* Warning signs

Without doubt, early intervention is key to identifying dyslexia and providing the specialized instruction that creates new neural pathways. This spelling test is the work of a second grader who is struggling mightily. She has had ‘guided reading’ out the wazoo but nothing to address her phonological and phonetic weaknesses. She would certainly qualify as twice exceptional, with abundant signs of above average intelligence and desperate signs of being in distress.

Certainly, there is much more evidence of her disability than this test, but an analysis of her errors is quite telling. Sadly, by the time she may receive support, her self-confidence and behavior will likely be in the tank.

I have had limited success convincing parents who are in strongly emotional denial that their child has a disability. In my 49 years of teaching, I’ve noticed that even if they support appropriate interventions, it is hard for them to accept a special education label. And without that label, such students are not usually going to receive the help they need. Public schools receive funds for special ed teachers because those students qualify under state and federal guidelines.

What to do?

  • Wait. Many parents have accepted this ‘loss’ after a few more years of agonizing over it. Educational struggles truly are a matter of grieving for most families, especially for children on the autism spectrum. Sometimes parents admit to having similar struggles at school or refer to relatives with a similar profile.
  • Work to reduce stigmatization. The more we routinely show students and parents that everyone has learning differences, the less likely they are to freak out.
  • Provide info about and cool examples of brain-friendly teaching in back-to-school events and teacher conferences. Learning challenges are no fun but they are not the end of the world.
  • Don’t gloss over significant signs of struggle just because there is push- back from classroom teachers or parents. Collect data and do your best to provide the right kind of support, even if the label is incorrect (or, more ‘politically correct’).

* Ya know what I mean?

The opportunity to summarize, to process information, is a key strategy to support learning across any subject area.  This is a powerful tool for all students, but especially those with weak working memory, weak decoding skills, and weak attention.  As neuroscience has informed effective teaching practices, educators should be aware that students need frequent opportunities to pause and process what they’ve just heard or read.

Teachers can neglect this step for many reasons.  In my case, providing time for processing/ summarizing information was a real weakness in my early teaching repertoire.  Like many teachers, I taught in a manner that was similar to the way I learn.  SInce I am a fast processor, I never gave much thought to the time students needed to make sense of new information.  Also, my teacher preparation did not include the benefit of the brain-based research available today.

Other factors that impact how much time teachers allow for processing include pressure to “get through” a topic (and sadly, the pressure to assess) along with management issues, such as crowd control when students talk to each other to process information.  A pair-share strategy may be implemented, but what if many kids are talking about recess and lunchtime?  If videotaping doesn’t capture conversations effectively, it helps to have a familiar adult sitting in the midst of the group during pair-shares.  I have been in that role many times (supporting an individual student, for example) and could see that the quality of pair-share conversations was sketchy, at best.

That brings us to another key point.  Most students need explicit instruction on the why’s and how’s of summarizing.  Using role-playing and videotapes of examples and non-examples is an effective strategy for teaching verbal summarizing while setting high expectations.  For summarizing paragraphs and longer passages, model how to create effective summaries on sticky notes. Be sure to include non-examples.  Here are two examples from a passage on the value of allowing some forest fires to burn out naturally.  Can you tell which one is on target?sticky note 1 sticky note 2

Our special needs kids could have much-improved comprehension if they are taught to summarize throughout the reading process.  And sticky notes don’t have to be laboriously written.  Teach kids to use symbols and abbreviations for their ideas.sticky note 3

To summarize, we learn best when our brains process information in manageable chunks.  The chunk size varies by individual, as does the amount of time to process.  Some students process best on their own, not with a partner.  Other students may benefit from a visual reminder of what they have heard or learned.  If teachers discuss and teach this aspect of learning explicitly, it will help create an atmosphere where learning differences are validated.

* Order in the court

gavel 2If I ran into you in the teacher’s lounge, I would tell you that I spent most of yesterday in a courtroom.  It was one of those painful family cases.  I would also tell you that I am lost in the world of judges and attorneys.  I did not know I was blasting the court recorder’s ears as I moved the microphone to my lips (until she asked me to back off).  I started to answer several questions that the judge asked attorneys, not me.  If I were caught on film, you would see my hand covering my mouth as I choked off several responses nearly in time.  The biggest problem I faced was my desire to teach instead of testify.  Everyone was extremely patient with me, but it was a nerve-wracking experience.  I had to switch my educational jargon into plain English.  I could tell that folks didn’t understand Response to Intervention, various surveys, and reading instruction.  My job is to teach, right?  Not in court, although I was granted “expert witness status” based on my own summary of my resume and certification.  (No, I did not perjure myself.)  But by the time court was adjourned, I felt like a limp noodle.

Imagine you are a student thrust into a strange environment, the classroom, where one person challenges and talks at you all day.  Imagine having your words corrected and your responses misunderstood.  Imagine that you speak a language or dialect that is misunderstood.  Imagine that despite your very best efforts, you fail to perform well.  Imagine that you are desperately trying to understand the rules of conduct, but they seem to change unexpectedly.  Imagine that you must address people by specific titles and that your movement is constrained by rules which are not made clear.  Imagine that you are given feedback based on criteria with which you were unfamiliar.  I couldn’t help but think that many of our kids on the autism spectrum, those with ADHD, and our English Language Learners must experience at least some of these conditions daily in a classroom.  When kindergartners first arrive to the world of school, they are often as lost as I was yesterday.  I think my courtroom experience was a good reminder of how teachers must look at our “familiar” world through the eyes of another.