Imagine sitting in a class, feeling like you are drowning because you can’t keep up with your classmates. You know it’s not your fault – you have a different way of processing things — but sinking downward is a horrible feeling all the same.
Now imagine what would happen if your teacher changed their delivery. The next time you walk into class, they draw a mind map on the board to illustrate how certain ideas and concepts link together. Bingo! You understand immediately because you have a clear, visual picture right in front of you.
It feels life changing.
This hypothetical is actually based on something that happened to me when, in my role as a teacher trainer, I suggested one, small change of approach to another teacher. He couldn’t believe how easy it had been to make things more accessible for his students with dyslexia.
I see this all the time in my line of work.
Most teachers go into the profession because they feel a calling. They genuinely want to help, support, and potentially change a young person’s life.
And yet, in my role, I am often met with resistance and cries of, “I don’t feel qualified to teach someone with special needs,” or “That sounds great, but I don’t have enough time/energy/knowledge to do this.”
What I hear is fear. Fear that if you try and help a student with a learning difference, you could somehow mess it up.
A survey conducted by The ADHD Foundation (2017) found that almost half of teachers polled had not been trained to teach young people with ADHD.
More resources dedicated to teacher training are always welcome, but we can’t assume that funding and tools are the all-encompassing solution for ‘neurodiverse’ students. In my experience, initiative can go a long way toward helping all learners.
First, I recommend that teachers spend just 10 minutes per day — 45 to 50 minutes a week — reading and learning about specific learning differences. I have seen this practice contribute to a significant change in teachers’ awareness and perception of their students.
Next, implementing meaningful change for students with learning differences can be quite simple. Changing the background color of boards and handouts, for example, greatly benefits students with dyslexia, who sometimes experience vision changes when looking at black writing on a white background. This practice has now become a permanent change at my school.
The delivery of verbal information is another common and crucial area of potential improvement. A common thread among students with learning differences is poor verbal working memory. This means that their brains are only able to take in so much verbal information before they lose track, and words effectively begin to lose meaning.
Given this, I advise teachers to use short, clear, and concise sentences, and to avoid the passive voice.
The passive voice can sound like this: “The first piece of information that needs to be found is the one that was set for you in last night’s homework. It is required that you discuss this with your group.”
Many students, learning difference or not, find this language very vague and confusing, which can create immense learner stress. Teachers can reword the same instruction like this: “Talk with the people in your group. Answer these three questions.” Accompany and reinforce these prompts with numbered instructions displayed on the board. This approach is clear, literal, and to the point.
Sometimes, I hear teachers say that they don’t want to “dumb down” their classes by implementing these simple, effective techniques. This couldn’t be further from reality. A learning difference means that a student cannot help the way they process information. These strategies are tools that help them succeed – like eyeglasses to a child with poor vision. We shouldn’t withhold them from students with learning differences.
Research also indicates that accommodations for students with learning differences can benefit the rest of the class. I often hear of ‘neurotypical’ students thanking their teachers for making changes that helped them in unanticipated ways.
Childhood educators, know this – there is nothing to be scared of in pursuing an inclusive environment for your learners. Any change you can make, even just reading up on a learning difference, could have a significantly positive impact on a student’s life.
The more often teachers adopt these changes as a permanent part of their practice, the more all students will benefit.
“We will know that inclusive education has really become embedded in our culture when the term becomes obsolete.” – From Choosing Outcomes and Accommodations for Children(#CommissionsEarned) by Michael F. Giangreco et.al.
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Updated on March 25, 2021