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Finding Their Way: Empowering Students with Learning Disabilities

Finding Their Way: Empowering Students with Learning Disabilities Gavin Brown Learning How to Install Duct work for heating and Cooling

It is no surprise that struggling students need extra support, however adding these extra supports  often takes the place of classes where these students excel and enjoy. Think about that…Imagine that inorder for you to do your job effectively you are asked to sacrifice something that you love to do; fishing, boating, yoga, working out, no wonder students that have learning disabilities describe disliking school so much. We are in their eyes “stealing” the joy out of these fundamental times of their adolescence to account for extra class time to bridge their learning gaps while making school an even less enjoyable environment for them in the process.

Several years ago I had the privilege of catching a great documentary called “I Can’t Do This But I Can Do That: A Film for Families About Learning Differences”. This film not only had me captivated but in tears listening to the students openly talk about their struggles and opening up about what they were amazing at that had been taken away to allow time for support to help their learning struggles. The idea that stuck with me the most was listening to the children change the language around their deficits. These brilliant and resilient children were not claiming to have a “disability” they all believed that disability means I CAN’T. I have a learning difference that just means I learn differently than you do. I immediately sat back and thought about how changing this phrase alone had made these remarkable children change their outlook on their struggles and view them as a strength not a burden.

After the film concluded I knew in an instant I had to sit down and watch this with my own child, who had recently been identified with a Specific Learning disability in reading. Like the children in the documentary, Gavin had asked me similar questions. “Mom, what is wrong with me?” “Why has school gotten so hard?” Gavin was ready to throw in the towel and we had just begun to understand his learning difference and how to help him.

My family sat down one evening and watched “I Can’t Do This But I Can Do That” and I watched as Gavin smiled and shook his head while listening to the children describe their situations. After the documentary concluded, Gavin looked at me and said, “so I am not broken am I?” I immediately burst into tears and replied, “No, buddy you are not.” He said I just have to do things in a different way. This documentary changed my son's outlook on his new learning challenge. From that moment forward Gavin refused to use the word “disability” he called it a learning difference. Gavin took the information he learned from this documentary and made it his new way of looking at school. Gavin took every moment as a teachable moment to educate others about his learning difference and the learning differences of others. 

Advocating had become Gavin’s weapon to fight back against his disability and I credit showing him the film as his motivation to never give up. As Gavin continued through school like others had described he was asked to forfeit elective classes that he enjoyed so he could accommodate an extra math class or language arts class. Gavin would agree as long as he could have one class that he enjoyed. Gavin figured out early on in highschool career he wanted a career in skilled trades. Gavin pursued his dreams explaining the exact motivation he had gained from listening to the stories within the documentary. Gavin has never been happier in his career and never let his learning struggles stand in his way. 

Gavin Brown Learning how to install heating and cooling duct work

If you would have asked me eleven years ago if I thought a documentary could change someone's life  I would have said no, but after watching “I Can’t Do This I Can Do That: A Film For Families With Learning Differences” I have changed my mind. This film played such a huge role in changing not only my perspective but my family's perspective around learning differences and I encourage anyone who has a child who is struggling to sit back and watch this film together or others like it. Learning as much as we could about Gavin's learning difference was the best tool we could have given him. Knowledge is power and teaching him about his differences made him less frustrated and more empowered. 

Many times we forget about how struggling everyday can make students feel. Find joy in learning about one thing, whether it be academic, fine arts, sports or some other area. Once students can find joy again while learning, the rest seems less overwhelming. If you would like help supporting your students Patins has specialists avaible in many different areas. It is as simple as completing a TA request. Guide them, encourage them and help them understand what their learning difference means. Knowledge is power and once the student truly understands their difficulty they are more willing to work to overcome it instead of throwing in the towel.


Finding Ease with the Uneasy

The words Finding Ease with the Uneasy next to four pictures. One of a person moving through a ropes course. One of a variety of rubiks cubes. One of multiple sudoku puzzles. One of a rock climber hanging from a cliff.

Last April, I began a journey towards finding my optimal health. Fortunately, this is a proactive and not a reactive step to becoming my best self inside and out. During this journey, I’ve embarked on lots of new experiences and thus lots of new self-reflections. 

This week I’ve been reflecting upon how I engage and respond to new activities, social situations, information, etc. Some experiences I’m exploring include learning new information about my blood sugar levels, playing on a new sports team (and playing a sport that I haven’t played in years), and meeting new people at a friend’s birthday party. 

While I’ve identified differing responses and feelings about how these activities impact my overall mental, emotional, and physical health as a human being, I’ve also noted that they all have something in common. I chose to take part in them. It was my choice to research my blood sugar; it was my choice to play on a new team and to revive my softball skills; it was my choice to attend the birthday party.

This revelation stood out to me, because our students are regularly confronted with many new experiences in which they aren’t given the opportunity to choose whether to participate; participation is mandatory. So where does this leave our students who struggle to transition into new or difficult activities throughout the school day?

I believe that the answer is that we must teach our students how to become at ease with the uneasy. 

To try this, I encourage you to consider explicitly teaching students how to appropriately request help when up against a challenge. Though it may seem that all students should naturally understand how to ask for help throughout the day, this task actually requires multiple skills. This skill set requires the ability to recognize one’s struggle and the need for help, identifying the person to ask for help, getting this person’s attention, and so on. This means that students who struggle with asking for help need time to practice the steps when they are self-regulated and in a space where they aren’t afraid of what their peers or others may think. 

In that same safe space, I recommend having conversations with your students about what it means to ask for help. These conversations can demystify the stigma around needing help, identify nonverbal or discreet ways to request help, and/or create shared language on alternative ways to ask for help such as, “I need to see another example” or “I’d like clarification on this section.” 

We can also work on improving our students’ ease with the uneasy by improving their cognitive flexibility. This is a skill that can be practiced through the use of student schedules. For example, consider creating student schedules where an unknown activity is represented by a question mark icon. When we first introduce this type of activity to a schedule, the question mark could be accompanied by two or three activities to support the student’s expectations and need for predictability. This can be seen below in the left most visual schedule in the progression.

Three vertical visual schedules with a question mark placed as the fifth of six activities are placed in a progression from left to right. On the left, the question mark is highlighted next to a box with two options of math practice and writing. In the middle, the same question mark is highlighted next to a box of four options of math practice, writing, whole group, leisure. On the right, only the question mark remains.
Then over time, the number of activities could increase to improve their cognitive flexibility, helping the student to understand that during a certain time of day any number of listed activities could occur (seen in the centered visual schedule in the progression above). The list of activities could grow until it becomes difficult to list a large number of activities at which point only the question mark is used indicating that the activity is truly a surprise (indicated in the right-most visual schedule in the progression). It’s important to take behavioral and academic data on how the student is responding to these unknown and mandatory activities.

The end goal of this strategy is for the student to have collected personal data through experience and from real-time educator feedback on how they’ve been handling the new or unexpected activities. This information should then allow them to see how their ability to be at ease with the uneasy is improving, and that in fact, they can handle unexpected challenges, where there was no choice but to lean into it and ask for “help” or “clarification” or “support” when needed.

With hope, we will scaffold our students’ ability to be at ease with the uneasy and lead them into independent lives that allow them to take on challenges they once never imagined they could.

If this blog brings to mind any specific students, please email me! Together, we can investigate what is causing their unease and design strategies or find tech tools to support them. 


Thank You, Teachers!

Thank You, Teachers Thank You, Teachers

This morning I asked one of my boys what your teachers (general education, special education, and instructional assistants) do to make him feel safe, loved, and encouraged to try new things. My son took a second and started naming things that the teachers have said throughout the year. To my young third grader, it's the sharing of their day, an “I believe in you” and providing ways to make their accommodations seamlessly part of the classroom. In the teacher’s day, it's small acts of kind thoughtful words. To a boy who has difficulty reading and learning in the classroom, it's a huge part of why he wants to come to school. It's a teacher who does not have all of the answers but knows where to go. It's a teacher willing to learn the audiobook program, the speech-to-text and text-to-speech software, the C-pen, and the fair word spelling test. Sometimes, it's asking for assistance in understanding the why and how of the UDL (universal design for learning), AEM (accessible educational materials), and AT (assistive technology) that makes this young student eager to come to school and learn rather than run and hide in his room before the school bus comes. After my son mentioned all the ways that his teachers made him feel safe, loved, and encouraged this school year he said that he should make a card for each of his teachers and instructional assistants that help and teach him each day. 

If you or your student’s teacher would like technical assistance providing access to the curriculum in the classroom please reach out to a PATINS Specialist or fill out a TA Request. The PATINS staff are eager to help you provide that safe, loved, and encouraging setting for each and every one of your students. Consultations are provided at no cost to the teacher or school.

As teacher appreciation and the end of another year comes to a close, make sure you take time to thank your child’s teacher. Your kind thoughtful words have an impact on the teachers as well. 


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