Christmas…her 97th one on this earth. Not exactly a perfect scenario.

But Aunt Catherine knows plenty about “imperfect.”

When she married Uncle Dick, she was in her early twenties. He was older, a widower with two young sons. They added two more sons to their family in the years that followed. (and of course, anyone who raises four boys knows that life is FULL of a lot of “imperfect!”)

Aunt Catherine and Uncle Dick,and their famous rhododendrons on Mentor Ave.

Their house on Mentor Avenue held all those boys…along with cousins, neighbors and friends. The window in the downstairs bathroom was low enough so the boys could open it from the outside, roll in to use the facilities and roll back out, hardly missing a bit of play time. The kitchen was tiny, and certainly without the luxuries of granite, stainless steel and built-in appliances. It didn’t matter. Everyone was welcome and comfortable. And, with boys, there were probably lots of typical messes in the house and yard… broken dishes, broken bones and broken windows.

There were also broken hearts. Doug, the youngest son, a bright, verbal, quick witted kid, got encelphalitis at the age of two…the doctors told Aunt Catherine and Uncle Dick to put him in an institution, but they brought him home and raised him during a very imperfect time in history for kids with special needs; public school wasn’t an option and services were scarce. Still, they persevered. Doug grew and learned and overcame many challenges.

I asked Aunt Catherine several years ago how she coped with all of that. “Oh, honey,” she said, “We just did what we had to do.” Her greatest legacy, for me, is her courage and resolve in dealing with disability…her sense of peace in brokenness..

And so, as I rush toward the Christmas finish line this year, I’m reminded that the brokenness is really the best part of the story. Jesus didn’t enter into perfect circumstances…His bed was hard and scratchy, and He was surrounded by smelly sheep, and curious strangers. This was NOT the type of “perfect” birthing suite I would have planned  for the Prince of Peace!

The Hebrew word for peace is translated as “nothing missing, nothing broken.” It’s hard to fathom, isn’t it? It’s not the sort of peace one can achieve by reading helpful hints for teaching kids or entertaining friends here on this blog. And it’s not the peace that I’ll feel when my to-do list is complete. It’s the kind of peace that only He provides to a waiting, watching, broken world that is hungry to be whole. 

I wish you all a wholly holy Christmas.