Working with learning difficulties

Candid conversations with specialists on the frontlines

When making considerations for helping a child with learning difficulties, there is an abundance of information that can be overwhelming to parents and teachers. 

To better support these students, as well as ATT staff, ATT teachers heard from Mrs. Rivka Varnai, M. Ed. LBS1 a reading specialist and Heera Chandani CCC-SLP/L, a speech and language pathologist to support them. 

The four pillars of learning

The four pillars of learning connect neurobiology and cognitive psychology to try and make the best use of the brain’s learning algorithms.

The first pillar of learning is recognizing that attention is the gateway to learning. By reducing distractions, students are more attentive, aware and better equipped to retain what they are learning. 

Students benefit from being taught how to pay attention to relevant details. Students can become easily overwhelmed with information, but when they are taught to pay attention to captions, headlines and context clues, this can make the learning more manageable.

The second pillar of learning promotes active engagement and participation in lessons. Especially when learning is difficult, teachers can encourage participation by making learning more fun, setting clear learning objectives and encouraging rewards. Rewarding the process, not just the end product can help minimize anxiety and stress and give students a dopamine boost to learn effectively and have a positive association with education. 

Error feedback is the third pillar of learning that inspires students (and teachers!) to learn from past mistakes. It’s important to adopt a growth mindset to learn how to accept and correct mistakes. Eventually, students will be better equipped to correct their mistakes quickly and take constructive criticism more easily. 

Once the first three pillars have been constructed within, the fourth pillar of learning entails consolidation – practicing every day. Regularly practicing these pillars will help make them habitual. Space out the learning and practice with daily drills of about five minutes. Throughout the process, check the retention to ensure the students are retaining the information. 

Keep cognition in mind

Understanding different elements of cognitive processing can play a major role in helping a student with learning disabilities. Cognition consists of the mental processes involved in gaining knowledge and comprehension. These cognitive processes include thinking, knowing, remembering, judging, and problem solving to show how learning becomes a cycle.

The cognitive process of selectively emphasizing and ignoring sensory stimuli is known to students as attention. These modalities process information from different sensory fields: visual, auditory, spatial, tactile. Try to get students to focus on one sensory modality instead of having their attention distributed across modalities.

There are different types of attention used in learning. Sustained or selective attention is used to emphasize what is relevant in teaching.  Alternating or divided attention is the ability to switch from one area to another. 

Visual or orthographic memory is one part of visual perceptual skills. This type of memory is used when students have to copy or spell. It focuses on one’s ability to recall visual information that has been seen. Visual memory is a critical factor in reading and writing and the best way to help students build their memory muscles is with practices. 

Be aware of how students process information

Auditory memory is the ability to remember information that is heard. Teachers and parents should be mindful of whether their students can process what they hear the same way other students do. They may have normal hearing, but there is interference with how the brain interprets sounds. These students will respond better if the teacher speaks more slowly, pauses often, breaks down directions, provides visuals and graphic organizers. 

Phonological processing is the ability to listen for and manipulate individual sounds in spoken language and is a key factor to diagnose dyslexia. These students have difficulty rhyming or with sounds. They may also experience difficulties with visual processing which affects how visual information is interpreted, or processed by the brain

Dyslexia is a type of learning disability that may be accompanied with the following: 

  • Difficulties with decoding and spelling (fluency)
  • Deficits in phonological processing
  • Neurobiological
  • Brain differences
  • Runs in families
  • Unexpected – a weakness in a sea of strengths
  • Secondary implications – reading comprehension and vocabulary, behavior difficulties

The International Dyslexia Association (IDA) has a Dyslexia Handbook for Teachers along with many helpful resources such as a guide to their structured literacy program and how it works to help students with dyslexia. 

Managing dyslexia 

Many students with dyslexia are able to thrive with the right support. Students with ADHD often have trouble with executive functioning and could also benefit from working on these skills.  Helping with executive functioning skills can provide a way for students to manage the brain systems more effectively.

These mental skills to build include: 

  • Attention
  • Working memory 
  • Flexible thinking – read and read
  • Organizing, planning, prioritizing, setting goals
  • Self-monitoring
  • Initiating tasks
  • Self-control
  • Ensure basic needs are met – food, sleep

Students with dyslexia may also require help building social emotional functioning skills. A student may require support if they have difficulty in social interactions or seem isolated. When major changes to family structure, upheaval such as job loss, school closures, or remote learning may also impact the student more greatly. To help with the social emotional side, check out Growing Our Resilience Muscle by Alexandra Fleksher. 

Anxiety is a big part of the world these days, but particularly with students with dyslexia they may face challenges with their sense of well-being. Emotions are like oil, and rationale is water. Oil always rises to the top. To reach learning, the layer of oil has to be traversed first. 

Overconsumption of Technology

In The Book in Crisis, Carol Jago  issues a call to action saying reading is in crisis among students in general. “Too often, too many students are choosing not to read.” She surveys teens who admit to almost always being on their phones. Especially in the times of the pandemic, working and learning remotely takes a toll. Overconsumption of technology affects sleep, self-control and inhibition for children and adults who may or may not have other learning processing challenges.

These days, especially, it’s important to be aware of over consuming technology.

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