Every year teaching has brought tumultuous twists and turns with students who have challenged my thinking, pushed my expectations, and encouraged me with their personal courage. Throughout my career I have seen the flickering of wings from the dark side of the moon, smiles flashing across crowded corridors pulling shadows from unseen hideaways, and resilient whispers pushing towards life on a thread of Faith. Over the next few weeks I will share just a few stories from decades of teaching incredible individuals.
Learning Assistance (LAT) is an often overlooked grey area of Special Education. LAT includes students for whom there are specific learning challenges. These students join a multitude of disabilities with invisible struggles. Who are these kids!? They are individuals whose brains lack working memory, the ability to see numbers, perhaps an inability to decipher phonics. They are the ‘sensitive’ people who are overwhelmed by neural activation; sound, sight, taste, or touch. They are undervalued, dismissed, pushed away. These students take time, focus, skilled instruction providing differentiated curriculum, delivery, environment, or conditions. There are so many possibilities for success. Inclusion is a right of all. This includes Learning Assistance students.
Innumerable times in my career I have been informed by classroom teachers that students are ‘just lazy’, ‘too sensitive’, ‘take too much time’, or ‘need to get over it’… My fury was ultimately balanced by the need to educate and inform these teachers. LAT kids appear mainstream. Their designations may sound small and may be easily dismissed by misunderstanding. So many times I have witnessed 60% of student populations receiving 100% of the instructional planning and delivery. What about the edges? As Shelley Moore has advocated, we need to aim for the corner pins! (Moore, S. 2016-04-04)
Mental health can be a precarious thing for learners who are led to doubt their abilities, their potential, their gifts. Such was the case for Steven. A strong personality with so many fractures he was held together by sheer will power. The central belief that he was unable to learn and would forever be a burden to those around him, resulted in a deep debilitating depression. In the regular classroom he was consistently overlooked. A quiet person in a sea of teenage angst and social festivities, Steven would often reach the end of a unit without any notes (he was unable to hand write legibly), without any recollection of the topic (he had an extremely weak working memory), and without having participated in any activities or discussions (he suffered from extreme anxiety).
Steven and I found each other one year when by chance he arrived in my LAT classroom. He was actively seeking a ‘safe place’. Somewhere he didn’t have to face people. My room was quiet, soft music floated out the door, and light emanated from a table lamp with “Be Brave” emblazoned across it in glittering gold. Steven chose the corner chair facing the door with his back to the wall. What had happened to create such distrust? As this was the first week at a new school I went looking for a file to provide background and hopefully arm me with strategies to communicate with a student who was at that time…silent.
The team at the school let me know that a full assessment had been done previously and that Steven was a Resource kid who missed the designation by a point with his perceptual reasoning. I took that information, considered it, then proceeded to instead looked for patterns in his school history and communication. Then I began the lengthy process to affirm myself as a ‘safe person’ in the safe room. Over a few weeks I began to get eye contact, grunts, small talk. My presence in Steven’s regular classes were a time of increased anxiety, even when I worked with other students in the opposite corner of the room. I opted for one:one contact in the corner of my room with only one or two other students in the space. The relaxation was palpable. Our first few real discussions about video games and websites were filled with evident trepidation. Once we had established trust and had begun building a relationship developed over common interests, Steven blossomed! He would participate in animated debates and arrive with tales from home, friends, and the neighborhood. Then began the process of addressing Steven’s academic needs. Steven used the computer like a pro and was able to write using tech but he truly believed he was incapable. He refused to look any different than ‘normal kids’ and would not use the technology available to improve his achievement.
A robust person appeared as Steven’s comfort increased. Steven was bright, interactive, and demonstrated unexpected insights. As a result of my observations, I contacted the psychologist to request an adjudication as soon as possible. When the report-out occurred, the results were not what other people expected. He was within normal intelligence, completely capable, but incapacitated by severe disabilities spanning several competencies! Additionally, the concurrent depression was stifling any possibility for growth.
The psychologist was new and extremely well trained. He took the time to provide on-going counselling sessions to Steven. Together they maneuvered the roadblocks wrought by years of misunderstanding and minimization. Steven sobbed the first day he truly believed he was not handicapped in the traditional sense. We began to learn that he had been systematically bullied by a group using intellectually prejudicial slurs for a number of years. A lack of understanding of Steven’s abilities, the absence of required instructional strategies, and weak interpersonal abilities created a perfect storm for both academic and social marginalization.
We began by removing students, or Steven, from classes where he continued to be a target of abuse. It is my firm belief that the decision made for Steven’s safety, precluded any on-going attempts at educating the abusers. The re-education of the targeting gang would continue without Steven’s victimization. Next, we encouraged Steven to find his voice! He began writing a story rich with profanity, violence, challenges. His voice was angry and the ability to write with conviction and vision was liberating. Steven was a prolific writer intent on being heard. He repeatedly asked how he could create a richer reading experience for his audience. Wow! Reading had been difficult and continued to bring up emotional responses. I introduced text to voice and found that Steven enjoyed listening to stories! He would follow along with visual tracking programs and participate in small conversations with intimate groups of quiet students. Numeracy was Steven’s weakest skill area. Beginning with building blocks I discovered another passion initiating active engagement! The hands on participation in numerical representations, re-grouping, and manipulation allowed Steven to feel successful and build demonstrable skill. The blocks were a permanent part of our table, along with whiteboards, number tables, calculators, rulers, and colourful anchor charts for reference!
Incredibly slowly, painfully aware of each movement, Steven began to pull out of obscurity. He developed a real friendship and implemented social strategies we practiced in the hushed confines of a comforting space.
The differentiation of curriculum, individualized programming, and the integration of strategies for success benefit all students. Students with specific learning disabilities are able to explore their gifts when they are enabled and empowered. See beyond the wariness, the fear, the reticence. Pull those shadows out from the lockers, away from the corners, and up from under the tables. Let them find their light and enable them to brighten their own path through recognition, empowerment, and trust!
** All names changed to protect individuals
- Moore, S. 2016-04-04. Transforming Education. Retrieved from https://youtu.be/RYtUlU8MjlY.
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