By Teachers, For Teachers
As teachers strive to meet the unique needs of their students, learning disabilities can feel like a conundrum. Due to the diversity amongst disabilities and the complexity of students’ individual needs, navigating the labyrinth of differentiation is likely more difficult when serving these students. This is coupled with the fact that that learning disabilities are often misunderstood and misdiagnosed. This is, in part, due to the sordid past of special education in our country and general societal misconceptions about what a disability is and the many ways that it can present challenges. A clear understanding of what learning disabilities are and how they affect students in the classroom is crucial for all educators.
Students with learning disabilities can possess an array of strengths and weaknesses. A learning disability can affect a student’s comprehension and performance in one way or a combination of ways. Admittedly, these truths can make learning disabilities seem incomprehensible and unconquerable, but they are neither. Below are some common learning disabilities that you may encounter in the classroom.
Dyslexia is widely known yet grossly misunderstood. Dyslexia affects a student’s ability to read and write due to one or more of a number of symptoms. These symptoms can include mixing up letters and words when reading, consistently incorrect spelling and grammar, and being unable to read or write on level yet presenting high or average intelligence otherwise.
This disability affects a student’s ability to comprehend numbers. Dyscalculia typically makes learning math facts and interpreting mathematical symbols difficult, thus diminishing a student’s chances of building a strong math foundation. Dyscalculia can also affect a student’s ability to tell time or count.
This disability affects a student’s fine motor skills, particularly writing. These students may have illegible handwriting. Students with dysgraphia may also present difficulties with spacing words and letters or spelling. These students may also have trouble producing and expressing ideas in writing.
Students with processing deficits demonstrate difficulty with interpreting data. Processing deficits are typically visual or auditory and can impact students in all subject areas. A student with an auditory processing deficit, for example, will have trouble executing auditory instructions. A student with a visual processing deficit, on the other hand, may find learning from visual aids such as anchor charts difficult.
Although common, learning disabilities carry a cloud of myths that can be detrimental to the education of students who face these disabilities. Even parents are often navigating uncharted territory when their children have a disability. As educators, it is our job to demystify these disabilities. We must understand what is true and untrue about the disabilities that plague our students in the classroom. Below are some common misconceptions about learning disabilities that you may encounter.
While students with learning disabilities will have weaknesses, they will also have strengths. Students with learning disabilities are not intellectually disabled. In fact, students who demonstrate lower than average overall intelligence on psychological testing will qualify for a special education category that is not LD.
ADHD is a disorder that affects the learning of many students, but it is not a learning disability. These students still need support in the classroom in order to be successful, however.
Unfortunately, some individuals opine that learning disabilities are a result of harmful or neglectful parenting. While childhood trauma can absolutely affect a student’s learning, students with learning disabilities have a documented weakness that can stem from several factors.
If I had a dime for each “back in my day” speech I have endured surrounding the prevalence of learning disabilities in classrooms today, I would surely be wealthy. More students are diagnosed today because special education has transformed into a more thorough and inclusive sector of education that better understands these disabilities and can better recognize them.
Students with learning disabilities can learn to cope and compensate, but these challenges do not disappear upon the inception of adulthood.
When a student’s disability affects his or her academic performance, that student enters the classroom each day with a disadvantage. Accommodations and modifications are implemented to level the playing field for all students. Also, keep in mind that students with IEPs and 504 Plans have annual meetings to evaluate the support they receive. This is your chance to speak up about accommodations that may not be a good fit.
Students with learning disabilities can absolutely be gifted. They are often capable of taking advanced classes and participating in talented and gifted programs. We must make a conscious effort not to limit these students.
The effects of a learning disability can be far reaching for students. Unfortunately, these students risk being labeled lazy or unmotivated due to their deficits. On the contrary, constantly battling deficits can make these students become unmotivated. When students don’t yet have the maturity and emotional intelligence to cope with a learning disability, they can develop behavioral or emotional issues. This can manifest as classroom disruption, defiance, elopement, or a host of other issues that can lead to disciplinary consequences.
Furthermore, the learning disabilities obviously impact students’ academic performance. These students often spend much of their academic journey trying to keep their heads above water and fighting through academic rigor with one hand behind their backs. Unable to build foundational skills, they often have learning gaps that can make academics more difficult as time progresses. Just like a house, an education needs a firm foundation in order to remain standing. As the coursework becomes more rigorous and students with learning disabilities are still trying to catch up from years prior, they are at risk of falling further and further behind.
At the risk of inundating teachers with a task that truly requires a village, I will say that it is up to teachers to seek understanding for each student’s disability. It is important for teachers to understand strengths and weaknesses alike in order to properly serve these students. Become familiar with the student’s IEP or 504 plan and implement it with fidelity. Using parents and former teachers as resources when available can provide valuable insight.
Finally, many students with learning disabilities are undiagnosed. When you notice that a student is struggling to a degree that may indicate a learning disability, initiate the process to have that student monitored and evaluated. As challenging as serving students with learning disabilities can be for teachers, we must always remember that these students face challenges that transcend beyond the classroom daily.
Whitney is a Special Education and English teacher. She holds an Ed.S. in Teacher Leadership from Thomas University, GA.