Phelps and Focus
Any frequent reader of this blog could easily predict my reaction to Michael Phelps' triumphs at the Summer Olympic Games. In fact, my cheers might have been heard around the world. I appreciate and applaud Phelps’ remarkable accomplishments, but above all, I am enormously grateful to him for shaking up mistaken notions about non-conforming kids. Teachers, parents, coaches, etc. all too often jump to unwarranted conclusions such as that of Michael’s teacher who boldly told his mom (as quoted by the New York Times), "'Your son will never be able to focus on anything.'"
When I was a graduate student in school psychology, a very wise professor repeatedly cautioned, "Don’t jump to the conclusion that a child 'can't focus' when the fact may actually be that he isn't focusing on what you want him to focus on." That's Michael Phelps' story for sure.
While kids like Michael are not truly challenged, they do challenge us to find a way to reach them. Debbie Phelps did exactly that. Michael was always "all sports," so she gave him the Baltimore Sun sports pages to make reading worth his while. Although her own life had many other challenges, she made the effort to focus on who the real Michael was. She listened and took him seriously when he said he wanted to get off Ritalin to spare himself the embarrassment of the daily call to the school nurse’s office to take a pill.
With their physician’s approval and monitoring, Michael did, as promised, manage his own behavior without meds. Though never a star student, he had learned to do at least the minimum school work required. He found his focus (and then some!) in the family sport of swimming. By his 11th year, his coach predicted Olympic stardom, and the rest is history, underscored by his mother’s level-headedness and singular respect for her son’s unique strengths (although she was mindful of his limitations too).
For more real stories illustrating the merits of discovering your child’s strengths, I heartily recommend a book (written before the Michael Phelps story) by Jenifer Fox entitled Your Child’s Strengths: Discover Them, Develop Them, Use Them. There is a determined (though, to date, minority) movement in American education to focus on kids' strengths rather than their weaknesses. The author of this book, an educator of distinction, makes a case that should liberate more talented children from unhelpful labels. Michael and Debbie Phelps have contributed to that cause in a very important way.
August 26, 2008