Troy loved it when his grandma read him stories. She was animated and tried to do voices for all the characters! But, when Troy tried to read for himself, the letters swarmed all over the page and he couldn’t understand this weird language. Troy’s teacher suspected he was dyslexic.
Jose loved everything about school – except math. He was a talented basketball player and one day hoped to play in the NBA. He loved history, English, and even science experiments, but he just couldn’t seem to wrap his head around math. His algebra teacher asked to speak with his parents about the possibility Jose had dyscalculia.
Katrina couldn’t figure out why she couldn’t focus. Most of the kids in her class had no problem following along and keeping up with the teacher. Katrina’s mind wandered constantly – unless she was thinking about art. Then, she could focus relentlessly. Katrina’s parents wondered if she had a learning disability.
There are multiple types of learning disabilities that children can suffer with all their lives and never know. Help for kids with a learning disability starts with the adults responsible for their learning – parents and teachers. After learning about the different types of learning disabilities, we can focus on how best to help students with those conditions.
Types of Learning Disabilities
Learning disabilities can revolve around how the brain processes new information, whether or not the brain can do certain activities, or even as part of a mental health disorder. Here are the most common learning disabilities:
Dyslexia – Difficulty with reading, writing, spelling, and speaking in front of a group.
Dyscalculia – Difficulty with doing math problems, understanding time, using money.
Dysgraphia – Difficulty with handwriting, spelling, and organizing ideas.
Dyspraxia (Sensory Integration Disorder) – Difficulty with fine motor skills, hand-eye coordination, balance, and manual dexterity.
Dysphasia/Aphasia – Difficulty with understanding spoken language, poor reading comprehension.
Auditory Processing Disorder – Difficulty hearing differences between sounds which creates problems with reading, comprehension, and using language.
Visual Processing Disorder – Difficulty interpreting visual information which leads to problems with reading, math, maps, charts, symbols, and pictures.
ADHD – Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), while not a learning disability, can disrupt learning. Children with ADHD have problems sitting still, staying focused, following instructions, staying organized, and completing homework.
Autism Spectrum Disorders – “Difficulty mastering certain academic skills can stem from pervasive developmental disorders such as autism and Asperger’s syndrome. Children with autism spectrum disorders may have trouble communicating, reading body language, learning basic skills, making friends, and making eye contact.”
Helping with Reading
Once Troy’s teacher and parents arranged for evaluation, they were not surprised to discover Troy had dyslexia. For Troy, it was a moment of relief. He had been under the impression that he was simply stupid. Knowing that his brain had difficulty processing letters and words, and that there were ways to help, made Troy eager to begin working hard with new techniques.
During the past 30 years, research has been done to identify the most effective reading interventions for students with learning disabilities like dyslexia. They have discovered specific teaching methods and instruction components that are very effective for increasing word recognition and reading comprehension skills in students with dyslexia.
Improving Word Recognition Skills
Students with dyslexia need direct assistance in recognizing words – otherwise known as sight words. While many teachers feel that phonics is crucial to improving reading skills, the concepts of decoding, phonics, and phonemic awareness don’t work for students with dyslexia.
Direct instruction means teaching skills in an explicit, direct fashion on a one on one basis or in a small group. It involves drill/repetition/practice. The approach cannot be holistic as students with processing problems like dyslexia simply don’t have brains that function properly. The best way for them to learn is repetition and practice.
Increasing Word Recognition Skills
The techniques for increasing word recognition involves three components: sequencing, segmentation, and advanced organizers. Put simply, teachers start by having students break down words into sounds, giving them cues and prompts to help. As students become more proficient, the teacher increases the level of difficulty.
In segmentation, the teacher breaks down a targeted skill (e.g., identifying a speech or letter sound) into smaller units or component parts (e.g., sounding out each speech or letter sound in that word). Then the student is directed to bring the sounds together.
In advanced organizing, the teacher tells students the objectives of instruction upfront, directs students to look over material prior to instruction, directs students to focus on particular information, and provides students with prior information about tasks.
Improving reading comprehension skills
The most effective way to improving reading comprehension in students with learning disabilities is a combination of direct instruction and strategy instruction. Direct instruction is one on one time with the teacher, giving the student prompts and engaging in dialogue.
Strategy instruction means “teaching students a plan (or strategy) to search for patterns in words and to identify key passages (paragraph or page) and the main idea in each.” Once a student is proficient in certain strategies, he/she can generalize them to other reading comprehension tasks.
With these types of teaching components and learning strategies, Troy was soon reading far better than ever and even became a rabid reader of teen mysteries! His confidence in school increased and he was always happy to be called on to read aloud. And once he had these great strategies to work with, his writing improved too. But many students have other types of learning disabilities that require specific teaching methods to address.
Helping with Writing
For a student with a learning disability, mastering the process of writing is extremely difficult. Experts suggest six principles designed to prevent as well as ease writing difficulties. Teachers must start with providing effective writing instruction, add tailoring writing instruction to meet each child ‘s needs, intervening early to provide additional assistance, expecting that each child will learn to write, identifying and addressing academic and nonacademic roadblocks to writing, and deploying technological tools.
Lots of teachers have had success with what is known as the ELP (Early Literacy Program), where writing and reading are integrated around thematic units. During a thematic unit on eagles, for example, students would read material about these birds and use writing as a means for responding to text. The students’ skills are sharpened (e.g., spelling) and strategy instruction for planning and revising their writing occurred during the study of these units and was encouraged by teacher modeling, group discussion, and guided practice.
For students having difficulty with writing, teachers can provide students with temporary supports like word banks, picture dictionaries, and planning sheets as temporary aids to help children write. A supportive classroom community is also essential with the use of activities involving sharing and student collaboration offering further opportunities for growth. Students worked together to apply strategies, frequently engaged in talk with each other, and shared their own writing with the class.
When teachers encounter students with learning disabilities, there are many things they can do to provide exemplary writing instruction that does not interfere with other students’ learning:
- A classroom environment where students’ written work is prominently displayed
- Daily writing with students working on a wide range of writing tasks
- Making writing motivating by allowing students to select their own writing topics
- Regular teacher/student conferences concerning the writing topic the student is currently working on
- A writing routine where students are inspired to think, reflect, and revise
- Cooperative arrangements where students help each other plan, draft, revise, edit, or publish their written work
- Instruction covering all writing skills, knowledge, and strategies, including phonics, handwriting, spelling, writing conventions, sentence-level skills, text structure, the functions of writing, and planning and revising.
- Integration of writing activities across the curriculum
When teachers can use these types of techniques, students who have writing problems due to a learning disability are more likely to improve their writing and critical thinking skills. The teacher who assigns writing across the curriculum can also identify students who need help in other areas – like math.
Helping with Math
Jose’s dyscalculia was embarrassing. How was it his peers could easily handle Algebra and Geometry when he could barely handle simple equations, tell time, or make change? After he was evaluated by an expert in learning disabilities, Jose was relieved to know he just needed to learn some new strategies and put in a bit of extra time in order to learn about and use mathematics.
School-aged kids with dyscalculia find it hard to estimate things; understand math word problems; learn basic math, like addition, subtraction, and multiplication; link a number (1) to its corresponding word (one); understand fractions, graphs, and charts (visual-spatial concepts); count money or make change; remember phone numbers or ZIP codes; tell time or read clocks, or do any number-based or math-based activity.
Experts in dyscalculia recommend options to help a child with dyscalculia understand math: specially designed teaching plans, math-based learning games, and practicing math skills a lot more often than other students. It’s critical that the teacher design such materials to play to the student’s strengths at first; then, once most basic concepts are mastered, the materials can become more challenging. Building up the student’s confidence in doing math will give him or her the ability to face more complex ideas and problems.
There are also some extra options teachers and parents can use to help their child better deal with math, such as finger counting, calculators, graph paper, and a math tutor. It’s also a known fact that music and rhythm can help in teaching math facts, along with drawing pictures when figuring word problems.
When Jose’s teacher began offering him these kinds of options, he began to improve. But he still needed a quiet workspace, permission to use a calculator during math class and tests, and extra time to complete tests. With these accommodations, Jose started heading to the top of the class – rapidly.
While these learning disabilities can appear in any child, children with ADHD or who are on the Autism Spectrum can have difficulties learning as well due to the symptoms of their conditions.
Helping with ADHD
For students with ADHD, learning is a problem because ADHD affects the executive functions of the brain. Learning involves using the executive functions of the brain particularly the ability to focus, pay attention, engage with a task, and use working memory. While many students with ADHD can struggle with learning and schoolwork because of the executive function problems, they do not have enough of an impairment to be diagnosed with a learning disability.
If a student has co-existing conditions of ADHD and a learning disability, it means he or she has the broad impairment of executive functions along with the impairment of the particular skills needed for reading, writing, or math. When a student has more than one condition, it can be harder to recognize the second condition because the symptoms from each can mask each other.
But experts have devised some behavioral strategies that work for students with ADHD:
Keeping simple, predictable routines throughout the day gives a student with ADHD a way to track what needs to be done every day and what time to do it. A written outline of the necessary steps to accomplish tasks is extremely helpful.
Creating checklists and/or charts
Multi-step processes are difficult for students with ADHD, so a checklist can be made to make those tasks less stressful. They act as memory aids and help your child feel organized. You can take this a step further with a chart with the days of the week. When the student finishes a task, like completing homework, they get a star on the chart or they can work toward a reward of some kind.
Using timers or setting alarms
To help your student pay attention to homework or in-class, set a timer for a dedicated time of focus. When it rings, take a quick 2 minute break, and then set the timer again. This technique can be used both at home and at school. “Alarms can be empowering because it reduces the need for reminders from others.”
A planner helps students understand concepts like the passage of time. They give the student a direct line to what is planned for the day, marks deadlines, and gives them more of a sense of control over their day.
While these techniques are great options for students with ADHD, they also have the benefit of helping any student understand prioritizing and the importance of staying organized – that way, the student with ADHD doesn’t feel singled out. The same can be said for students on the Autism Spectrum.
Helping with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD)
Katrina loved art – almost to the point of ignoring everything else. She was also incredibly intelligent but couldn’t sit still and wait for others in class to finish tasks she finished quickly. Katrina also had trouble maintaining friendships and seemed to ignore directions from the teacher. After a visit with their family doctor, Katrina’s family finally had a diagnosis: Asperger’s Syndrome.
Children on the autism spectrum have “difficulty understanding or communicating their needs to teachers and fellow students. They can have difficulty understanding some classroom directions and instruction, along with subtle vocal and facial cues of teachers. Inappropriate social interaction can lead to challenging behaviors, bullying, and ostracizing. Difficulties with imaginative or creative play hamper interactions with other children and mean that many teaching strategies will not be effective. Sensory issues mean a student may not cope with noisy environments, being touched by others, or maintaining eye contact.”
Because they cannot fully interpret the world around them, education is stressful for the student on the autism spectrum. Teachers need to be aware of a student’s diagnosis, and ideally should have specific training in autism education. Without a specially trained teacher, the student cannot get the most out of the classroom experience. Experts have come up with some basic strategies and ways to successfully educate students on the spectrum.
Basic Strategies for the Classroom
Some students learn more effectively with visual aids. This means teachers can create “visual schedules” for their autistic students. Pictographs allows students on the spectrum to concretely see the daily schedule, so they can prepare for what’s ahead and what they will be doing next.
Structure and routine
Students with Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASD) usually act out in chaotic environments, as classrooms often can become. Teachers provide support by giving the student timetables and the steps for various activities.
Working in pairs
Research has shown that working in pairs may be beneficial in teaching students with ASD. These students have difficulty communicating and making friends. By increasing peer interaction, teachers can help these students make friends. This can help the students become more integrated into the classroom.
Teacher’s aide to help autistic students
A teacher’s aide is also be very useful for ASD students. The aide can elaborate on directions that the teacher may not have time to explain. Aides can help the student keep up with the rest of the class through special one-on-one instruction. However, there is a risk that ASD students can become overly dependent on the help.
Reducing anxiety in the classroom
Students with ASD often have high levels of stress and anxiety, particularly in social environments. If a student exhibits aggressive or explosive behavior, educational teams need to recognize the impact of stress and anxiety.
By using these techniques, teachers can set a child up for success in education.
Successful Education on the Spectrum
Research on ASD in an educational context indicates that there are a multiple criteria that must be met to appropriately educate children on the spectrum. These include specialized curriculum content and specialized teaching methods; classroom support and a coordinated team approach; creating a structured learning environment; and social support for the student and family.
Katrina’s school was able to find a paraprofessional to work as her aide in classes where she had immense difficulty. But not wanting her to become dependent, her parents did not include the aide in courses where Katrina was successful. All of these steps gave Katrina a new confidence in her abilities and she began to like going to school.
Children like Troy, Jose, and Katrina can be found in every school in every city in every state in the country. Having a diagnosed learning disability is not an educational death sentence – it’s an opportunity to work around the challenges and become successful in spite of the disability.