Supporting Students Who Learn Differently: A Teacher’s Perspective
I was asked recently how to support children who learn differently. I feel privileged to answer this question, in honor of the children with whom I work.
Ultimately, good teaching is good teaching. Learners of all kinds benefit from moving from the concrete to the abstract. In math for example, they need to touch shape pieces and manipulate them. Learning is facilitated through repetition and in making connections from prior knowledge to new. Our brains take in information through our senses; think multisensory – visual, auditory, kinesthetic, and tactile. All children need to be taught in the way that they learn.
If your child is struggling with concepts, provide as many concrete materials as possible. Provide coins, counters, and fraction pieces. Invite them to bake, read the recipe, and measure the ingredients. Ask them to cut their sandwich in half, and then half again; what is each piece now? Show them how to use speech-to-text and “magically” see their ideas appear on the page. Read with them, while sitting close and enjoying the cuddle time. Try weeding, and observe the roots and stems and, in some cases, the flowers. Help your children see their learning in everyday life.
A student asked a few days ago why I don’t care about using tricks or finding the right answer. Because, I explained, using tricks gets you to the right answer, but tricks rarely help you understand. I care about your thinking and whether you understand why. This message focuses their efforts on true comprehension, and it gives permission to take risks and make mistakes. Students need to be comfortable with errors if they are going to take steps forward.
I remind myself daily what we all know: children will remember how they feel in class far longer than any spelling pattern or math equation. I remind myself that they are children; and in this year of pandemic, for the past few months, their lives have been turned upside down. They don’t have the life experiences to manage the endless changes in their lives. It is my responsibility to support them, however that may look.
How do I support the students? Often, my strategy is to take a deep breath, or go on a hike, and sometimes to eat a piece of chocolate! Either way, it is my responsibility to create a learning environment that is calm, emotionally safe, and supportive. This is true for parents as well; we need to make our homes as relaxed and nurturing as possible. We need to figure out what our children truly need and then provide it.
We need to be careful that we don’t do for children what they can do for themselves. When we let them know that we believe in them, they feel empowered. Our current circumstances might be the perfect time for children to learn to do their own laundry or fold their clothes. Maybe they could prepare a simple dinner or make dessert.
How can we focus on their many talents and strengths to build their feelings of competence? With independence comes confidence.
I invite you to help your children make choices. Help them learn to prioritize: what’s the most important thing to do right now? Chunk learning time; 20 minutes might be all they can manage. Go for a walk; move; play with the dog. Then come back to that writing assignment. What a gift to our children to learn time management skills now, while they’re young.
Like all of my colleagues displaced by COVID-19, I yearn to return to the classroom. To be closer to the children. To point to the word or problem that they have missed. To see them run to class. To watch them walk across the blacktop holding hands.
Until then, I am reminded of the prayer, “Grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change…”
All of us -- teachers and parents alike -- are doing everything we can to make remote learning and social distancing work for the children. I am confident that they sense our efforts, and appreciate them, even if they don’t always express their gratitude.
How can we support children with learning differences? Look into their eyes, see their potential, and have confidence that they will overcome the challenges they face. They will be more resilient, empathetic, and compassionate than many. And, yes, this is true for all of our children.
Cecilia Robb is the Director of The Learning Center at Almaden Country Day School. She has spent over 30 years in education and has a long-held belief that all children deserve to see themselves through their strengths. It is the adults’ job to understand how children learn and to teach them in that way. Cecilia is the parent of three adult children and has experienced dyslexia both as a professional and a mother.