Some people have strong opinions about the terms learning difference and learning disability. I can certainly understand why some parents and students prefer one term over the other. I also understand that disabilities get IEPs and school funding and that this particular label can often bring the hope of finally getting some much-needed help. But often those students who are learning disabled can learn and do learn all sorts of things when they operate under a learning system or style different than the ones commonly used in schools.
I spent a great deal of time last year trying to figure out my son Caleb’s brain. He was not succeeding in school. He was struggling to read, struggling to spell, struggling even in math -which he was naturally gifted in! It was obvious, though, that Caleb was very smart. Nobody doubted that. So it seemed that he was not giving school his best effort.
He was not cooperating. He was a bit lazy. He needed more discipline. He didn’t listen well. He didn’t follow instructions. He acted silly to get the other students to laugh. He just hadn’t been taught phonics well enough when he was 5 and 6, so he needed more review of phonics and that would surely solve all the problems. –These are the things we were told about Caleb.
But I knew that it was not as simple as giving more strict discipline and punishment. I knew we could review phonics the way we had done it before and it wouldn’t make any difference. I knew he wanted to follow instructions, but there was just some sort of block there. I knew that even when he listened, he didn’t always get what was being said. And, even more, I knew that every bit of his self-confidence was peeling away and he was beginning to think he was stupid, a horrible student, unable to learn, and not made for school. This smart, curious, imaginative boy actually asked if he could just drop out of school and never have to learn to read — because he thought he would never be able to learn to read.
I was calling and emailing friends, Googling facts about learning differences and learning disabilities, reading books and articles, and calling neurologists and educational psychologists and developmental specialists and the local public school department of student assessment.
After a couple visits with a behavioral and developmental specialist whose solution was to label him ADHD and OCD and medicate him, I finally found an educational psychologist who wanted to help us figure out how Caleb learns so we could help him succeed. He spent several hours in her office on several different days talking to her and doing written assessments and oral assessments. At the end of the process, she mailed me a 12-page summary of Caleb’s assessment results, her observations, and her suggestions for ways to help.
Armed with that information, I spent more time researching and studying and learning ways to help my son succeed in school. Woven throughout all of this was the information I was learning about strengths development. And so with my arsenal of ideas and information, Caleb and I began homeschooling last August.
Caleb’s weakest learning style, or I should say the learning style least effective for Caleb, is auditory learning. He struggles to process auditorily. He cannot easily break words down into individual sounds. He just doesn’t hear those individual sounds like I do (and probably like you do). So all that time we spent instructing him to sound out the words meant absolutely nothing to him. That’s why spelling is so difficult for him. If I speak to him a list of three or four things to do, Caleb will have a horrible time remembering everything I said to do. If you present information to him verbally without including some other senses, chances are he is not learning it. He is also not a natural visual learner. He does better with this than he does with verbal instruction, but it is still not a great strength for Caleb.
Most teachers naturally present information verbally and visually. If a child, like Caleb, struggles to process information verbally and visually, he is at a disadvantage in the classroom. You could even say he is disabled in a classroom where the standard teaching styles are auditory and visual.
But Caleb’s learning strength is kinesthetic learning. He is also relatively strong in interpersonal and social learning. So if Caleb can learn by doing or somehow involve bodily movements in his learning, he will learn far better than if he simply hears a lesson or reviews information aloud or in written form. If he understands how the information he is learning applies to him and is meaningful to his life, he will learn better. And if he can work with someone else, as part of a team, he will have a greater chance of success.
I have tried to keep this in mind as I’ve taught Caleb this year (or as we’ve learned together). We have formed spelling words out of beans and clay. We’ve done jumping jacks while reciting math facts. We’ve used LEGOS to practice multiplication and division. We’ve tossed a ball while answering questions and reviewing facts. He’s built book reports and fashioned his own graphs and charts for social studies and science. He’s making a bug book and a chart of the Olympic medal count. And he has learned some basic spelling guidelines that he understands will help him type a word closely enough to the correct spelling so that SpellCheck can figure it out.
I stopped trying to break words down into individual sounds and started teaching him general principles. This particular sound is made by these combinations of letters; and if you have to guess one, guess this one. I’ve chosen books that interest him, and he has learned to enjoy reading. As you would imagine, his reading skills have skyrocketed. I haven’t done an official grade-level assessment in a long time, but from what I hear when the other third and fourth graders read in his Sunday School (which I am teaching), he seems to be right on-track.
As Caleb began to experience little successes in schoolwork, his confidence began to grow. As his confidence grew, he experienced more success. He does not cry at the thought of a book report any more. I don’t remember the last time I heard him say he was not cut out for school or that he wants to quit. And the first time he typed an English assignment on the computer and was able to print it with no spelling errors, I thought the boy would burst with pride.
This child wants to learn. It was my responsibility to figure out how he learns. Now that we’ve found the key, the world of education is unlocked for Caleb. It’s not always easy. He still has to work very hard at some things. But where he was disabled, he has now become enabled. All we had to do was figure out his strengths and focus on those rather than spending all our time trying to fix his weaknesses.
I’ll leave you with another quote from Jenifer Fox’s book Your Child’s Strengths
The label disability has as much to do with the setting and the requirements of the setting as it does with the person. The setting most responsible for the proliferation of the term learning disability is the traditional school. . . . Therefore, schools most willing to depart from the traditional methods used to teach and assess performance will do the greatest service in addressing the issue of learning disabilities.
How do you learn best? Was your learning style in sync with your teacher’s teaching styles? What about your children? Do you have children who do not best learn visually or verbally? How are they doing in school? What do you think about this quote from Jenifer Fox? How much time should be spent on “fixing weaknesses” and how much time should be spent on “nurturing strengths”? And how does all of this play out at home or in a classroom?
It’s your turn. I’ve typed enough.