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A Fresh Look at Teaching Children With Learning Challenges

A decade ago when I was in graduate school, I could hardly contain my excitement when the time came for taking remedial reading courses. I just couldn’t wait to find the answers to questions that had plagued me about why seemingly bright children struggled to learn to read. Imagine my chagrin when I found that the class was preparing me to test, detect learning differences, track reading rates, classify text as to reading level, in short to do everything but successfully teach reading to a non-reader.

Over the past ten years, I have learned about a whole array of classifications for disabilities. There are so many! The impression one could get is that children are becoming more and more broken, and we are developing more and more detailed labels for describing them. What I have not seen, however, is more and more evolved solutions to accompany this highly classified collection of labels. The solutions are what have always interested me!

If we continue to scrutinize the child instead of the educational system, we are essentially pitting thousands of children against one educational system. We have one specific educational approach with small variations here and there but also thousands upon thousands of unique children. Which are we going to scrutinize? The children or the method? Which are we going to measure against the other? Imagine taking your five children to shop for clothes. You walk into Kid’s Clothes dragging your children after you. Kid’s Clothes is very organized and research-based to give you the best shopping experience. The store has a long rack of boys’ shirts, another of boys’ pants, a long rack of girls’ dresses, etc. So you take your girls to their area and the boys to theirs. Within a few hours all of you are distressed and upset. You have only one child that fits into the clothes! Oh no! The other four children are all wrong! This illustrates the concept of seeing children as incorrect instead of re-evaluating at the teaching methods when children do not learn.

When we focus on the child and label him using a term that sounds absolute and professional, the child will be encouraged to become that even more! One day that is branded on my memory is a day in which I was subbing for a fourth grade teacher. I entered the room and was accosted by a slender, very articulate boy, who announced assertively that he had ADHD and could not control himself. And he spent the rest of the day proving it. He informed me, very articulately, every few moments what he could not help doing. He was living up so perfectly to what his diagnosis said he was.

The more we focus on the imagined problem with the child, the less effective we will be as teachers. When I was a little girl trying to learn to ride a bike, there were two big things I wanted to not hit as I wobbled across the yard. One was our concrete block house, and the other one was a particularly thorny orange tree. The more I wanted to avoid hitting those obstacles, the more I looked at them, and guess what? The more unerringly my bike steered right into them! If I am teaching my child and in my mind I am focused on her inability to memorize spelling words, my disbelief in her will be transmitted to her and my focus on the problem will become her focus on the problem as well. Nothing good will come of this.

Every adult I have taken the time to talk to can describe what tasks they are gifted at, what they enjoy doing, and how they remember things. Some of us know well that we cannot hear verbal directions and recall them for more than a nano-second, so we look at and rely on maps for navigation. Other people can solve really complex math problems in their heads. Why is it then, that we assume every single child should be able to memorize strings of letters (spelling), memorize math facts, or memorize and apply phonics rules? Does this make sense? I don’t think it does. We are all wonderfully designed to perform exactly what we should in our lifetimes. And none of us should compare ourselves to another person. We don’t tend to as adults, but the minute a child comes along, we often try every way possible to get him to fit into a narrow educational mold.

Let’s take a look at our traditional educational system. It does not work for many children. So the question is, do we change it or try to change our child to make them fit into the system?

Rules of thumb for teaching all children, but especially children with learning challenges:

Get rid of the unnecessary clutter. For instance, in teaching reading, you do not have to learn all the names of the letters first, nor do you have to memorize their related sounds, nor be able to put the letters in ABC order, etc. Those traditional steps, including sounding out and memorizing blends, are so familiar that we feel if we do not teach them, we will fail our children. The best way to teach a child to read is to get to the point immediately! I can attest to the amount of clutter that exists in our teaching day. One really foreign concept to many adults is the fact that some children learn whole words more readily than they do the little pieces of words.

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