Q & A with Expert in Exceptional Student Education

At PowerPlus Tutoring, we frequently receive inquiries from parents with children who have learning disabilities. Our philosophy is that each child requires a tutor tailored to that child's needs.

PowerPlus Tutoring has educational advocates who can work with your family to design the most appropriate accommodations for your child. Advocates also help parents present these accommodations/modifications to the school in compelling ways by using research-based explanations. If your child has a select learning disability (SLD) and is struggling to be successful in their school environment, advocating on their behalf can only help.

I recently sat down with Jill, our expert in 'Exceptional Student Education' for a question and answer period to discuss the unique (and not so unique) challenges of educating a child with a learning disability. An excerpt of the transcript with Jill is below:

PPT: What are different learning disabilities you’ve encountered in your teaching?

Jill: I’ve encountered practically every type of learning disability. Learning disabilities can be placed into five general categories: (1) auditory processing disorder, (2) visual processing disorder, (3) language disorder, (4) attention disorder, and (5) memory processing disorder. A lot of the students I’ve worked with have deficits in one or more of these areas. Typically, children who have just one of these deficits learn to accommodate quickly. They may qualify for special education service at a young age, but age out because they learn start to overcome their deficit.

A lot of time, kids with more than one area of deficit take longer. It’s not impossible for them to overcome it, but typically takes longer. That is where a lot of my experience comes from.

PPT: What advice would you give parents of a child with a specific learning disability (SLD)?

Jill: I tell parents to remain focused on the notion that children are not defined by their disabilities. Instead, I would have them focus on their child’s abilities. Identify what they’re good at and work to celebrate their skills. By finding ways to teach to the child's strengths, you are highlighting what they’re good at. Also, work to celebrate small wins and improvements in order to validate their growth and show them that you see them.

Loving your children unconditionally means setting boundaries and letting them experience both negative and positive consequences. I completely understand that as parents, you may feel inclined to protect your children from natural consequences, but I urge you to let them experience them and I’ll tell you why. By constantly running interference for your children, you are robbing them of the opportunity to learn from their mistakes and experience what happens in the real world when they are unprepared. These experiences are invaluable and only help your children become more accountable.

PPT: What accommodations can be made for students with learning disabilities?

Jill: There are many helpful accommodations that can be made for students with learning disabilities, but it’s important to first dispel the commonly held myth that accommodations give kids an unfair edge. By changing the teaching style, we are leveling the playing field for children with disabilities. By allowing information to be presented in the most optimal way for a certain type of learner, a child is finally given the opportunity to feel successful.

Typical classrooms still cater heavily to students who are strong auditory processors. If your child has an auditory processing disorder, school can be an uphill battle for them. Some recommendations for a student with this type of deficit are to ask the school if the child can bring in a recording device during long lectures.

Another helpful suggestion would be for a parent to request visual support. For example, engaging Power Point presentations can be helpful to a student with visual strengths and auditory deficits. Lessons that incorporate something visual and auditory simultaneously are often most effective. Other accommodations include providing printed information for students prior to a lecture. By giving the student an opportunity to preview the information before it is formally taught, you are allowing them to develop a schema in order to make connections necessary to learning.

When thoughtfully selected, accommodations can make a big difference in a child’s academic success. It is important to remember that not every accommodation is appropriate in every situation. When you speak to your school about making accommodations for your child, it is crucial to only go in with one or two suggestions that you can closely monitor once administered. Trying to do too much at one time can backfire and be overwhelming.

Some examples of commonly implemented accommodations are varying the time (allowing extra time to complete assignments, quizzes or tests), varying the input (allowing information to be taught differently), varying the output (allowing the way a student shows you they know the information to be different), and varying the size (allowing students to answer fewer questions).

PPT: Is medication always the answer for a child with ADHD?

Jill: First of all, it is incredibly important for parents to know that teachers do not have the sufficient medical expertise to appropriately diagnose medical conditions or prescribe medication. It can be appropriate however, for a teacher to urge you to have your child see a professional based on specific behaviors that the teacher may have documented. It is important to keep in mind, that while you’re on your quest to help your child, the child's teacher is an important part of the equation and should not be excluded from the process. Because the teacher is with your child six or more hours a day, allow teachers to be your eyes and ears. Ask them to log their observations and constantly check in with them to get a detailed report of what they are seeing.

Since I am not a big proponent of medication as the initial solution, I suggest parents first look into holistic approaches and occupational therapy to combat some of the negative manifestations of their child’s SLD. There is a much research that backs the idea that the food you eat is closely related to attention and learning. I would begin by attending to your child’s diet and monitoring their sleep patterns. Diet and sleep are two crucial components that are closely connected to how well your child performs at school.

If you feel like you have exercised some of these approaches to no avail and your child is still suffering, it might be the right time to consider medication. While medication is not the right answer for every child, I have seen medication work wonders on many kids. It is a hard decision to make, and often times, parents put a lot of pressure on themselves when making the call to medicate or not to medicate their children. The way I look at it is, if your child’s behavior is interfering with their school work and their ability to make and retain relationships, which we know has serious effects on their self-esteem, then you are doing them a disservice by withholding medication. I have had some parents tell me that they wish they had tried the medication earlier because the results have been so overwhelmingly positive.

PPT: What accommodations can be made at home to support the ones that are being made at school?

Jill: At home, the most common issue the arises is problems completing homework. Parents complain that they are constantly battling with their children about homework, which creates tension in the family. If completing homework is a constant battle in your household, then I would suggest bringing this issue up with your child’s teacher.

The way I would approach it is by asking the teacher what he/she deems to be a developmentally appropriate amount of time spent on homework per night. If your child is spending considerably more time, you have something to begin negotiating with. No teacher wants or expects their students to be up until all hours of the night completing daunting homework tasks. Often times, teachers will allow you to set a timer for a designated period of time and once that timer goes off, the child is to put away their homework for the night. Don’t hesitate to ask for what your child needs. Often times teachers are unaware of this battle and sympathetic once they learn the extent of the situation and the amount of havoc it is wrecking on your family.

Don’t be afraid to ask for a tutor to help alleviate the battle over homework that ensues daily at your house. This can help develop continuity in the family. When a directive comes from a tutor and not a parent, children are much more likely to be receptive. This allows the family to work on being a family and not constantly fighting over homework.

Another important topic that I want to touch on while were on the subject is about teaching kids to ask for help and empowering them to be their own advocates. We should constantly encourage them not to be afraid to go to teachers and ask for help. Kids need to see the important of taking on their own problems and creating a system in which they can be successful.

PPT: How can students with learning disabilities strike a balance between school and enrichment?

Jill: I strongly believe that all kids need an outlet outside of school. They need hobbies, fun, friends, a sense of community and they need to have choice built into their days. This can all be accomplished through enrichment.

On the flip side, kids also need down time built into their day where they can relax and reflect. It is important to encourage your children to talk about their stresses and work to problem-solve their conflicts.

One of the things we can do as parents to help our children learn to problem solve independently is to model our own problem solving techniques by generating a monologue where you are verbally talking through one of your conflicts aloud for your children to hear. For example, when in the car you could say something like, “Shoot, I just remembered that I’m supposed to take your brother to his soccer game and your sister to a birthday party, and they both start at the same time. How can I be in two places at once? Well, I can’t, so what can I do? Well, I can call your father to see if he can leave work a little early so that he can take your sister to her party or I can skip the party altogether and bring your sister to the soccer game, or I can…” Children will often times internalize these strategies and apply them when in conflict.

PPT: Would you recommend that parents’ disclose their child’s learning disability to their schools/teachers?

Jill: Yes. If handled appropriately, your child’s teacher can be your biggest ally. It’s critical for your child’s teacher to be in the know so that they can make the necessary accommodations and modifications in order to help your child be as successful as possible. By letting them in, you are showing them that you trust them as professional and capable people who are critical to your child’s development. When you are conferencing with your child’s teacher, it is in your best interest to be supportive and non-judgmental. If they feel supported and respected as professionals, they are much more inclined to be cooperative and understanding.

PPT: How does your child avoid being stigmatized by their learning disability?

Jill: Most parents fear that their child will be defined by a label. And while this fear is not totally unfounded, it is important that we ourselves understand and truly believe that their diagnosis does not define them nor should it be a stigma. The more we believe that and don’t work to conceal their disability, the less of a “stigma” it becomes. We all know that every child is much more than their abilities or disabilities. They have a personality, likes, dislikes, dreams, fears, etc. All these complexities make up who they are. Their disability is only one small facet of the picture.

Help you child explore and verbalize their own strengths and weaknesses by having regular discussions with them. Help them learn to present themselves as complex people. Give them mantras that are positive in nature and work to boost their self-esteem. By disclosing to the school what your child’s disabilities are, you are working to defy the idea that a label defines them.

PPT: In your opinion, should kids with learning disabilities be in mainstream schools?

Jill: Yes, children need access and practice in the community in which they live. There are no special education grocery stores, and no special education Targets. Children need to learn to accommodate and cope within their surroundings. Often times we pull children out with the idea that we’re protecting them or the idea that they’re going to get something better over there, but this comes at a cost. We must keep in mind that this does not prepare others to learn how to deal with difference either. By including your children in the community in which they live, you are preparing them and others for dealing with differences. When districts and schools learn how to include people with disabilities - everyone wins. It’s not easy, but it needs to be the end goal every time because we cannot continue to create a world that segregates people because they’re different. There is a ton of recent research that shows the importance of inclusion education for all learners.

PPT: In your experience teaching, describe an accommodation or modification that you used that was successful with one of your students.

Jill: Strategies I’ve used aren’t necessarily used just for students with disabilities. Best strategies are research based and proven to be effective. Good teach come to the table with a tool box full and know when to use each strategy for different types of learners. Best teachers can reach all learners. As a teacher trainer, I always looked for lessons that created access for visual, auditory, kinesthetic and multi-sensory learners. I always thought those were solid lessons.

PPT: What are good resources you recommend to parents of a child with a learning disability?

Jill: I would definitely direct them to Wrightslaw, which has the most recent legislation in regards to Special Education. Another great resource is Parentcenterhub.org, a website managed by the U.S. Department of Education. This site is comprised of fourteen main topics including the law, accommodations, and modifications. Another great resource is Understood, which regularly publishes the latest articles related to Special Education. I would also remind parents that their schools can be their biggest assets and would encourage them to develop open relationships with their child’s educators.

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