Everything I know about the subject of learning disabilities will ONLY ever be a drop in the bucket of what I have yet to discover

I write this blog post today as a mother, a special educator and as a student with exceptional needs.

The key to really helping students in exceptional educational programs, whether they are in gifted and talented (GT), on an Individualized Education Plan (IEP), a learning plan (LP), or even mildly struggling in a general education program, is a three way partnership between parents, teachers and students.

I know this sounds like something that always happens, but the truth is that it does not always happen (for various reasons on all sides). I have noticed that parents do not always realize how much they can do at home, teachers don’t desire to burden parents and children who already face challenges, and students are sometimes unprepared to fully and actively participate in their own learning. Full and active participation has nothing to do with excitement. Any SPED teacher can tell you stories of how excited their students are.

However…. There is one problem that I have as a parent…

As a parent, I find that I tend to OVER HELP my children. What I mean is that, through no fault of my own, I give assistance (or scaffolding) where it can cause more harm then good. Let me give you an example:

My daughter was highly verbal when she was born. At some point, she stopped speaking. I knew that we had some stress in the house, so I began to cater to her signals. I got things down from the cabinet when she pointed to it and I just allowed her to have her own space and communicate in her own time.

One day I had a friend babysit. Before leaving, I explained to him that she was non-verbal (for now) and to just let her point, she was a really good child – just quiet.

When I returned home I could hear him outside the door say, “No. Nope. I am not going to get it until you speak to me.” She was crying at this point and the mother in me wanted to swoop in and save the day. I found some way to control my person and I walked in and just waited. My daughter looked to me to save her and I didn’t – I wanted to see what would happen. When crying stopped working and saving was no longer an option my daughter spoke her first real sentence in over six months.

“May I please have a peanut butter sandwich?

It was music to my ears. It was also a good reason for me to stop the internal hate that was growing for the person who stood there and pushed my daughter to speak.

My daughter has not been quiet since and if she is quiet –something is going on…lol.

That was nearly 17 years ago.

The point is still the same. I was scaffolding my daughter because I noticed that she had a deficit in an area. My scaffolding would have been helpful had my daughter become completely non-verbal. Unfortunately, I had never fully tested the situation out in order to determine if this was a permanent change or a temporary change. It felt permanent because of the amount of time this had been going on. I had begun to give up on hearing her speak again and I had been researching how to teach sign language. What this taught me was that all I actually needed was to stand and wait and use two of the most powerful letters in the English language, “N” and “O”. NO!

Disclaimer:

Now: before anyone begins to post about the word NO being negative… I state here and now that NO is POSITIVE. It is the best way to defend oneself. Children need to know how to voice it and how to show it in body language (as do adults – for me this is an important skill for all people). A child who cannot say, “NO”, is at risk. There, I said it. I hope we all feel better and can move on.

I need to be clear about something else – had my friends test proved unsuccessful – I might have been really angry with him. But, it is important for me to understand that just doing the test (whether she spoke or not) was the only true way to discover what my next steps should have been. My friend showed me that I was OVER HELPING and that was causing a lot more damage then facing the situation head on and dealing with my daughter directly.

This post is my way of asking parents and educators to step into one another’s shoes. I believe that most of us want what is best for our students with exceptional needs – it’s my hope that those who do not want that will look for wonderful careers outside of education – I did say hope – so please no hate mail.

I have the same capacity to OVER HELP and Under Stimulate the learning of my students, if I am not careful. As an educator, I must always remember the lesson this situation has taught me. I must be willing to research, to test, to try harder, to try new things, to step away, to let another try, to seek additional answers even when I am sure I understand the problem.

As I said before, everything I know about the subject of learning disabilities will ONLY ever be a drop in the bucket of what I have yet to discover.

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Problems for the LD student in Educational Settings

Education Pedagogy

Research tells us that children come to the learning process at varying levels of understanding (Marzano, 2001). According to Gardner (2006), people understand the world through language, reason, interactions with the environment, music, problem solving with the body, socializing, and our ability to understand ourselves. Gardner (2006) felt that our strengths were different but that we were defined by our ability to progress through various situations. Vygotsky (Gagne et al., 2005) believed that learning was a social function, whereby individuals learned through their interactions with more capable and skilled peers. Vygotsky viewed learning as a process that was gained by using prior knowledge (which can be considered simple) to gain new understanding through their interactions with others, which can be complex (Vygotsky, 1978, p. 116).

Professor Gordon L. Shaw (1990) made many contributions both to physics and to the theories of memory and learning. According to Shaw, behavior is “persistently responsive to the authority of the senses” (Shaw et al., 1990, p.117). Shaw’s theories contributed to the multi-sensory approach to learning, teaching and parenting (Shaw et al., 1990). Though this research was highly simplified by the media, it provided another option for educators, parents and students (Shaw, et al., 1990). Professor Shaw studied how music impacted education and the brain, and thus the Mozart Effect®/Movement as developed in the United States. The Mozart Effect® was the notion that you could increase a child’s IQ by playing classical music. Parents across the United States began playing classical music to infants in the womb and toddlers to increase mental acuity.

Caine, Caine, McClintic, and Klimek (2005); Erlauer (2003); Jensen (2005); Slavkin (2004) would add that the best way to connect a student to learning would be through brain-based learning methods. Two brain-based studies that have been completed in the last fourteen years have been the Partners Advancing the Learning of Math and Science (PALMS) approach that was conducted in an urban school in the Massachusetts school district (Fuller, 2001) and a cooperative learning project that was completed at Valdosta State University, in Georgia (Hertzog & Lieble, 1994).  An evaluation of the studies informed that the PALMS study presented evidence that – because the brain-based approach provided additional time in the schedule for teachers to monitor and assist students with individual issues as they arose – it aided in the learning potential of those children (Fuller, 2001). The Valdosta report found that outcomes did not differ between groups that used cooperative learning strategies and those that used traditional learning techniques (Hertzog & Lieble, 1994). This is relative to the LD learner because this learner is expected to adapt to whichever theory is utilized in the classroom, regardless of his or her deficits or individual learning style.

Andragogy

According to Darbyshire (1993), the distinction between pedagogy and andragogy is an illegitimate assumption that has not (at the time) been fully or fairly evaluated. Lind (2008) states that one issue with educating adults is that there is a rush to put all the educational needs of the adult population into one basket. Lind also states that educators often are more focused on literacy over skills or skills over literacy, because students have specific priorities that need addressed and those proprieties (which include things like putting food on the table or affording tuition) take precedence over the curriculum (Lind, 2008). He, however, is critical about ideas that one should not supersede the other.

Adult learners are typically seen as using the following functions to understand:

  1. Incidental: They gather information by being near the information source (English & Irving, 2007).
  2. Formal: They are willing to receive information from an instruction of their own free will (English & Irving, 2007).
  3. Cognitive: They process information through the scope of their own personal lens (Hynes & Hynes-Berry, 1994).

Whether through incidental, formal, or cognitive processes, a student in the post-secondary setting is presumed to be able to be a self-directed learner (Lind, 2008; Rebello, 2007). Again, an LD learner does not necessarily follow this pattern of learning.

Learning Readiness: Problems for the LD Student

Students with disabilities have become the fastest growing population in post-secondary institutions (Hitchings, et al., 2010). In addition to the various kinds and severity of some LD, as well as LD characteristics that impede the decision-making process (Hitchings, et al., 2001), students have difficulty developing the skills listed because of one of the following reasons: (a) in their high school years they were often pulled out of goal-setting programs in order to address their learning needs or (b) they are forced out of making decisions for themselves by teachers and parents (Hitchings,et al., 2010).

Several assumptions are made within educational theory (Gardner, 2006). Those assumptions are (1) that there is no consideration for brain isolation due to brain damage,  (2) that there could not be an alternative evolutionary history to words or language, (3) that all core operations are present and identifiable to most students, (4) that all students are susceptible to encoding, (5) that there is a distinct developmental process that every child will follow, (6) that exceptional individuals exists, and (7) that tests can highlight patterns important to the every learner population (Gardner, 2006).

Schwartz et al. (2005), wrote of a meeting that took place with superintendents. This group was asked what they wanted their students to learn (Schwartz et al., 2005). Unanimously, the group determined that they wanted students to “learn for themselves” and from that learning they wanted those students to make informed decisions (Schwartz et al., 2005, p.2). Nelson et al., (2007) said that the superintendents’ comments were pre-conceived notions that would be difficult for children to break away from.

Broudy (1968) outlines three ways of knowing: replicative (replicate), applicative (apply), and interpretive (interpret) (Schwartz et al., 2005, p. 8). Broudy concludes that the problems with most educational systems are that educators focus on replicative and applicative knowing over interpretive knowing (Schwartz et al., 2005, p. 10). For interpretive knowing information to be assessed, a team of individuals who understand a particular curriculum have knowledge about the student body and have the time to evaluate the information must come together in order to determine the root cause of the lack of growth (Marx, 2006). Again, this is relevant to the LD student because they are required to adapt to whatever theory is applied in the PSI setting, regardless to whether or not he/she is able to learn this way.

Full Text Citation:

Richmond, R. C.L. (2013). Perceptions of Learning-Difference (LD) Students on How their Specific LD Characteristics Impact the Post-secondary Education Experience. Argosy University.

Everything you need is at the tip of your fingers: 4 Tips for helping a struggling learner

As a parent with children who struggled with LD, I often felt overwhelmed and undereducated. There was so much to learn about the condition(s) that I was not sure how to help my children on a day-to-day basis.

I was not an expert on reading and writing and I HATED math. The “experts” at the school and even those I looked up online (when I finally got internet access at home) talked about all of these various programs that I could buy into. They all sounded like they could work, but most were expensive and as a full time student, employee, and mother, I had no idea where I would find the time, the energy, or the money that was required for the program to be successful.

Unfortunately, not having the ability or the means to afford programs and not having what I thought was limited time to put those programs into practice, was not going to stop my children from needing the help. I had to get motivated.

So, what does a parent do now? 

Tip 1: Get educated

Use your local library to learn about the learning disability(ies) your child(ren) are dealing with. This will help you to understand what your school and/or teachers are talking about. It will also help you to understand your child(ren)’s behavior. Are you being too harsh? Are you being too easy? Knowing the pertinent facts will help you to navigate behavior appropriately.

Tip: 2: Use simple tools

Parents always ask what the best tools are for teaching children to learn. In my opinion the best tools are a pencil and a piece of paper. I was a parent on a limited income. At my best, I could afford these two materials. At my worst, I could borrow them. They are not phenomenal tools because they are cheap. They are phenomenal tools because they teach skills that all students with LD need. That skill is writing.  I will touch on this subject in another post, but it is very important that children with LDs learn to write – they should also use a computer and type – but writing is vital – don’t fear it and please don’t allow your children to fear it.

Tip 3: Find Books you can read fluently

Having an LD myself meant that the best way to teach my children how to fluently read, was to read to them content that I was able to fluently read aloud. This presented a problem because while I was a good silent reader, I was horrible with reading aloud. Teachers were pressing me to read books that were challenging to my children, but I was growing so embarrassment from my own out loud reading that it made it hard for me to comfortably read to my children.

I happened upon a book called “How Many Spots Does a Leopard Have?” It was a series of small fables with amazing pictures by author Julius Lester (http://members.authorsguild.net/juliuslester/). I read and re-read and re-read this book until I knew it almost word for word. I then read and re-read and re-read the stories in the book to my children. It became a type of bonding tool for us. Every night before bed my children would pick a story from this book and we would all read it together. I cannot express to you how great it is to see my teenagers pick up the book and read it. They smile from ear to ear and I can see the memories flooding back to them.

I had always presumed that I needed to read longer and more dynamic books as my children grew.  It was my assumption that doing that would teach them to do the same. However, reading the stories in this book helped me to discovered that all my children actually needed was to find so much enjoyment in a book that it sparked them to want to read more.  And they did. They were trying to find more books that made them feel as happy as the stories in Mr. Lester’s fables.

Parents you may not be Albert Einstein (I sure am not), but this is something you can do. Find your favorite book. Make special voices. Read by candlelight. Set up pillows on the floor and light your children’s imaginations on fire.

Tip 4: Get creative

What does it mean to be creative when you feel overwhelmed? When I tell people that we worked with my son to write a book, we often hear statements like, “But I am not a writer.” I then laugh and explain that I am not a writer either.

I believe that our modern dictionaries have ruined this term because they have made it appear very simple. Dictionary.dom defines it as:

1. a person engaged in writing books, articles, stories, etc., especially as an occupation or profession; an author or journalist.

2. a clerk, scribe, or the like.

3. a person who commits his or her thoughts, ideas, etc., to writing: an expert letter writer.

4. (in a piece of writing) the author (used as a circumlocution for “I,” “me,” “my,” etc.): The writer wishes to state….

5. a person who writes or is able to write: a writer in script.

Now, this sounds odd to people because I published a few books of poetry. I write a blog. I taught journal writing. I attend school. I write in a journal. Etc. Etc. Etc.

I do those things. But they do not prove that I am a writer. In my opinion, doing those things shows I am practicing writing.

However, writing as a writer is much deeper then that – or it should be. A writer is someone with the skill to not only understand how to use the vernacular, they also understand how not to use it. I am a long way from that space.

As you learn to get creative with your children, don’t compare yourself to other parents or other writers. Make up things with your children and share your ideas (good or bad) with them often.

And remember creativity is not solely defined in writing. Creativity comes from using what you have around you. You can use food, blankets, toys and even dirt to teach. Remember your childhood. Remember writing with your fingers in the mud? Remember recording the clouds as they blew across the sky? Remember seeing the deep green shades of the beautiful green grass? Tag? Hopscotch? All these games are tools that can be used to teach your LD children how to read and write. Look around you and then search inside yourself, the answer is right there with you.

You can do this and you are not alone!

Things I wish I would have known: The battle of the Experts in the writing of an IEP

Something I wish I would have understood when I started to advocate for my children

After the initial shock wore off, regarding my daughter’s learning disabilities, I made the determination to put her into school. Her birthday was behind the deadline, which meant that she would have been required to wait another year before enrolling in school. Fortunately, the work we had been doing at home allowed her to test in anyway. This was important to me because I wanted her to be challenged and having her in school was going to help to push her in areas where her LD was causing her to struggle.

By her 3rd grade year, however, we were noticing that she would pass a spelling test at the end of the week, but she was unable to spell those words by Monday morning. We approached her teacher and were informed that the school, at that time, was already providing a service to my daughter. We knew that she was on an ILP (individual learning plan). Her ILP was to have us do extra work at home with reading and writing, but we did not know our daughter was being pulled out of class.

We then demanded to know why. Why were they pulling her out of school without notifying us about it? We were told that since she was obviously passing her tests, then it didn’t matter if they pulled her out. We then asked to see the tests that made it important for them to take her out of class – even for a short while. In our opinion there must have been some cause for concern for them to take such an action – especially without bringing the parents in on the plan.

The school showed us exams/evaluations that ranged from the lowest 15% to up to 39% of the average test taker in our daughter’s age range. Something they had never shared with us during any meeting we had had for our daughter’s ILP.

Immediately we demanded that our daughter be tested for an IEP (Individual Educational Plan). If our daughter was doing extra homework at home, being taken out of classes for a pullout program and still showing such low test scores, we wanted to know why.

Simultaneously we had heard about a developmental diagnostic program at our local Children’s Hospital, so we signed up to get her tested hoping that these findings, in conjunction with the school findings would help our daughter.

When we finally met as a team, 45 days later, the school refused to even look at the diagnostic paperwork. They casually explained that an “educational” diagnosis and a “medical” diagnosis were different. That it did not matter what the doctors wrote – if our daughter was responding in some way to intervention, then the school did not have to take those records into consideration. Even if our daughter forgot the intervention (something we already knew to be true) – she was still passing on Friday and this was important to the school.

When our daughters state exams were brought into the discussion, the same was stated – she was very behind but responding to intervention. Yes, she did have a great discrepancy between what she produced and what she could do. This did not matter in the grand scheme of things.

After a 4 –hour meeting, in snowy weather, it was finally concluded that my daughter would receive an IEP. This IEP was not based on the diagnostic evaluation created by our local Children’s Hospital, but rather, it was on the Optometrist results, showing that in addition to a lazy eye our daughter’s eyes were making it difficult for her to read. In my opinion an Optometrist is a medical doctor, but this is what happened.

The conclusion for the school was to place my daughter BACK on the rote-memory program that she had been using and that this was all the intervention that they could provide to my daughter and our family.

I now understand that I have a right to push the school to accept a medical diagnosis from a specialist. I did not have to sit by and have them refuse to look at the evaluation. At the time, I was scared. I was not an expert. I had limited understanding of what I was supposed to say. I had requested an advocate and learned, during this meeting, that the person I had requested was friends with my daughters Principal, that individual went quickly from standing firm with our family, to pushing us to take what the could said they had to offer.

I was livid at the time. I wanted to slam doors, and scream and yell. Those things, while cleansing, were not going to help me help my daughter. It was clear that my family did not have a partner – educationally. The school was going to do what was best for them and not what was best for our daughter. We agreed to let them use that ONE tool they said that they could use for our daughter and I started volunteering at the school and working with my daughter after school let out.

If you are an individual or parent and you are facing this issue, I encourage you to get educated on what your rights are and to stand firm.

The Hidden Disability?

A common set of phrases/questions I hear my non-LD peers say, “You don’t look like you have a learning disability. Is that a real thing or are you just looking for special treatment? You don’t look disabled.”

What I have learned from this is that people don’t understand things that they cannot see with their own eyes. When a person has a physical disability it is most likely visible. This is not always true – as some physical disabilities are not visible to the naked eye.

However, it is this lack of understanding that can make it very difficult for people in the LD Community. It makes us feel like we have to defend ourselves as a disabled people.

I can give you an example. I was lucky enough to have the opportunity to go back to school to try to obtain a college degree. At the time, I was a single mother of one. I was in an IT job during a time when our company was merging into another company. We knew that lay-offs were pending, so I went back to college to get skills in another vocation.

I had been in class with a certain individual for a few years and this year we were going to have to take a foreign language and a math class. I have never been good at math and I have NEVER been able to learn another language. I knew I was in trouble. Every day I sat in the front of class, taking my notes. I copied both textbooks from cover to cover, and I was hoping that “something” the teachers said would rub off on me.

The 1st day of this incident the other student was sitting next to me in math class and I had taken a huge breath and sighed. I had been up all night trying to study for two (supposedly) simple exams. My confidence was in the gutter because I could not remember the formulas and I was mixing up the vocabulary for Spanish.

I remembering the other student turning to me and saying, “What are you so frustrated about?”

“I’m nervous about this test.” I replied.

“Why?” She asked. She had a very bright smile on her face. Her eyes were shinny and blue. I remember them because they were so vibrant.

“Because I have a learning disability.” I remarked.

“Oh, is that all?” She said waving my comment off with the flick of her hand, “You’ll grow out of it. Besides, it’s not a spelling test.”

I thought about explaining to her in more detail, but she had already turned her head and started talking to another student.

The 2nd incident happened about a week later. I was talking to another student when that same woman approached us. She was happy that she received an “A” on both the Spanish and the math exam. She inquired about how we (the other student and I) had done on the tests. I explained that I had failed them both. The other student said she had done “ok” and left.

She replied…(AND I quote), “You have to learn to be more positive and stop letting this whole ‘learning disability’ thing be a crutch. I’m sure most of it is just in your head.”

That was the very last time I spoke to that woman. She may not have meant any harm, but she was causing me a great deal of it with her lack of understanding – her lack of empathy. I am sure she thought what she said to me was enlightening. I believe she may have believed every word she spoke. I regret not speaking up at that time. I am not sure what I could have said – what I should have said – but I should have spoken up. Truth be told, my frustration with her did not actually come from her. It came from the fact that I run into people like this all of the time.

This post is my way of taking a step in that direction.

There are multiple characteristics that could identify someone as having an LD. I am not going to be able to list them all. I have included a few questions with each category to help to show some ways an individual might be impacted.

(This is a sample. I am not a therapist. This information is presented to help to aid in understanding – NOT to diagnose.)

Visual Perception Issues:

Do you have difficulty distinguishing between color or remaining focused on one object when there is a lot of color?

Do you have difficulty with optical illusions in pictures and photographs or in real life?

Do you have difficulty remembering the things you have seen?

Do you have difficulty expressing to others things you have seen?

Auditory Perception Issues:

Do you have trouble understanding what others say?

Is your vocabulary limited as compared to your peers?

Are you able to sound out words, but still have difficulty with spelling and /or do you rely on others to spell words for you?

Do you have a difficult time understanding what you read?

Do you have difficulty with abstract ideas?

Do you have difficulty filtering out or distinguishing between sounds?

Do you have difficulty remembering the things you hear or need others to constantly repeat their statements?

Do you need to use your hands to gesture when you are speaking?

Olfactory Issues:

Do you have difficulty knowing when something smells bad?

Do you have difficulty because you are smelling too many things?

Do you have difficulty describing the way things taste and smell?

Right/Left Discrimination Problems:

Do you have difficulty distinguishing between letters like « b » and « d »?

Do the words ever flicker on the page as you read?

Do you have difficulty remembering what symbols connect with what letters?

Do you struggle to remember directions such as left and right?

Do you struggle with transposing numbers, such as using 38 for 83?

Do you have difficulty distinguishing between similar concepts?

Do you use the wrong words to describe things, mistaking up from down or in from out?

Tactile, Memory and Mind:

Are you over sensitive to touch and feel?  (Do you feel like you can feel one object through another, or like you can feel things you should not be able to feel)?

Do you have difficulty paying attention to things around you?

Do you need to rely on touch to be able to remember how to complete every day tasks?

Are you athletic (Are you good at sports, do you run often, etc.)?

Do you have difficulty with tasks that require you to have good hand-eye coordination?

Do you need to move your body  when you speak (gesture with your hands, tape your feet, rock your torso, etc.)?

Do you often need more time than others to process your thoughts?

Do you often think faster than you can speak (example : you write a sentence but miss a few words because you are going to fast)?

Do you have difficulty controlling your thoughts?

Do you have trouble remembering your thoughts long or short term?

Organization and Sequencing:

Do you struggle to see patterns or trends (Example : if an author is telling a story, do you struggle to see the clues that explain the direction of the story)?

Do you struggle to recall or distinguish between categories (Example : distinguishing between comparing and contrasting a plot or synopsis)?

Do you struggle to form logical patters with what looks like random information (Example: when reading do you tend to miss clues in the writing that point to the ending of the story)?

Do you have difficulty staying on topic when you are talking or writing?

Do you struggle to put things in sequential (abc or 1-2-3) order?

Do you struggle NOT to put things in sequences or in steps in order to process them?

Please take some time to get the facts. If you believe you are coping with an LD, seek help. Here are some websites that might be beneficial:

http://www.learningdifferences.com/main_page.htm

http://www.ncld.org/types-learning-disabilities

http://www.ldonline.org