What do you think of when you hear the phase "learning disability"?
Many people associate learning disabilities with low intelligence, laziness, lack of success, and not being able to learn. Sadly, the people who make these associations include the very children and adults that have been diagnosed with a learning disability. As a special education teacher, I know these stereotypes are not true.
I recently read a post from someone who was told in his youth that he had a learning disability, but who went on to achieve great career success -- even becoming involved in the education of children. He mentioned that it was funny how the same public education system that told him he was learning disabled when he was in elementary school has him speaking to their state education leaders. The bitterness and in-your-face tone I got from his post was an unfortunate detraction from his otherwise inspiring message.
Most teachers choose what they do not because of the big pay checks, or the glamorous surroundings, and definitely not for the short hours. Contrary to popular belief, a teacher's work day does not end when their students go home. Most teachers choose what they do because they want to make a difference and help kids reach their full potential.
So when I read someone's negative take about how he was told he was learning disabled, when all teachers are trying to do is help kids as much as they can, it upset me. Why would anyone think we want to "label" children learning disabled just because? The only reason why any competent teacher would want a student to be "labeled" is to get them the support that will let them reach what we know they are capable of.
Then it dawned on me. This is a person that was impacted by that "label". This person once felt inferior because he was told he was different and then succumbed to the thought "I'm not good enough." It dawned on me that someone did not do their complete job as a teacher.
I think our job as special education teachers (apart from individualized education plans and all the paperwork) is not only to find out how a child learns best, but also to teach them how to learn and be curious, to teach them the curriculum, to build self-confidence, to make sure they know they are not any less because they learn differently, to find what they are good at and incorporate that in all learning environments, and to work with parents so they understand their child's learning difficulties and how they can support them at home. Obviously some of these lessons were neglected if this person felt inferior and that he had to prove something. Someone did not make it clear to him that having a learning disability does not stop you from learning, or doing fantastic creative work, or being able to work hard to reach your goals, or become extremely successful.
So, here are three things everyone should know about Learning Disabilities:
1. Many children who qualify for special education services under learning disability have average or above average IQs.
To put it as simply as possible, having a learning disability means that a child's academic performance is lower than what he is capable of doing. There has to be a gap between these two variables. In this case, the school tests the child's IQ and their educational performance. If there is a large enough discrepancy, then the child is eligible to receive help to find out how this child can have a more successful education. To have a big enough gap between these variables, IQ usually needs to be average or above average. The saddest cases I have come across are those where the student's test results come back and their IQ was too low to not have a sufficient gap, leading the student to not receive special education services and the individualized help that might help their education turn around. Instead they continue to be in a classroom with 20 other children trying to survive and hoping to be invisible throughout the school day.
2. Having a learning disability does not mean you cannot learn, it means you learn differently.
A large classroom with 20 other students and one teacher who needs to deliver the curriculum as fast as possible and as broad as possible so every single child in her classroom can understand the content is not an ideal learning environment for anyone. That being said, some students have a harder time learning in this setting and with this amount of educational support than others. Students with a specific learning disability might learn best when in a smaller group, when given more repetition of the content, when given more time and engagement opportunities during the lesson, or other accommodations or modifications they might need to be able to learn and retain the content being taught. These small changes can make a huge difference in a child's learning experience and lead the student to having academic success.
3. Students can have difficulties in one area and excel in others.
A student who has difficulties in reading, can be very good at math, and vice versa. A child who struggles with reading comprehension can be a fabulous artist, mathematician, or public speaker. Many people focus so much on what the child is struggling with that they forget to foster what the student is talented in. Yes, the difficulties need to be addressed and supported, but if anyone spends their whole school day focused on what they "can't" do, learning becomes very difficult. Instead, incorporate those talents into the struggles and let the students learn how they learn best. Also, let the student foster what they are good at, since in the long run it builds self-confidence and a happier, more successful educational experience.
Having a learning disability comes with so much baggage -- most of which comes from misinformation and not knowing how to help these students achieve their goals. Let's change our negative ideas about this topic so more children can believe in themselves and get the support they need to reach their potential.
Karem Ensley is an educator, consultant, and children's book author with a B.A. in Psychology and a M.Ed. in Special Education. She is an advocate for a child's right to a complete education, including curriculum as well as life skills. Her new book, I Am Grateful, introduces the meaning of gratitude and practical ways to experience it more in our daily lives. More on her books, blogs and services can be found at www.KaremEnsley.com.