Increasing Engagement with Students Who Don’t Fit the Mold

Did you see the movie The Peanut Butter Falcon? It was one of my favorite movies last year. It’s the story of three outliers who didn’t fit into the mold their situation demanded of them. All three were rebels, but one of them, Zak, a 22-year-old with Down syndrome who lived in an assisted living facility in North Carolina, was only a rebel because he had a dream to become a wrestler, like his idol, Saltwater Redneck. He can’t imagine remaining in his facility.

The movie tells the story of how the three rebels combined on a journey to help Zak reach his goal. As in every good plot, all three characters experienced an arch to their stories as they learned to serve each other, especially their special needs comrade.

In the end, we saw each of them, especially Zak, grow immensely.

What Can We Learn About Handling Students Who Don’t Fit the Mold?

This movie was a helpful reminder to me of how to lead a kid who is unlike me. As teachers, coaches, or youth leaders, we all have these students. Sometimes they’re obvious, like the students who act out in class. At other times, these students can appear more subtlety, like the kids who always comment on everything during class or the students who can’t sit still for three minutes. The diagnoses for such kids are many and sometimes include:

  • Autism (living somewhere on the spectrum)
  • Multiple sclerosis
  • Epilepsy
  • Dyslexia
  • ADD and ADHD
  • Bipolar disorder
  • Muscular dystrophy
  • Oppositional defiance disorder
  • Visually impaired or limited hearing

It’s often the students with a mild case of one of these who are the toughest to lead because we forget they’re partially disabled and expect them to keep up with everyone else with ease. This is why I have tried to ask myself four questions when I become frustrated leading or teaching a student who doesn’t fit the mold. Before we consider tips to engage them better, I believe these four questions are paramount to answer first.

Four Questions to Ask Yourself Before You Engage Them:

1. What’s your first response?

When they act out, our initial reaction speaks volumes to other students as well as to the special needs student. Even if you don’t say anything derogatory, your body language—a deep sigh or facial expression—can scream displeasure or disapproval. What if you trained yourself in the initial seconds you’re tempted to react to smile. As you collect your thoughts and form a response, smile and think simultaneously. My face gives me away quickly, and initiating a smile while I am reflecting has been a lifesaver.

2. What narrative do you hold in your mind?

Keep in mind, sometimes students don’t fit the mold because they see something no one else can see in a situation. While they may be developmentally behind, they also may just be a leader in the making. Maybe they are acting a certain way for a legitimate reason. What if you chose a positive narrative about those students? What if you saw something that could constructively inform your response to them? I’ve successfully navigated these interactions when I choose the story I am telling myself about them. What affects us most is not what happens to us but what we think about what happens.

3. Can you embrace the humanity of this student?

Criminals are called anti-social. They stop seeing their victims as people and see them rather as objects. I do this too—but legally—when I fail to see the humanity of my students who don’t fit my mold. When I look past their faults and see their needs, I always lead them better. It doesn’t mean I go easy on them or let them off the hook if they’ve acted poorly. It means I interact with them human-to-human, not as a problem. They are people, not projects.

4. Are you able to be a velvet-covered brick?

They need both empathy and empowerment. We must be velvet on the outside, offering love, understanding, and belief but brick on the inside, offering a standard to rise to because we believe in them. My friend Randy has a son named Alex who is on the spectrum. Randy has led Alex well through his childhood, graciously coaching his son to meet people in public settings, shake their hands, and look them in the eye when he greets them, then sit through presentations with professionals at donor events. Has it paid off? You bet. Alex has held a job at Home Depot for years now and is thriving. Randy never gave up expecting the best from his son when others only had empathy.

We increase engagement in these students when we change our narrative about them.

Increasing Engagement with Students Who Don't Fit the Mold