Tackling learning disability to empower struggling students

Last Updated 20 February 2013, 15:14 IST

There are a variety of reasons for students struggling academically in school. Lack of motivation, lack of family support, low parental educational levels, socio-economic disadvantage, migrant students, truancy and absenteeism, poor organizational skills, lack of attention and memory, and low self-esteem are a few causes that I come across among my students.

Learning disability is an umbrella term for various invisible processing disorders like auditory or visual processing disorder, reading disorders, fine motor control and memory problems. A learning disability is a neurological condition that affects the way a student takes-in information, processes and retains it, and then recalls it when necessary.

We would never tell a deaf student that he would be able to hear if only he tried harder. Nor would we tell a wheelchair-bound student to try harder and walk. Yet we routinely tell academically struggling students to try harder, and then think them unmotivated when they still don’t succeed. It is easier for us to understand the difficulties of a blind or deaf student than it is for us to understand the invisible goings-on inside the human brain. This is in no way meant to minimize the challenges faced by deaf, blind or other students with disabilities, but only to illustrate our perception of the learning-challenged student.

Learning disability is not connected with cognitive ability. A student with a high IQ might still have a Learning Disability (LD). And if a student with LD seems to have low cognition, it could be the result of progressively falling behind in academics because of the LD. Of course, it is possible for a student to have a learning disability as well as low cognition.

How do you identify a student with LD?

There is no blood test or machine that can identify a learning disorder. It is generally identified by a process of elimination. If there is a significant difference between potential and achievement (ability and performance), then the question arises - Why? Why does a student who seems capable and smart struggle with school related learning? If the student has received continuous instruction (no chronic absenteeism), if the student is not blind or deaf, if the student has had access to education despite poverty or cultural reasons, if the student has received instruction in his or her language, if the student has the IQ necessary to understand instruction, and if the student has not benefited from intensive interventions, then the most likely reason left for academic failure could be a learning disability.

As a general education teacher, there is a good possibility that you have, knowingly or unknowingly, already dealt with several students with learning disabilities. In sheer numbers, it is by far the most common disability seen in inclusive classrooms. You will have dealt with way more students with learning disabilities than with blind, deaf or wheelchair-bound students.

LD impacts everyone in the classroom- student, teacher, and fellow students. Teachers have to deal with inattentive and off-task students who are frustrated with school. As these students leave the school system and become adults, undereducated adults may be underemployed and dissatisfied with their lot. They never seem to reach their potential. This is a loss to individuals and society.  
As teachers, we want all our students to learn and succeed. We think of our students as ambassadors of our success. We view successful students as a reflection of our teaching talent. When we find that we are unable to reach a student, it frustrates us.

What can we do about it?

LD cannot be cured. All we can do as teachers is to teach students to be aware of their disability and teach them coping strategies. If there is a roadblock along one particular route, then we need to teach them to use a detour, a bypass.

There are strategies that can be used to help students with LD in the general education classroom. But before we can get into those details, it would be useful to understand what LD is, what it feels like, why it’s frustrating, and how limiting it can be.

Simulation Lab
A simulation lab simulates various processing disorders for the participants. Simulation means a recreation of conditions similar to what a student with a particular processing disorder may experience. Conditions of visual perception disorder or reading disability, and other conditions, would be mimicked by the various lab activities. It artificially creates a learning disorder in the participant, so that the participant can feel the frustration and difficulty of how these conditions feel for the student every day.
This lab activity is not a diagnostic tool. It is meant as an experiential exercise. It creates an understanding in the participant about why some students struggle the way they do.

(Published 20 February 2013, 15:14 IST)

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