Educating Students with Learning Disabilities
Dr. Rebecca Bell Branstetter
I once went on a blind date in which I was asked the following question about my job as a school psychologist: “So, what’s your favorite kid problem?” In my head, a sarcastic thought bubble popped up and responded, “I just LOVE when they can’t read! It’s my favorite!” But I knew what he meant, so I responded politely that I enjoy working with students with learning disabilities.
The majority of students I work with in special education for learning disabilities think they are stupid or slow. The reality is that part of the definition of a “Learning Disability” is that you have at least average intelligence, so it’s simply not true. The current definition states that you must demonstrate a significant discrepancy between your ability (intelligence) and achievement (reading, math, writing, etc) and have one specific way that is difficult for you to learn. That specific difficulty is called a “processing deficit.”
Here’s how I explain what a processing deficit is to my students: There are three main ways kids learn: listening (auditory processing), looking (visual processing), and doing (visual-motor processing). Everyone’s brain works differently. Your brain has difficulty learning by (insert processing deficit). That is why learning (reading/writing/math) is hard for you. But you are very good at learning by (other two processing skills).
I’m a big fan of educating kids with Learning Disabilities on how they learn best. With little kids, you can draw a picture of eyes, ears, and a hand and have them circle the ways they are good at learning. Middle school students usually benefit from having their scores put on a graph of some sort so they can see the intelligence score within the average or above average range. It seems more like “proof” at that point, because they sometimes still feel like they’re stupid even when you try to reassure them they are not. To help with the stigma of special education, one teacher I worked with put up pictures of famous people with Learning Disabilities with the banner: “If these people were still in school, they’d be in Special Ed.”
For high school students, going over the testing results and the IEP document (especially modifications) together can be helpful as well. High school kids can be empowered to start advocating for their learning needs and ways to accommodate their own difficulties. It seems to really click in high school that having a learning disability or being in special education doesn’t mean you’re stupid or slow. It is one of the best parts of my job when students finally understand that they don’t have (to borrow a phrase) “kid problems.”
In some states, you do not need to identify a “processing deficit” to be considered eligible as a student with a Learning Disability. States interpret the federal law differently. The federal law is also changing the definition. And if that’s not confusing enough, private practitioners use a totally different set of criteria from the DSM-IV to identify students with learning disabilities.