Demystifying Learning Disabilities: Empowering Students
By: Rivka Schonfeld –
Meet Noam, a ninth grader I worked with several years ago. Noam came to my office because he was struggling with his biology curriculum. Though Noam was extremely smart, he had ADHD, which made it hard for him to focus on all of the material presented during class. Before we even looked at the material together, I asked Noam how he learned best. His face was blank as he responded, “Um, Mrs. Schonfeld, I really am not sure.”
We spent the next hour discussing the learning strengths and weakness of children with ADHD. I explained that often children with ADHD are wonderful at memorization, are visual learners, and are particularly adept at creative endeavors. On the other hand, reading long passages of text and performing rote operations can be difficult.
When we were finished with our conversation, it was like a light bulb had gone off in his head. He had always had the tools to succeed – he just didn’t know what they were. Together, we created a study plan that emphasized his strengths: graphic organizers, flash cards, and information set to song. I’m happy to say that Noam hasn’t needed my help since then.
What Noam and I did together in our first session had nothing to do with his biology curriculum, rather we focused on his brain and how his disability affected the way he learned. With all the time that we, in the education world, spend on modifying education for children with learning disabilities, we often forget to explain to them why they might need modification.
Demystification is the formal educational of “explaining to the child the facts about their learning disabilities and helping them to understand the challenges and strengths learning disabilities can bring.”
Demystification is actually a wonderful tool for helping children overcome their learning disabilities because it enables children to understand how they learn. They identify and understand their individual strengths and weaknesses – thereby learning how to advocate for themselves.
How can you go about the “demystification process?”
Identify his strengths. Most learning disabilities have positive aspects. Helping a child understanding what his strengths are will not only reinforce his skills, it will also increase his confidence. A great way to get your child to understand his assets is to get him to identify those assets himself. Have him create a “smart poster” with pictures of his strengths or create a song about his learning style. These creative outlets are often perfect for many children who suffer from learning disabilities.
It is important to begin the demystification process with an identification of strengths, rather than focusing on the downsides of the disability. This positive start to the process allows your child to know that even if he struggles in ways that other children do not, he might have something extra in other areas.
Explain the science of the disability. Helping your son understand what it is that makes learning hard for him will facilitate his learning in the future. If he is able to recognize what is going wrong – he might figure out a way to make it right. Ask a professional about different books that you and your child can read together about the learning disability. If your child is a visual learner, see if there are pictures or charts. If your child is an auditory learner, help him understand through an animated discussion.
There are even children’s books available for many common learning disabilities. In fact, one of the central reasons I wrote my children’s book about ADHD, My Friend, the Troublemaker, was to take the mystery out of the learning disability. Picture books are a great way to help children understand the way their brain works – especially if they are young when they are diagnosed.
Create a tailored learning plan. Based on your child’s disability and ensuing strengths and weaknesses, develop a learning plan that plays to his assets. This learning plan is different for each student, depending on his strengths and weaknesses. I have included some general modifications for two common learning disabilities:
Stronger emphasis on visual learning. Children with ADHD tend to be more comfortable with pictures and images than with text and words. Therefore, studying through visually organizing material can be significantly more productive than repeating words aloud.
Set timers to complete tasks. Getting distracted from the task at hand can often make those with ADHD not finish their assignments. Therefore, setting a timer allows them to know that they only have a finite amount of time to complete the task and thereby encourages them to ignore distractions.
Take frequent short breaks. Children with ADHD are multi-attentional and therefore need to focus on other tasks in order to fully engage them.
Stronger emphasis on phonics. Phonics, or the system of sounds corresponding to different letters, has been proven to be more effective than sight-reading for those with dyslexia. Therefore, a strong focus on phonics will help dyslexic children learn to read.
Encourage books on tape. For dyslexic children, reading can take ten times as long as for those who do not have dyslexia. Therefore, persuade your child to read a few chapters in the book, so that he continues to practice reading. Then, if there are audiotapes available, allow him to listen to the rest of the reading.
Use glossy paper or multiple colors on charts. Children with dyslexia have trouble distinguishing one letter from another, but have no problem with colors. Therefore, when presenting charts or visual material, differentiating the sections will add comprehension.
Demystification is an important part of the learning process for children with learning disabilities. After all, how can we expect them to overcome their disabilities if they do not truly understand what they are facing? Through demystification, you can help your child be his own best advocate!