Tuesday, 21 June 2016

Celebrating Diversity of the Mind: Five Ways to Support Students with Learning Disabilities.

Let's celebrate diversity. Not diversity of cultures, race or religions. Not diversity of teaching practices, but diversity of minds and five actions that a strong and supportive family and school can do to nurture students who, as exceptional learners, have a diagnosed learning disability.

But first, why do I care about exceptional learners; those kids who are the definition of diverse minds? Well, working as a teacher in a Learning Disabilities Academy puts me front and centre into the world of diverse minds and the incredible gifts these children possess.  These students are as intelligent as their peers, but, for some interesting twist of fate and brain development, the way they learn, process information, produce ideas and interact with the world,  is markedly different from many other children.  They come to us often utterly defeated by the school system and their own difficult, if not impossible, effort to fit in.  They come to us scared, withdrawn, or spitting mad. They were often the kid that the teacher and other kids didn't like, they were the discipline case, they were the invisible child at the back of the classroom so quiet the teacher hardly notices their presence, or they were the social butterfly or jock who use bluster, bravado and popularity to hide the fact that learning is hard for them.  

And, unfortunately, sometimes these children come to equate a learning disability with the inability to learn; with an inescapable fact that they might never be successful.  I think that for those who are still struggling to come to terms with the uniqueness of their own learning, it is so very easy to see a learning disability diagnosis as a terrible thing:  a label, a sentence, a definition.  

I don't see it that way.  

But what I will acknowledge as a hard truth is that is is often the side-effects of those learning differences that are far more debilitating than the dyslexia, dyscalculia, or dysgraphia your child has. I truly feel, that if the learning challenges are appropriately addressed , than every child with an LD code is going to be successful. But, so often this is not the case and then, it is the anxiety, the low self-esteem, the aversion to taking risks in learning, and the fixed growth mind-set that the child embraces, that are far, far more harmful to the child's future as a learner than the learning disability itself. 

I look at my students and I see how five important actions celebrate and acknowledge their exceptionality and diversity of mind.

1.  Early identification 
If you or your child's care provider notices anything that seems to particularly different about how your child learns or interacts with the world, see your doctor. Talk to your child's teacher.  Do some reading.  Listen to your "gut", don't dismiss your child's kindergarten teacher as an idiot, don't hate your mother-in-law who might have made an unsubtle comment.  Be proactive and get your child assessed. A comprehensive ed-psych report will go a long way in helping you and your child understand exactly what your son or daughters' strengths and weaknesses are.  Here in Alberta,   students who have a learning disability will not receive any kind of  meaningful help if their learning challenges are not identified by a registered educational psychologist.  Once a specific learning disability is diagnosed, coding and funding begin to fall into place and then, and only then will your child receive the help they will need to succeed; help such as access to a learning strategist, pullout time,  remediation, accommodation and differentiation. Early identification and meaningful supports can do so much to eliminate so many of the side-effects mentioned above.

2. Accommodations.
Accommodations level the playing field for students with LDs.  They are not a crutch and they are not "cheating".  Diverse minds access information and demonstrate learning in many, many ways. Accommodations recognize differences and  learning challenges and give your child a fighting chance.  Accommodations range from extra time, use of assistive technology like speech to writing software, consistent use of a laptop or iPad, sound-diminishing earphones,  note-packs, digital copies of textbooks, exams on different coloured paper, exams with significant amounts of  white space and audio versions of all assessment materials.  These things might seem so simple but if, for example, you are dyslexic, having all of your texts, assignments, and assessments available as an audio file is the difference between failing all of your subjects (because even math requires a student to be able to read a huge amount of material) and passing  all your subjects. And, achievement aside, how do you function and thrive in this current information age if you do not have the tools that enable you to access, interact with, and produce that information?

3. Differentiation
Your child is blessed with a beautiful and capable brain.  It is not broken, it just accesses, processes and  retains information differently. Your child's teacher's job is not to "fix" them, but rather, to help them develop the ability to learn despite their exceptionality using, literally, every strategy and tactic at their disposal. Yes, it is true that if diagnosed early, a great deal of remediation is possible,  especially with dyslexia, but how a child learns is uniquely them and is something to embrace, not rail against.  That is why I am a such a great proponent of differentiation.  Differentiation is mindfully examining instructional and assessment practices and personalizing  one or the other (or both) based upon the needs of the child. It is one of the most respectful acts of pedagogy as differentiation is the explicit acknowledgement that your child is exceptional and therefore deserves a personalized education that best suits his or her needs.   However, it is vital that parents and teachers understand that differentiation is not modification of curricula or assessment.  A child with an LD is more than capable of excelling within the parameters of standardized curricula, but will shine even more if their teachers understand that how they deliver the curriculum will often make the greatest difference. It is also important to note, that differentiation is not a total re-shifting of a classroom and a teacher's pedagogy.  Often times, small tweaks make more than enough difference. I consider it mindful teaching.  Sometimes, I do have to radically rethink a lesson, and sometimes, everyone can cope simply because I provided an audio file of the novel we are reading or I made sure the notes for the lesson were up on Moodle or I give the students the choice between writing down a response or recording it using digital tools like Audacity, Voice Memo or Croak It.

4. It takes a village....
Andrew Solomon, in his talk Love, no matter what  tells the truth that "Ironically, it turns out, that it's our differences, and our negotiation of difference, that unite us".  In the world I work in, it is never just one person who makes the difference in a child's life.  It is never just one person who takes that child from academic failure and/or challenge and brings them into the light.  And, because every person in my building is  a hand-selected, active and willing participant in a collaborative, innovative, and supportive environment, we "negotiate" these differences together because we are all on the same page. I cannot stress how important it is that this village, this school be united in a singular purpose, but that the inhabitants be permitted to achieve this purpose in what ever manner they know will best suit the student, for modelling how to embrace the diversity of minds is far more powerful a teaching act than simply extolling their virtues.

5. And a whole lot of TLC.
When working with exceptional learners in a building where daily, we celebrate the beauty of diverse minds, it takes a teacher not only well-versed in the technical/theoretical aspects of pedagogy, but also a teacher who brings a lion's heart filled with empathy, kindness, tenacity and, hope to help a disengaged, challenging child with no belief in themselves  find and revel in what the delightful Rosie King calls their brilliant individual light. It's hard work, it's emotional work, it's exhausting work.  But, for those of us who work and learn from exceptional students, for those of us who have come to marvel at the sheer wonder of their diverse minds, it is work that is fulfilling and important.  It is fulfilling because we give hope. It is important because there are no greater gifts an educator can give to a student than the ability to shape their own future.