Tapping the potential of students with learning disabilities
Monday, January 23, 2017
Student underperformance frequently causes stress for classroom teachers, and one of the most underperforming populations is students with learning disabilities.
Often, these students spend years observing that their best effort falls short of mediocre efforts on the part of their peers. At some point, they stop giving their best effort in an attempt to preserve their fragile egos. "I only studied for a minute, so of course I got a D" is much easier than "I studied for hours over the course of the past week and only got a C, when my best buddy studied in the locker room for 15 minutes and got an A."
What can we do in the classroom to help students give us their best? Teaching students with learning disabilities requires a firm belief that every student has gifts, and it is our responsibility to help them find and utilize those gifts.
Getting to know your students with LDs is imperative to their success. Just because the label on the chart says dyslexia, that doesn't mean that you can make an assumption about what this student can and cannot do. Ask him specific questions:
- What has helped you in the past?
- How can you tell that a teacher "gets you"?
- What kind of tasks are the most difficult for you?
- What academic tasks are your favorites?
The more a teacher can understand what it is like to live inside the student's head, the better equipped the teacher is to push that student.
I work in an all-girl private high school with students who achieve at a very high level. I asked them what I should include in this article, and they told me to be sure teachers know they are smart. If you give them time, patience and understanding, they will do well. They also told me they can be manipulative, playing "dumb" whenever they think you might overhelp and do the work for them.
All of these ideas encourage us, as educators, to know the students — strengths, weaknesses, patterns of behavior and how hard you can push. These pieces of information will be critical in moving forward.
Students with learning disabilities generally lack confidence. They compare themselves to their peers in the classroom (or on the athletic field, in the art room, even in social situations) and believe they cannot compete. In order to build confidence, you must believe in them wholeheartedly.
Despite their academic struggles, students with LDs have extra-large antennae for disingenuousness. You cannot fake believing in them, or they will know it and start to sink. Instead, find ways to support them so that you can insure their success. Scaffold the work, read the material out loud to increase comprehension, set short (and non-negotiable) deadlines to hold them to task.
Once you do that, you can genuinely believe in them along the way. Find ways to build small successes on material that is comparable to what their peers are doing. They want to do what their friends are doing, even if it is difficult.
Find a way to make it manageable. Make them an expert on something if the opportunity presents itself. All of these small successes breed greater self-confidence. Without confidence, our students will go nowhere.
Once you have gotten to know the student and assisted her in gaining some confidence, it is time to help her find her voice. Students with learning disabilities must be articulate regarding their disability and what they need for success.
Being able to tell a teacher that he does better sitting away from the window because of his ADHD will assist him in high school and college. Knowing he should sit away from the window will help him in life.
Help them gain comfort with the words that relate to their LDs — dyslexia, dysgraphia, executive function or scatter. My girls also want you to know that each student is more than the diagnosis — they are artists, athletes, friends, sons/daughters, employees, aunts/uncles. In many of those places, they are superstars. Allow them to articulate that as well.
If a student needs assistance talking with a teacher, there are some baby steps to assist them in becoming independent:
- Talk about what he wants to say and assist him with finding the correct words. Role play.
- Moderate the meeting with the teacher, helping the student as needed. As you work with a particular student, expect more independence at each meeting.
- Eventually, set them free. Role play before, if necessary, and get feedback after.
- All throughout, reinforce the progress the student is making, help her see incremental progress along the way.
I am a fervent believer that students with learning disabilities can do just about anything as long as they are given the appropriate support. Far too many teachers assume that a student can't. Because of this, students get into the habit of giving up quickly.
If you truly know and understand a student, you should be able to put the necessary supports in place to ensure their success on any task. There are plenty of resources to gather ideas when nothing seems to be working.
I personally am a big fan of The Pre-Referral Intervention Manual (PRIM) by Hawthorne Educational Services, which has strategies for nearly any situation a teacher might encounter. Building your bag of tricks, having a wide repertoire of interventions, will allow you to push students beyond their expectations and likely beyond yours.
If you remember nothing else from this article, remember these things when working with students with learning disabilities:
- Love them.
- Believe in them.
- Know that they are more than their label.
- Expect their best and accept no less.
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