At this Sunday’s Academy Awards ceremony, The King’s Speech reigned, winning four awards, including Best Picture. Having been touched by the film, I was happy with the Academy’s decision. The movie offers a poignant portrayal of King George VI and his struggles with stuttering. Colin Firth, who won Best Actor for his starring role in the film, reflected that, “I think what Bertie – King George VI – experienced as a child was that his stammer was somehow being connected with his slowness of learning, or the fluency problem was also a lack of wit. And he was anything but witless.”
Too often, children who are struggling with a particular aspect of learning, and who do not understand why school is so hard for them, come to see themselves as globally deficient. In the absence of a thorough understanding of their strengths and challenges, characteristics which everyone has, children may attach negative labels to themselves. Perhaps Firth was right and King George VI saw himself as generally dim rather than, more accurately, quite bright with a particular impediment. The film certainly conveys that the king’s speech difficulties were affecting him emotionally, and at the same time, his emotional stress was worsening the stutter. This type of vicious cycle is one that plagues many struggling young people, whose frustrations can begin to take a toll on their self-esteem, which may in turn negatively impact their future performance.
To break the cycle, parents, clinicians and educators should focus on demystifying students, so that they can learn about what is behind their challenges, and highlighting their assets, so that they can begin to feel better about themselves as learners. Students should be empowered with strategies, based on their particular profiles, to improve or bypass their areas of weakness and strengthen their areas of strength. In doing so, we will promote success by addressing skill-building in tandem with self-confidence-building, with improvement in each area in turn promoting the development of the other.
King George VI’s true power came not from inheriting the throne but from finding his voice. Likewise, children’s academic empowerment should begin from a base of self-understanding.