A new look at teaching children with learning difficulties
A decade ago, when I was in graduate school, I could barely contain my excitement when it came time to take remedial reading courses. I just couldn’t wait to find the answers to the questions that had plagued me about why seemingly bright children had difficulty learning to read. Imagine my pain when I discovered that the class was preparing me to assess, spot learning differences, track reading rates, classify text by reading level—in short, do everything but successfully teach a non-reader to read.
In the last ten years, I have learned about a whole series of classifications of disabilities. There are so many! The impression one might get is that children are breaking more and more, and we are developing more and more detailed labels to describe them. What I haven’t seen, however, are increasingly evolved solutions to go along with this highly classified collection of tags. Solutions are what have always interested me!
If we continue to test the child instead of the educational system, we are essentially pitting thousands of children against an educational system. We have a specific educational approach with little variations here and there, but also thousands and thousands of unique children. Which ones are we going to explore? The children or the method? Which one are we going to measure against the other? Imagine taking your five children shopping for clothes. You enter Kid’s Clothes dragging your children behind you. Children’s clothing is highly organized and research-based to give you the best shopping experience. The store has a long rack of boys’ shirts, a long rack of boys’ pants, a long rack of girls’ dresses, and so on. So you take your girls to their area and the guys to theirs. Within a few hours you are all distraught and upset. You only have a son who fits the clothes! Oh no! The other four children are all wrong! This illustrates the concept of seeing children as wrong rather than reevaluating teaching methods when children don’t learn.
When we focus on the child and label them using an absolute and professional sounding term, the child will be encouraged to become that even more! One day that is etched in my memory is a day that I was filling in for a fourth grade teacher. I walked into the room and was approached by a very eloquent, skinny boy who assertively told me that he had ADHD and that he couldn’t control himself. And he spent the rest of the day trying it out. He reported to me, very articulately, every few moments what he couldn’t help but do. He was living up to what his diagnosis said he was.
The more we focus on the imagined problem with the child, the less effective we will be as teachers. When I was a kid trying to learn to ride a bike, there were two major things I didn’t want to bump into as I staggered across the yard. One was our cinder block house and the other was a particularly prickly orange tree. The more I wanted to avoid bumping into those obstacles, the more I looked at them and guess what? The more unerringly my bike headed straight for them! If I am teaching my child and in my mind I focus on his inability to memorize spelling words, my disbelief in her will be transmitted to her and my focus on the problem will become her focus on the problem as well. Nothing good will come of this.
Every adult I’ve taken the time to talk with can describe what tasks they’re gifted at, what they like to do, and how they remember things. Some of us are well aware that we cannot hear verbal instructions and remember them for more than a nanosecond, so we look to and rely on maps to navigate. Other people can solve really complex math problems in their heads. So why do we assume that all children should be able to memorize strings of letters (spelling), memorize mathematical operations, or memorize and apply phonetic rules? This makes sense? I do not think it does. We are all wonderfully designed to do exactly what we should in our lives. And none of us should compare ourselves to another person. We don’t tend to do that as adults, but the moment a child comes along, we often try every way we can to fit them into a narrow educational mold.
Let’s take a look at our traditional educational system. It doesn’t work for many kids. So the question is, do we change it or do we try to change our child to fit into the system?
General rules for teaching all children, but especially children with learning difficulties:
Get rid of unnecessary clutter. For example, in teaching reading, you don’t need to learn all the letter names first, or memorize their related sounds, or be able to put the letters in ABC order, etc. Those traditional steps, which include pronouncing and memorizing mixes, are so familiar that we feel that if we don’t teach them, we will fail our children. The best way to teach a child to read is to get to the point right away! I can attest to the amount of clutter that exists in our teaching day. A really strange concept for many adults is the fact that some children learn whole words more easily than small fragments of words.
Learn to distinguish between effective lessons and busy work. Much of what filled our day in the classroom when I was teaching was busy work with minimal earnings made by the child. You may know which activities fall into this category because the child just doesn’t enjoy them and doesn’t get involved. For example, cheating is usually a waste of time for most children. It will make the child’s hand tired and put the brain to sleep. Try it yourself. Put on a TV show that really interests you, and then sit down and copy a full page of the dictionary while you watch the show. Did you get much from the copy? Any activity that is effective, useful and appealing to the child will be one in which he will have to solve something, invent something or think! If you’re engaged, you’re learning!
Use images whenever you can. Images are magical for many, many children who do not memorize well. Try it yourself. Ask someone to do you a favor. Ask them to drive to a street not far from you and take a photo of something distinctive, like an interesting house, a strange building, or anything that is out of the ordinary. Then ask them to come back to you and first describe verbally, orally, what they saw. When they have finished, ask them to show you the photo they took of this interesting object. Which is more effective in conveying the reality of the object? Oral description or photo?
Use a body movement to help remember. When I’m having trouble remembering a phone number (which I always do), I know how to pretend to dial it on a keypad. As I do that, I’m noticing the shape of what I’ve marked and I’m also storing that visual pattern in the muscles of my body. Every child who is good at physical activity will benefit from physical movement to accompany learning. And I don’t mean just bounce; I mean a movement that reflects what they are learning. When counting by twos, for example, have the children march in a line but lean far over each even number. Their bodies will remember the even numbers when they hear their mouths say the even numbers at the same time.
Relate learning to real-life experience. When learning to tell time or count money, do it throughout the day, not at a desk with pencil and paper. Measurement is best learned when the child is creating something very interesting for him.
Have the child discover some things for himself. With any science lesson, the more practical and real the lessons, the better. Anything a child can cut and paste is marginal at best. It could just be a time filler. Anything a child investigates and then does, writes, or puts into action (that he has to figure out) will be valuable.
Find patterns and similarities in everything you teach because that’s what the brain loves. There is beauty in patterns, and nature is full of them. Music is made of patterns; math is too. I have seen a child come alive when he saw patterns in learning. It’s hard to do anything with the unrelated details.
Don’t just say; to show. I’d love to get a penny for every time I heard a teacher complain: I’ve told you that more than once. Hmm. Could it be that to say it is not effective? Show them. Show them examples; show them how you do it (modeling); show them what a good result is. Remember: Don’t tell me… show me!
Keep the lessons as short as you can. Stop whenever the child is tired or restless. Of course I don’t mean ten minutes of the school day! I do want to say, though, that when your kids start fidgeting or fidgeting, check the activity or lesson you’re doing to determine the level of interest. If you can inject some mystery into it, some novelty, by all means do so! But if you follow the first step and get rid of the clutter and stick to the meat and potatoes of school work, you might find that your day job, the meaningful part, can be done in a couple of hours a day or three. .
No, please no, keep doing what you see isn’t working. What the child needs is not more exercises, but a radically different approach. Remember, we are going to drop the notion that the child is broken! We need to change what we are doing when the child is initially unresponsive.