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Diverse Learners

Seven ways to support student success.

By Lisa van de Geyn

Fifteen-year-old Hannah was in Grade 4 when she was sent for a private educational assessment at Toronto’s Hospital for Sick Children. Her mother, Fran Leith, had her suspicions — she’d noticed her daughter struggled to pick up new concepts and, having been an elementary school teacher for several years, she knew intuitively that something just wasn’t right.

“She wasn’t learning at a typical pace. When she had the assessment completed, her learning disability was confirmed. I’d never heard of it until her diagnosis,” says Leith, OCT, a Grade 3 teacher at Meadowvale Village Public School in Mississauga, Ont. It turns out Hannah, who recently started Grade 11, has dyscalculia, a learning disability in math that makes calculations difficult. People who suffer from this disorder find it challenging to manipulate numbers, grasp equations and remember formulas.

Dyscalculia is one of many kinds of learning disabilities. There are different types of processing disorders (spatial, motor, etc.), dysgraphia (difficulty forming letters and writing them), dyslexia, non-verbal disorders and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). While ADHD isn’t a learning disability per se, it is often grouped in with other difficulties as it affects a student’s performance at school. According to the National Institute for Learning Development Canada, these are defined as “an area of weakness or inefficiency in brain function that significantly hinders our ability to learn.” These neurological functions cause difficulty in perception (receiving information correctly), processing (thinking and cognition) and responding to the information received (speaking, writing, memory and motor co-ordination).

There are also a plethora of myths around behaviour that come along with a learning-disability diagnosis, but many teachers who work with exceptional learners are quick to debunk these. “[These students] want to be like everyone else. They don’t want to monopolize the teacher’s time or disrupt others. A school day is often exhausting for them,” Leith says.

The Learning Disability Association of Canada estimates that up to 10 per cent of Canadians have a learning disorder. Eleven years ago, Statistics Canada released the Participation and Activity Limitation Survey (measuring the prevalence of learning disabilities among Canadians) and found of all the children with disabilities, about 60 per cent have learning-related issues. What’s more, at least one student in every school bus full of children has a learning difficulty.

These stats haven’t been updated in several years, and based on her experience in the classroom, Shayna Goldman, OCT, a Special Education teacher with the Peel District School Board, says she suspects there are many more exceptional learners who may not have been identified as children who have special needs. “I see red flags every day and I ensure these kids get extra help in my classes.”

Perhaps while reading this you have the names of a few students floating around in your head — those who have either been assessed and have Individual Education Plans (IEPs), or the learners who you believe could use some assistance. If you don’t know how best to work with these students, take heart. We spoke with teachers who spend their days supporting these students in their classrooms. Here’s what they have to say.

1. Get to know them.

>You’re most likely already doing this and even though it goes without saying, it certainly bears repeating: learn everything you can about your students. Claudia Bouchard, OCT, is a student services teacher at École élémentaire et secondaire publique Maurice-Lapointe in Kanata, Ont. She says knowing each child well enough that you’re able to incorporate their interests in your lessons works wonders. “Differentiating your teaching strategies to what they like, knowing their limits so you can allow for breaks and extra time for questions, and knowing what they respond to — such as visuals and giving lots of examples — is key.”

Kindergarten teacher Jacqueline Floh-Hilts, OCT, had one student diagnosed with ADHD in her class at Toronto’s Churchill Public School last year. Not only did she communicate with the boy’s parents early on to learn about him, she kept a log of his behaviour and quickly discovered how to get the most from him. “During lessons, we’d give him a fidget ball to help him focus. And when it was time for seatwork, he sat beside me or my educational assistant; and when he did a good job, he’d be rewarded with the iPad.”

2. Focus on planning.

Goldman’s class includes a mix of students from Grades 9–12. She teaches 15 students — each one identified as a child with special needs, and each has an IEP. “For each lesson plan, I set up stations around the room that I know will benefit the learning styles of each student,” she says. For example, for the auditory learners in her room, she uses Google Classroom to give voice instructions. “At this station they listen to a case study while reading along. They need to use teamwork and problem-solving skills to figure out a solution to the problem that was presented in my audio,” she says. “This is nothing new and I’m not doing anything that hasn’t been done before, but the difference here is that all my daily lessons are structured this way. It takes a lot of preparation and planning.”

3. Lean on technology.

It’s available, and the teachers who work with exceptional learners use it. Michael James Pascaris, OCT, an assistant curriculum leader in Special Education at Western Technical Commercial School in Toronto, estimates he’s taught or been involved with more than 100 students with special needs and learning disabilities.

“At my school, my learning disability program provides students with access to Chromebooks, Promethean boards and other technologies in the classes that have lower student-to-teacher ratios. Google’s G Suite is an amazing tool for children with language-based or executive-functioning learning difficulties,” he says, adding that apps can be used to support students in every subject. “Google Classroom is great for differentiating instruction and universal design for learning. Students now have digital copies of lessons, notes and other materials, eliminating the need to write and organize notes in class,” says Pascaris. Voice typing in Google Docs has proven to be one of the most empowering tools he relies on. “After years of frustration and avoidance, with voice typing, my students are able to record all of their ideas in writing. Students who could spend a whole class typing a couple of sentences can now effectively demonstrate their understanding.”

4. Be able to answer this question: Why do I need to know this?

“Whenever I teach anything or introduce a new concept to students, I always tell them why they need to know what I’m going to present,” says Goldman. “Students want their learning to be applicable to their real, everyday life, so I hook them into the lesson by telling them why they need to learn it.” Take this example: Goldman had prepared a lesson on budgeting. Before the class could ask “Why do we need to know this?” in unison, she mentioned going to prom and getting their drivers’ licences. “I made interactive games at each station to help them learn how to budget for their prom outfits and limos, for their first car (a few had just done their driving test), and for their first year at post-secondary school,” she explains. “It held everyone’s interest much better than a lecture would have, Goldman adds.

5. Use regulation zones.

Using coloured zones teach not only self-regulation, but problem-solving and helps to cultivate mindfulness — a great strategy Jacqueline Arnold uses in her Grade 2 and reading recovery classes at Herbert H. Carnegie Public School in Maple, Ont. “When kids are in the ‘blue zone,’ for example, they’re tired and running slow and know they need a movement break to get energized,” she explains. The red zone means the students are angry and may just need to take a few deep breaths or a quick walk to cool off. “This teaches them to recognize how they’re feeling, in both body and mind, and it gives them a tool box of strategies to get back to the green zone — the optimal zone for learning.”

6. Recommend and support extracurriculars.

“These experiences in school often get overlooked when we think about learning,” Leith says, adding Hannah feels more successful in school, thanks to the activities she’s into during lunch hour and after school. “She had a love of music at a young age and also discovered she was interested in social justice initiatives. She had passionate teachers who volunteered their time, and Hannah felt like she was part of something bigger.” She’s participated in the Harmony Movement, Mike “Pinball” Clemons’s Just Give campaign, and joined the mass choir and her school’s theatrical performances.

7. Turn them into advocates.

“To help students be successful, I try to teach them to advocate for themselves by giving them choices in their learning,” says Leith. “In Grade 3, this would look like children asking for help when they need it, but also asking to use a computer for written work or asking for a preferred math manipulative.” Letting them speak up and ask for the tools that will better help them learn is key to their success, she says.

“Self-awareness and self-advocacy are the most important skills I teach my students with learning disabilities. In order for these young people to be successful in school, and in life outside of school, it’s critical that they understand their strengths and needs,” Pascaris says. Establishing a trusting relationship and safe environment is crucial, as is being mindful that every student who’s identified as an exceptional learner brings value to the classroom.

It’s our job as educators to build on student strengths, support their needs and unlock their potential.