Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Misunderstood Minds – An Introduction to Children Who Learn Differently

I recently discovered a wonderful resource to help teachers and parents better understand learning issues. Learning differences and difficulties are notoriously tough to understand and recognize. In the past, students who learned differently were often segregated to separate schools or classrooms and were denied a quality education. In the 1970s, with the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), more attention was given to supporting students who learn differently in the regular classroom – however, it was still often seen as the Special Education department's job to identify and support students. Unfortunately, too often students needed to have significant achievement gaps, behavioral issues, or failures before support was provided. 

More recently, with the implementation of Response to Intervention (RTI), classroom teachers have the responsibility to identify students who need more individualized support in a proactive manner. The model in Wisconsin centers on culturally responsive practices, using collaboration, balanced assessment, and high quality instruction within a multilevel system of support to help students achieve academic standards.
This has the potential to significantly decrease the referrals to special education for all students. It also challenges the traditional model of education that assumes all students learn the same and if not, the problem is with the student. Instead, RTI recognizes that students learn differently and some may need more individualized instruction based on their strengths (not just deficits) to achieve.

An excellent resource to introduce teachers to the complexities of learning differences and difficulties is the PBS video "Misunderstood Minds." It follows three years in the lives of five families whose children struggle to learn. In addition, there is an excellent companion website that provides definitions, explanations, and resources for learning difficulties in reading, writing, math and attention. One of the most unique aspects of the website are the “Experience Firsthand” activities that simulate what it would look and feel like to have a particular learning difficulty. The video is about 90 minutes long but provides an excellent personal portrait of each of the children, the struggles of their families, and the complexities of understanding learning difficulties. I will provide a brief summary of the video.

The first student introduced was Nathan VanHoy, who struggled to read. His struggles were masked by his strong verbal skills and ability to memorize, but he knew he wasn't reading like his classmates. After intensive testing, he was diagnosed with a phonemic awareness problem -- an inability to innately distinguish between the different letter sounds that form words. With great trepidation, his mother made the decision to have Nathan have lessons in the school's resource room which provided intensive training in phonemic awareness. He made progress, but also had plateaus. 

The next student profiled was Lauren Smith, who was creative, dramatic and social, but had difficulties with focus, attention, and organization. In addition to academic problems, Lauren had difficulty making and keeping friends. These issues helped her doctors diagnose an attention difficulty, that most likely resulted from an imbalance of dopamine in her brain. Hesitant to use medication for Lauren, her parents decided to try sending Lauren to a different school, which at first seemed to help. But, when the newness wore off, Lauren continued to have academic and social difficulties. Her parents agreed to try medication for Lauren in addition to other strategies, such as coaching in academic and social interactions, organization tools, and time management. With a multi-tiered approach, Lauren found more success. 

Next the video introduced Sarah Lee. She was very popular, highly social and interactive until about fourth grade. At that time, she began to struggle to articulate her ideas in class and stopped participating. After some testing, the speech and language specialist recognized that Sarah Lee had expressive language deficiency and recommended a full and ongoing language immersion program - almost like second language instruction. With constant practice and feedback, Sarah Lee made significant improvement. 

The next segment profiled Adam, who struggled with reading throughout elementary school, but when tested was determined to be "average" so his learning difficulties were not identified until high school.  At that point, he hated school and skipped it, turning to the streets to find acceptance.  Unfortunately, this led to using alcohol and drugs to numb his frustration and disappointment and stealing.  When caught, he was jailed, but being sober and attending classes, he began to make progress.  Unfortunately, when he returned to high school, he did not receive support and was eventually expelled. Without a diploma, his options are limited.  

The last story focused on another Nathan, who showed frustration and aggression in kindergarten.  An early diagnosis indicated ADD, but medication didn't seem to work. He stopped taking it and his mother decided to home school.  He continued to struggle and began to exhibit depression and suicidal thoughts.  At this point, he met with Dr. Levine, who found Nathan was highly intelligent and had strong visual skills, but struggled with graphomotor (writing) skills - in other words, he knew what he wanted to write, but struggled to form the words.  Dr. Levine showed him how to use his strengths to support his writing.  In addition, Nathan's parents decided that more structure and discipline would help Nathan and they enrolled him at a military school.  At the end of the first year, Nathan had regained some confidence and found more success in his academics.

This video illustrated the long and difficult process that many families go through to support their children who learn differently than others in school. The children who struggle to learn also struggle with negative emotions such as teasing from classmates, disappointment of the adults around them, and the constant labels of lazy, stupid or obstinate. Learning difficulties are not easy to assess and diagnose, and children often learn survival strategies that mask the real problem. Once a learning difficulty is diagnosed, there are many difficult decisions that need to be made. The video also showed the struggle of the parents - to readjust their understanding of their children, to make life-changing decisions, and to work within and outside of schools' special education perimeters. It also illustrates the importance of social, cultural and economic capital - as the parents needed to negotiate multiple systems of support and expectations.

Winston Churchill, former British Prime Minister, had learning difficulties in school. He was quoted with saying, "I was, on the whole, considerably discouraged by my school days. It was not pleasant to feel oneself so completely outclassed and left behind at the beginning of the race." It is essential that,
as teachers, we identify student early who struggle and provide support, rather than make assumptions about home life, work ethic and attitude. As one of my pre-service teachers reminded us in discussion, “You know what happens when you assume?” . . . . I'll let you finish the phrase.

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