I find the term “Learning Disabled” unnerving.
In our present school system this term is used to define both children with serious and pervasive physical and/or psychological handicaps as well as children experiencing difficulty with academics and/or cognitive learning yet who are also perfectly capable, often especially so, in other areas of life.
Sometimes it seems like the kids who fall under this banner outnumber those who don’t. I wonder if that is because:
A: For a variety of unknown reasons more kids these days really are struggling with learning.
B: Educators and parents are now better at recognizing and distinguishing learning problems from behavior problems and kids are finally getting the help they were not able to get in the past.
C: Outdated school systems have become, to some extent, “disabled” as they struggle to keep up with rapid changes in our society as well as a population of children that clearly think, learn and perceive problems differently than that of their parent’s and grandparents generation.
Maybe it’s a combo of all three. Nevertheless, if things continue, the kids with straight A’s who effortlessly move through school will soon be the ones feeling “disabled.”
The subject is complex and not going to be tackled here and now. Indeed, compassionate, fervent and heated arguments from parents and educators alike have frequently appeared in the Patch.
While a number of parents may be pleased with the way in which their child’s struggles have been handled, it is clear that the vast majority is not. The voices rarely heard from, however, are those of the children to whom we are referring.
In an effort to see what if anything is felt among the children in the thick of this issue, I sought out a number of students, who are attending or have attended, various Connecticut public schools. Each of them, because of their so called “disability” has had or presently has an Individualized Education Program (Otherwise known as an IEP.)
An IEP is a plan or program developed to ensure that a child who has a disability identified under the law and is attending an elementary or secondary educational institution, receives specialized instruction and related services.
The goal here is simply to offer perspective – something children are clearly quite good at providing.
Meet Paul, Daniel, Mike, Scott, Robbie and Brendan (names have been changed to protect privacy):
Paul is twelve and in sixth grade.
Paul’s parents knew that something was keeping Paul from reaching his full potential in school. Paul was never reading at grade level and was not able to write a proper sentence.
The school told Paul’s parents that Paul was fine and simply needed to work harder. When a request to have Paul tested was declined, his parents had him tested privately. Along with a “written language disability, Paul was diagnosed with dyslexia.”
For years Paul thought he was “stupid,” however, now that he has been identified he is beginning to understand that he is not.
“I thought everyone was going through this,” Paul told me. “ I would wonder how they got such good handwriting.”
Paul was initially put in with a group of Special Ed kids, many of who had trouble writing.
“A lot of the kids in there didn’t really have a problem – they just wanted to do nothing,” Paul said. “They didn’t want to succeed."
“I used to wonder,” Paul continued, “Why was I down with that group – with kids who didn’t try.”
When Paul was asked to reflect on a year in school that he felt was productive for him he spoke of his current teacher:
“She is great – energetic and happy. She really wants to help and her life is dedicated to kids. She is able to teach everyone. The only ones she has trouble with were the kids who don’t try.”
I asked Paul about less successful years:
“I had one teacher who just gave out assignments and left it at that,” Paul said. “There was not a lot of energy.”
Although things have improved since Paul was diagnosed, Paul feels would be more productive for him if his issues were handled as part of the class, rather than separately.
“Forty-five minutes a day, once a day isn’t going to get you anywhere soon,” remarked Paul. “They should give you the sheets you need in class, not outside.”
“I used to think that schools were greedy,” Paul concluded, “that they just wanted to save money. But now I think they do want to help – it’s just difficult to do."
Daniel is fourteen and a high school freshman. Daniel spent his elementary and middle schools years in Public School. Daniel’s diagnoses include ADD (Attention Deficit Disorder) as well as, “Central Auditory Processing Disorder.” Based on what Daniel and his mom called a very “frustrating” public school experience, Daniel now attends a private high school.
I asked Daniel why he felt frustrated in public school.
“There wasn’t enough freedom,” he told me. “They would follow me around. I remember getting kicked out for not cooperating.”
“Also,” he continued, “It was too text book – not spontaneous enough.”
Because of Daniel’s IEP, he was given extra time on tests and able to take them in another room.
“Taking tests separately was annoying” Daniel commented. “I felt separated from the community. I didn’t like taking CMTs in a special Ed room – special Ed kids don’t like the extra attention.”
I asked Daniel to recall an especially effective teacher.
“There was one who was very involved with everyone in the class. He was full of life and had really interesting power points.”
How about less effective teachers?
“The ones who were not engaged,” said Daniel.
Although Daniel received a number of failing grades in middle school, he has won three academic awards since going to his new school.
“I feel a lot smarter,” he said.
Why, I asked.
“I like the smaller classes – I get more one on one with the teachers. Also, we eat lunch with the teachers so I get to speak with them in different situations and ask questions that I may not think to ask in class.”
Mike is presently in middle school. Since kindergarten, educators have had a tough time defining exactly how to define Mike’s “disability.”
A highly articulate, inquisitive and social boy, Mike struggles with encoding and decoding written language as well as comprehending and retaining what he reads and is taught. Trouble with "memory function" and "processing" is Mike’s current diagnosis.
“Some teachers have no idea how kids work,” Mike told me. “A lot are not flexible.”
Mike said he likes it when teachers are interactive – when they relate topics to real life. He told me of a teacher he presently has who creates very visual and interactive projects. “He knows how to make lectures interesting; he includes everyone. There is no way someone couldn’t learn in his class,” Mike said.
When asked to recall a teacher that he felt was less effective, Mike spoke about a kindergarten experience he vividly remembers:
“We were told to draw a picture of our family,” Mike said. “Mine were stick figures. That’s all I could draw. This teacher held it up to the class. She asked, ‘Now, class, do we draw stick figures in kindergarten?’ The class laughed and said ‘no!' I hated school that day.”
Mike also reflected on his experience being pulled out of class.
“It’s bad to separate kids. It’s easy to get lazy. It would be good to teach in a way that includes everyone.”
Mike also shared his feelings about the classroom aids:
“The aids didn’t help – they did my work for me. I think they are there to just get kids through – not to help them learn or have a good future. One said to me, ‘Don’t worry, I’ll get you through 7th grade.’ I don’t think that’s how it should be.”
“Schools do a lot for seriously disabled kids,” Mike went on, “but I don’t think so much for the others.”
Scott attended public school through second grade. He went on to attend an elementary school that specialized in teaching children with learning difficulties. From fifth through seventh grade, Scott attended a progressive private school. He returned to public school this past year as an eighth grader.
Scott experiences difficulty with working memory, written expression and processing speed.
Scott shared his memories about when he was pulled out of class in elementary school:
“It was embarrassing when they used to do that – I hated it.” Sometimes I would be out for half the day,” Scott continued, “and kids would ask what I was doing.”
Scott remarked that the teachers who work best for him are those who are “funny and who use a lot of electronics.” He described the ones who haven’t worked as well as, “boring – all packets.”
Robbie is presently a freshman at a private high school. Robbie left the public school system after middle school.
Robbie recalled his elementary school years.
“I knew I needed help in first through third grade but I wasn’t diagnosed yet so I didn’t know why. I had difficulty with homework and would sometimes feel angry that other kids didn’t seem to be having as much difficulty.”
“Teachers would tell my parents that I wasn’t trying hard enough. That was annoying.”
In fourth grade Robbie was diagnosed with dyslexia. Thus Robbie started being taken out of class for extra help.
“Sometimes I didn’t want to leave,” said Robbie. “Especially if they were doing fun things. Other times, it did help.”
When asked to describe an especially effective teacher Robbie spoke of one teacher’s class in which it was “impossible to slide through the cracks.”
“In the beginning,” continued Robbie, not being able to slide through the cracks was kind of hard but once you realize how much it’s doing for you, it’s really great.”
When asked to recall a less effective teacher Robbie recalled a former math teacher.
“This teacher was angry and would yell a lot – especially when homework wasn’t done,” said Robbie. “She saw things only one way… it made me shut down.”
When asked what public schools could do to help, Robbie replied:
“Completely re-do the way they teach. I don’t think they taught in a friendly way. They taught in a way that was easiest for them – not the kids.”
Robbie went on to say that he felt more teacher education would be a good thing especially when it comes to “multi-sensory” learning.
Brendan left public school after second grade to attend a school for children with academic learning disabilities. Brendan had been diagnosed with central auditory processing dysfunction and a reading and language based learning disability. Now fourteen and in eighth grade, Brendan recently returned to public school.
Brendan recalls being taken out of classes in elementary school because of his ‘"disability.”
“I did not like it as a seven-year-old,” Brendan told me. “It made me feel different and it was not enjoyable.”
Brendan told me things have since improved largely because he doesn’t get “pulled out” of classes any longer:
“It’s better now. I don’t feel different from the crowd anymore. In place of Spanish I have a class where I get help and there are lots of other kids in that class.”
Brendan does get accommodations during tests – he can have extra time if need be and he can take them in a quieter room.
“The first time I felt embarrassed,” Brendan told me, “But I’ve learned to appreciate it. Most kids don’t get that. It’s how you look at it I guess,” he said.
As for the teachers that have helped most along the way, Brendan said, “The ones who you can talk to one on one.” Brendan fondly remembered one teacher in particular: “She did not care what she got out of helping me – the satisfaction was just in helping.”
And the ones who have not, “The ones who never reach out, or the ones you can tell are just in it for the money,” Brendan said.
I asked Daniel, Scott, Paul, Robbie and Brendan what they each thought of the term “learning disability.”
Brendan: “It could have bothered me but my mom drilled into my head that kids with learning disabilities turn out successful. She taught me that it’s a good thing and that I should be appreciative of what I have.”
Robbie: “When I first heard it I wasn’t sure what it meant but I wanted the help so I took the label. I don’t think it’s a learning disability though. Is it an advantage or is just equal to everyone else? I don’t know. On one side, many people with “LD” go on to be entrepreneurs or are very successful. The other half ends up in jail. There is not much in between. I chose to have the label…I’d rather not be in jail.”
Scott: “They could say something else other than 'disabled.'"
Mike: “It’s not that kids are disabled, they just need to get taught differently.”
Paul: "I think it is accurate. You need to cope with it. Be honest about it and face it."
Daniel: “When I first heard this phrase I didn’t really understand what it was and Ithought it was just a normal phrase. As I grew up I realized that it was a term that separated me from the other kids. I think a better way to put it would be to say that I learn differently rather than making it sound like I am broken.”