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.

Learn to distinguish between effective lessons and busy work. Much of what filled our day in the classroom when I was teaching was busy work with minimal gains made by the child. You can tell which activities fall into this category because the child is simply not enjoying it and is not engaged. For instance, copying is usually a waste of time for most children. It will make the child’s hand tired and put the brain to sleep. Try it yourself. Put on a TV program that interests you a whole lot, and then sit down and copy a whole page out of the dictionary while you watch the program. Did you get much out of the copying? Any activity that is effective, useful and engages the child is going to be one in which he has to figure something out, invent something, or has to think! If he is engaged, he is learning!

Use images everywhere you can. Images are magical for many, many children who do not memorize well. Try it for yourself. Ask someone to do you a favor. Have them drive to a street not too far from you and snap a picture of something distinctive such as an interesting house, or a weird building, or anything that is out of the ordinary. Then have them come back to you and first describe verbally, orally, what they saw. When they have finished, have them show you the picture they took of that very interesting object. Which is most effective at getting across the reality of the object? The oral description or the photo?

Use a body motion to help remember. When I have trouble remembering a phone number (which is always), I know to pretend to dial it on a key pad. While I am doing that, I notice the shape of what I dialed and I also am storing up that visual pattern in the muscles of my body. Every child who is good with some physical activity is going to benefit from a physical movement to accompany learning. And I do not just mean bouncing; I mean a movement that reflects what they are learning. When counting by two’s, for instance, have the children march in a line but lean over heavily on each even number. Their bodies will remember the even numbers as they hear their mouths say the even numbers at the same time.

Relate the learning to a real-life experience. When learning to tell time or count money, do it throughout the day, not at a desk with pencil and paper. Measurement is best learned when the child is creating something very interesting to her.

Have the child figure out some things for himself. With any science lesson, the more hands-on and real the lessons, the better. Anything a child can just cut out and paste is marginal at best. It might just be a time filler. Anything a child investigates and then makes or writes or puts into action (that he has to figure out) is going to be valuable.

Find patterns and likenesses in all you teach because that is what the brain loves. There is beauty in patterns, and nature is full of them. Music is made of patterns; math is as well. I have seen a child come to life when she saw the patterns in learning. Unrelated details are hard to do anything with.

Don’t just tell; show. I would love to have a nickel for every time I’ve heard a teacher complain: I already told you that more than once. Hmmm. Could it be that telling is not effective? Show them. Show them examples; show them how you do it (modeling); show them what a good outcome is. Remember: Don’t tell me… show me!

Keep lessons as short as you can. Stop the minute the child is tired or restless. Of course I don’t mean ten minutes into the school day! I mean, however, that when your children begin to wiggle or be restless, check the activity or lesson you are doing for interest level. If you can inject some mystery into it, some novelty, by all means do it! But if you follow step one and get rid of the clutter and stick to the meat and potatoes of school work, you might just find that your daily work, the meaningful part, can be accomplished in a couple of hours in the day or three.

Do not, please do not, keep on doing what you see does not work. What the child needs is not more drill, but a radically different approach. Remember, we are going to abandon the notion that the child is broken! We need to change what we are doing when the child at first doesn’t respond.