student at whiteboard

Learning Disabilities

Tips for Parents Who Suspect Their Child Has a Learning Disability

Blog Type:  Learning Disabilities Date Posted:  Monday, September 14, 2020

teacher working with student

By Ann Andrew

Parents know their children better than anyone else and can usually sense if something isn’t quite right with them physically, emotionally, or academically. If you suspect that your child has a learning disability, then it’s very likely there is one. I know this from experience. As an elementary school student, my oldest son struggled in school, particularly with reading. An intelligent boy, I assumed his difficulties stemmed from some sort of learning disability. He was diagnosed with dyslexia in 2011 (my two other sons were subsequently also diagnosed with dyslexia), and since then I have devoted myself to helping students with language-based learning disabilities (LBLD). LBLDs fall under the broader category of specific learning disabilities (SLD), and dyslexia is the most common SLD, according to the National Center for Learning Disabilities.

"A child who read for 20 minutes a day is exposed to 1.8 million words a year."

Be Honest With Your Child

Your child knows they’re different. Don't try to hide what you know or suspect from them. A parent who keeps the information from them leaves the child feeling like the parent is ashamed of the child's learning difference. Your child will also benefit from speaking to a professional (neuropsychologist, school psychologist, therapist with a comprehensive understanding of LDs) once—or many times. Children need to have at least a basic understanding of the science behind how we learn to acquire language—read, and write. They need to hear from as many adults as possible that they are not “broken” or “dumb.”

Early Signs of Dyslexia and Other LBLDs

If you struggled to read (or do math or write), it's quite possible that you also have a learning disability that went undiagnosed. Parents with dyslexia have a 40-60 percent chance of having children with dyslexia—a clear early warning sign that your child may have an LBLD. Your hatred of a subject is probably borne from not being taught in a manner that was accessible to your learning style or disability.

Oral (expressive) language deficit: It’s a warning sign if you have a chit-chatting toddler who is making indecipherable sounds and words or seems challenged by learning new words.

Auditory (receptive) language deficit: Ask questions if a doctor has diagnosed your child with ADHD without addressing the possibility of an LBLD or an auditory processing disorder. Children with ADHD have the ability to process language, while children with an LBLD have a weakened ability in this area. Their slower processing of language impedes their capacity to comprehend spoken language. For these children, it is not an “inattention issue.” To complicate matters it's very common to see comorbidity (the presence of more than one distinct condition) of ADHD and dyslexia together.

Executive functioning deficits: Difficulties with attention, organization, and self-regulation are often comorbid with LBLD.

Social skills deficits: Often excused as “developmental delays,” social skills deficits can also be comorbid with learning disabilities. Ask your child’s preschool teacher if they play appropriately in school. Have they progressed from parallel to cooperative play successfully? Are they well liked by their peers or often misunderstood? Observe your child at school and see how other children interact with them in that setting. Children with dyslexia and other LBLDs can present symptoms of depression, anxiety, oppositional behavior, or disengaged behavior, in school and/or at home, which can be effects of being misunderstood or repeatedly asked to do something they do not have the skill yet to accomplish.

Facts vs Myths

Myth: Boys develop slower.
Fact: It’s not scientifically proven that one gender develops faster than the other.

Myth: We should wait and see what happens with our struggling children. “Teacher so-and-so is really good at helping kids who are struggling to read."
Fact: With early, intensive, and evidence-based intervention and instruction, children with dyslexia and other LBLDs can learn to read like their non-dyslexic peers.

Myth: Accommodations or modifications are sufficient for children with LBLDs.
Fact: Dyslexia and other LBLDs can be remediated. The longer you wait to obtain the diagnosis, the harder and more expensive it is to remediate. Accommodations or modifications without a diagnosis will not unlock your child’s potential.

Myth: People with dyslexia will never enjoy reading.
Fact: Many, many individuals with dyslexia love to read and are voracious readers. A child who reads for 20 minutes a day is exposed to 1.8 million words a year. These words help to foster a love of learning, the belief that you can dream big and achieve those goals, and confidence to make a smooth transition to college, employment, and independent living.

Parent To Do List

No two children share the same learning profile, so there’s no one-size-fits-all path to diagnosis and services. Based on my experience, here are my suggestions on how to navigate the special education landscape.

Initial diagnostic evaluations Obtain a full audiological and full vision evaluation (not a screening by the pediatrician or the school) prior to or in conjunction with any evaluation for LBLDs. Note that some advocates suggest that the child has the vision evaluation before any other testing. In addition, neuropsychologists can test for auditory processing issues and recommend a full audiological evaluation if they feel one is necessary.

If you are going to have your school district evaluate the child, be sure to put in writing that you are requesting the audiological evaluation for hearing and auditory processing be conducted by an audiologist, a vision and visual processing evaluation by an ophthalmologist, and a full neuropsychological evaluation by a neuropsychologist. This will give you a stronger opportunity to exercise your right to these types of professionals as independent evaluators if you feel the district fails to provide a comprehensive, accurate, and complete report for all areas of suspected need.

Note that school districts are required to administer a psychoeducational evaluation on request. Some may also perform a neuropsychological evaluation under certain circumstances. In a perfect world, your district would comply with all of your requests. However, few have the resources to provide the extensive testing your child may need.

You can request that the neuropsychologist observe your child over multiple days and in multiple settings (not just school), as well as attend the IEP meetings to present the report, discuss recommendations, and participate in the formulation of the IEP in the consent request. It’s unlikely that practitioners at large hospitals comply with this request, but some in private practice may.

Also, on the consent form for the neuropsychological evaluation or incorporated by reference as an attachment, document in detail all of your areas of concern—no matter how trivial they may seem. For example, a young child who doesn’t regularly turn when their name is called may have a social, hearing, or processing deficit.

From my personal experience, I recommend that your child have a neuropsychological evaluation administered by an independent neuropsychologist. Check with your insurance company to see if they cover these claims. Many will cover some, but not all, of the expense. In my opinion, this ensures that you are getting the full picture of whether or not your child is making progress, if your child has a disability, if so which one(s), how they should be remediated, at what pace you should expect results, etc.

To make sure that the evaluations are perceived as authentic and representative of the child’s entire presentation, urge private evaluators to observe the child outside of the clinical setting, collect input from the district, incorporate and correlate historical data points, provide exacting recommendations to the extent possible, and attend your IEP meeting to present the report, provide assistance during the eligibility determination, and participate in the IEP development.

Annual progress-monitoring evaluations Many schools will not conduct annual progress evaluations unless they are requested. Some evaluators will ask to see the child one year later to follow up. Schedule it on the day of the initial evaluation. Repeat key evaluations annually to cross check progress.

Tips for the IEP Meeting

Parents are the experts at the individualized education plan (IEP) meeting when it comes to their child, but to be credible we need to be aware of the laws, the academic standards, and the methodologies that will be effective for our child. Here are some tips for your IEP meeting.

  • If possible, bring an advocate to your IEP meetings.
  • It’s okay—even valuable—to record meetings.
  • Don’t sign anything except the attendance page.
  • Do not sign that you have received the meeting notes. You are not required to do so in order to obtain a copy. No matter what you write on the notes, your signature will be represented by the district as your agreement with the accuracy and completeness of what was written.
  • Follow up in writing. Keep records of all correspondence.
  • Invite your principal to attend meetings.

Key Components of the IEP For every accommodation on an IEP, there should be a corresponding IEP goal, which is designed to build the skill that is missing and thus replace the need for an accommodation. Accommodations are never a substitute for teaching.

How IEP goals are measured is one of the most critical aspects of an IEP. Without solid forms of measurements that are quantifiable and standardized in nature, any teacher can say a child is "making progress" while the student is instead floundering or even regressing.  

School district's can and do provide one-to-one special education instruction to students outside of school hours—even on weekends—in order to meet the needs of the student whose parents vigorously advocate.

If your child has met all of their goals and is within average range percentile-wise of grade level, then the IEP is working. Just because a child can see when we put glasses on them doesn't mean we can take away the glasses. It means we continue on the same path of intervention we were on to ensure the continued growth.  

The road for parents of children with a learning disability is very rarely smooth. It requires time, persistence, and patience. Your dedication is well worth the effort when you watch your child(ren) transform from struggling students to thriving, enthusiastic learners. Trust your gut and take action.

Related Resources:

About the Author

ann andrew headshot

Ann Andrew is a parent, educator, and advocate with a passion for helping students with language-based learning disabilities. Cynthia Moore, of Advocate Tip of the Day™, contributed to this blog post.]]>

more learning disability posts

Tags:  ADHD auditory processing dyslexia awareness Executive Functioning expressive language IEP individualized education plan language-based learning disability learning differences learning disability neuropsychological evaluation oral language social skills specific learning disability

Leveling the Playing Field for Kids with Dyslexia

Blog Type:  Learning Disabilities Date Posted:  Friday, November 13, 2015

By Barbara L’Italien

Children with dyslexia often go without the essential support they need in order to succeed in our traditional public schools. Although research shows that when students with dyslexia get the method of instruction early in their educational careers they frequently become very successful students, Massachusetts does not provide specialized training, teaching strategies, or evaluation process for teachers of students with dyslexia. Additionally, many educators have not been taught how to recognize the early signs of dyslexia. The result is that thousands of children with dyslexia suffer in silence after being labeled below-average or lazy. These children do not get to enjoy learning in the same way their peers do, and their fear of constantly asking for help with deciphering words can result in long-term effects on their literacy.

The need for legislative action is clear. The demand for dyslexia-specific instruction far exceeds the number of seats available at the Landmark School.  Providing accessible methods to help teachers better understand how to instruct students with dyslexia should be a priority, as should early evaluation of students who show signs of dyslexia. We want all students to work at grade level, and we know that kids with dyslexia can do this if they are properly supported.

For these reasons, I have sponsored a bill (S.312) to address the special education needs of children with dyslexia. The bill has four important components: (1) an optional endorsement for teachers who wish to be trained in teaching strategies for students with dyslexia, (2) adding a standardized definition of dyslexia into our special education statute, (3) a requirement that schools provide early evaluation of young students showing signs of dyslexia, and (4) a requirement that students with dyslexia have access to teachers who have earned the dyslexia endorsement.  

This bill is not perfect or all encompassing, but it has begun a statewide conversation on the importance of providing high-quality instruction for students with dyslexia and how to best equip our hardworking educators with the tools they need to help children with dyslexia succeed. I want to honor our children and educators that advocate for students with dyslexia through this bill. We will use their experiences and the research to advance dyslexia education in our schools and ensure children with dyslexia excel in their educational careers.  If you agree that this legislation is needed in our Commonwealth, I encourage you to contact my office to discuss how you can help advocate on behalf of this issue.

Barbara L'Italien headshot

Barbara L’Italien is the mother of four children and is the State Senator for Andover, Dracut, Lawrence, & Tewksbury.  Her career in advocacy and public service also includes eight years as a State Representative and Government Affairs work in the State Treasurer’s office and at the Arc of Massachusetts.

more learning disability posts

Tags:  Barbara L’Italien Decoding Dyslexiadyslexia dyslexia awareness dyslexia legislation Landmark School

Making Time to Create Change

Blog Type:  Learning Disabilities Date Posted:  Tuesday, October 6, 2015

By Nicole Mitsakis

"You have to do the right thing...You may never know what results come from your action. But if you do nothing, there will be no result." Mohandas K. Gandhi

The quote above explains the very personal and passionate commitment I have to establishing Decoding Dyslexia in Massachusetts (DD-MA) as a relevant and effective means to improve the school experience of students with dyslexia. The struggle for my own child’s positive outcome in a public school was a work in progress, full of frustration and stress. DD-MA is a constructive outlet that allowed me to take some action.

or me, one of the most relevant opportunities was on June 17, 2015, when I testified before the Massachusetts Education Committee to share why dyslexia legislation is so necessary (HB 463 and SB 312). DD-MA has worked with neuroscientists and legislators to initiate legislation that will guide public school policy makers to better outcomes. What I’ve learned about the legislation process is invaluable, but the most important lesson I have learned is that by taking steps and creating the opportunity for others to join in those steps towards change, Massachusetts is closer to a result that would benefit all public school students struggling with dyslexia. As a new parent in the Landmark community, I’d like to share the mission of Decoding Dyslexia MA.  

Who is DD-MA and what do they do?

Decoding Dyslexia Massachusetts  (DD-MA) is a grassroots movement to raise awareness of the research-based interventions that are effective in overcoming dyslexia and opening the doors to academic success. We aim to influence families, educators, and legislators and our motto is: Make time to create change or the time for change will never be now.  

Together, committed parents and professionals have joined us over the few short years since our beginning in 2013. I am grateful to all the parents, professionals, legislators, and dyslexia experts that I have had the privilege of meeting and learning from on this journey. The process of advocating for any child with a disability is difficult and it’s even more challenging when that disability is often not acknowledged or supported appropriately.  DD-MA allows me to direct my energy in a positive way to create better outcomes. Below is a list of a few highlights accomplished by our group:

  • Meeting with neuroscience researchers at the McGovern Institute of Brain Researchers to promote dyslexia awareness
  • Advocating as part of the National Decoding Dyslexia Network in Washington D.C.
  • Dyslexia awareness lectures with Dr. Nadine Gaab, Dr. Elizabeth Norton, Dr. Stephanie Gottwald, Dr. Matthew Schneps, Dr. Roberto Olivardia and other experts
  • Documentary movie showings (both The Big Picture: Rethinking Dyslexia and Dislecksia the Movie) with panel discussions for Dyslexia awareness
  • Providing our 1700+ followers with an active place to learn about and discuss dyslexia
  • Engaging Massachusetts families in legislative or community action that will improve outcomes for students with dyslexia

There is still work to be done!

massachusetts dyslexia advocates

The current legislation includes two bills as drafts in the Joint Committee on Education, HB 463 and SB 312. At the Hearing, DD-MA families were accompanied at the hearing by experts like Dr. John Gabrieli and Elizabeth Norton of the McGovern Institute of Brain Research at MIT, Dr. Charles Haynes of MGH Institute of Health Professionals, and Dr. Roberto Olivardia, Harvard Medical School. Many members of the International Dyslexia Association also signed a joint letter submitted as testimony. Though the hearing is past, testimony can be submitted by anyone who wants to offer their opinion and story to the Joint Committee on Education. I encourage all families who are experiencing the challenges that come with dyslexia—academic, financial, social, and emotional - to contact legislators to support legislation.

Can you make time to create change?

For more information or to get or stay involved: Decoding Dyslexia MA wesbite DD-MA on Facebook

nicole mitsakis headshot

Nicole Mitsakis, Landmark Parent and DD-MA Co-Founder & Director of Operations

more learning disability posts

Tags:  Decoding Dyslexia dyslexia dyslexia awareness dyslexia legislation Gabrieli Lab in the McGovern Institute for Brain Research at MIT Landmark School making change National Dyslexia Awareness Month Nicole Mitsakis

Keeping Mathematics Accessible to All Students

Blog Type:  Learning Disabilities Date Posted:  Tuesday, June 9, 2015

kid looking at blackboard with long math formula

By: Mark Drago. This post was previoulsy published in Young Teachers Collective.   

I know this is an article about mathematics education, but let me start with a poem:

Zimmer’s Head Thudding Against the Blackboard, by Paul Zimmer

At the blackboard I had missed

Five number problems in a row,

And was about to foul a sixth

When the old exasperated nun

Began to pound my head against

My six mistakes. When I wept,

She threw me back into my seat,

Where I hid my head and swore

That very day I’d be a poet,

And curse her yellow teeth with this.

After reading Zimmer’s poem the image of the old exasperated nun who began to pound his head against the wall sticks in my mind, especially how Zimmer curses her in the last line of the poem. The reason why I think of the teacher is because I am a math teacher, and while I hope none of my students curse me, I wonder how they might describe my math class or me in a poem. The scene Zimmer sets is very familiar, standing in front of the whole class and being scolded for wrong answers. Math class can take on this nightmarish quality of a blackboard filled with confusing numbers, symbols, and letters. And yet, while math can be scary, mathematics is also a subject that is deeply valued in America.

In President Obama’s 2013 State of the Union address he called on creating more “classes that focus on science, technology, engineering and math---the skills today’s employers are looking for to fill the jobs that are there right now and will be there in the future.” Teaching mathematics poses the challenge of trying to create welcoming learning environments for a subject that can cause anxiety as well as ensuring that every student learns the skills they need to succeed. We as teachers have the capability to meet these challenges by focusing on our students’ strengths and inviting all students to quality mathematics discussions.

I teach at a high school that specializes in language-based learning disabilities (LBLD), such as dyslexia. While LBLD usually means that students struggle in reading and writing, their disabilities can affect the way they learn math as well. Mathematics is its own language with letters and symbols that hold meaning. By the time they enter my classroom they have often already had experiences similar to the one described in Zimmer’s poem and the mindset that they are “not a math person.” This mindset is often what is most detrimental in the math classroom. Carol Dweck, a professor of psychology at Stanford University, would call the mindset of “I’m not a math person” a fixed mindset, one where our intelligence is fixed and there is nothing we can do about it. Much of what we do as teachers is convincing students to believe in a growth mindset, one where our intelligence is malleable and controlled by our own effort. In making the math classroom more accessible, we should think about what aspects of our students we are focusing on. Are we just finding the ones who are quick to the right answer? Or are we looking at how the student went about solving the problem?

Dweck’s 2008 book Mindset: The New Psychology of Success, asks us to shift our focus from praising intelligence to praising effort. When going over a problem on the board, focus on the student’s process and what they did well. So instead of mathematics being a subject where you are right or wrong, we can shift our focus to math being a subject filled with strategies and problem solving that all students can be a part of. By praising students for the work they do, students are more likely to try a difficult problem because they believe they have the capability to do so.

In an interview with Education World, Carol Dweck said, “Psychologists who study creative geniuses point out that the single most important factor in creative achievement is willingness to put in tremendous amounts of effort and sustain this effort in face of obstacles.” We want our students to be creative and critical thinkers.  And the way we get there is by praising them for the talents that they have and for their willingness to succeed.

Ultimately, the goal of focusing on students’ strengths and praising them for their talents is to create an equitable math class in which all students can receive high levels of learning. Learning mathematics requires students to be actively involved in reasoning through problems and deriving their own answers. A math classroom should be filled with discussion on important concepts and different reasoning strategies, but frequently class time is filled with test answers and how well students scored. When students are worried about answering test questions correctly, they try to memorize routine procedures to quickly get to the right answer.

Part of the new common core standards calls for students to “Make sense of problems and persevere in solving them.” The common core asks students to think about how the problem makes sense to them, to base the problem on facts they already know, and work towards their own way of solving. Asking students to make sense of a problem levels the playing field in a math classroom. The discussion is not a race to the right answer that only some students can do. Instead, students offer what they notice and their own way of thinking. No one is worried about being called to the board to try to remember a procedure for six number problems. Everyone feels like they are capable of solving complex problems and by their own effort, able to learn math.

 

 

Mark Drago is a faculty member at Landmark High School.  Article as seen in Young Teachers Collective.

more learning disability posts

Tags:  Carol Dweck common core creative thinkers critical thinkers dyslexLandmark School Landmark School Outreach Program language based classrooms language-based learning disabilities LBLD math instruction mathematics

The Connection Between Executive Function and Social Communication Skills

Blog Type:  Learning Disabilities Date Posted:  Monday, May 11, 2015

By Linda Gross, M.A., CCC-SLP

Much has been written and discussed in recent years about Executive Function (EF) challenges faced by students diagnosed with a language-based learning disability (LBLD). Also in the forefront are conversations amongst educators, speech/language pathologists (SLPs), and neuropsychologists about interventions for students with social communication disorders (SCD). I have been privy to many of these discussions, and have read countless articles on these topics.  But my “real education” comes from my over 25 years of working with children and adolescents with both EF deficits and SCD.  Current research supports the notion that social communication skills can be impacted by EF deficits.

Cognitive flexibility, the ability to shift one’s thinking, is a component of EF. Consider the fast-paced nature of a social interaction that is filled with both verbal and non-verbal information. If a person has difficulty with cognitive flexibility, then social interactions may be compromised.

John (not his real name) is a student who teachers often refer to as “bright and readily shares his insights with his classmates”. However, teachers also describe him as “rigid and inflexible”.  He performs best with structure and predictable routinesJohn has been diagnosed with a LBLD, EF deficits, and a SCD. There are certain topics that John can provide a wealth of information about. He may come across as a “know it all” and does not recognize when others are disinterested. When a teacher or a peer provides an alternate view to his own, John may become argumentative. He often perseverates on his line of thinking and cannot shift gears. A student like John often perceives situations as black and white; he does not see the “gray.” 

This is an overly simplified example of a quite complex dynamic. Ultimately, we need to provide support with both executive function skills and social communication skills.  Rather than reacting in frustration to a “difficult” exchange, I encourage educators and parents to take a proactive approach. STRATEGIES (be sure to use specific language and provide clear expectations):

  • Teach cognitive flexibility and problem solving

“I understand that you didn’t edit your essay because I had asked you to make corrections in red and you didn’t have a red pen. What is one thing you could have done to get your homework done?” Help the student generate some possible solutions (e.g., borrow a red pen, use a different color pen and email the teacher about it, etc.). Use opportunities like these to teach/model problem solving. (Identify Problem->Generate 2-3 Possible Solutions->Consider Consequences->Make a Choice->Create a Plan)

  • Acknowledge, then redirect; avoid getting into a debate

“I know you want to keep talking about _____, but we have to move on.” “I know you are trying to be helpful, but Tim didn’t ask for your help.” “I know it bothers you that Jane is out of dress code, but you don’t need to comment on it. The adults will handle it.”

  • Tell the student how his words or actions make you/classmates feel

“I’m feeling frustrated because you’re not following my instructions?” “Jane felt embarrassed when you said she was out of dress code in front of everyone.”

  • Alert the student when there are going to be changes in the routine

“Tomorrow Mrs. Gross will be teaching this class so that I can attend a conference. She will collect your homework and help you edit your composition drafts.” “Friday’s class is going to be shortened due to an extended recess so we won’t be doing our usual warm-up activity.”

  • Identify and discuss the “gray”; not everything is “black and white” “I know that it’s officially springtime according to the calendar, but it is 30 degrees outside, so we need to wear our winter coats.”

To learn more about Linda Gross's work, check out the following links:

linda gross headshot

Linda Gross, M.A., CCC-SLP – Landmark High School Speech-Language Pathologist/Consultant and Landmark Outreach Program Adjunct Faculty

more learning disability posts

Tags:  cognitive flexibility education research Executive Function Executive Functioning Landmark Outreach Program Landmark School language-based learning disabilities learning disabilities social communication disorders speech and language speech and language pathologist speech pathologists

Meditation Is Happening in School

Blog Type:  Learning Disabilities Date Posted:  Wednesday, April 8, 2015

By Amy Ballin, LICSW, Ph.D.

In college, I first tried meditation with the hope that it would ease my stress. I went to a workshop and learned how to meditate.  It seemed easy enough.  I understood that all I had to do was repeat a word or phrase over and over again in my head and that was mediation.  So, I started a meditation practice.  After two weeks, I decided it did not work and never thought about meditation again until seven years ago when I attended a workshop at the Benson Henry Institute of Mind Body Medicine.  It was at this workshop that I understood what did not work in my previous attempt and how meditation can be life altering.

After learning the science of how meditation changes cell structure and gene pathways and reading the research that reports dramatic changes in stress levels, increased focus, and improved health and relationships,  I started meditating with a commitment to do it every day for at least ten minutes for a minimum of eight weeks before I judged it. I kept to my commitment but after about four months I stopped my daily mediation.  What happened after that was amazing.  I noticed a change in the way I responded to people and events.  I was more on edge than I had been when I was practicing meditation.  Things happened in my day that got me more upset.  I was less able to let bad things go and move on.  I went back to the Benson center and started my practice again.  I am more patient with my children and husband and I feel overall better able to handle disappointments, anger from others and other stressful situations.  In addition, some chronic health problems have disappeared.  So I now know from first hand experience that the research is true.

My colleagues in the counseling department and I are introducing the practice of the relaxation response to Landmark students.  We know that students with LBLD tend to have higher rates of anxiety compared to the typical education population.  It is with this information along with the high level of anxiety that we see with our students that we are implementing this practice.

Recently I got a call from the nurse saying a child had a stomachache.  He has been practicing meditation at home and wanted to come to my office to meditate.  We did a ten-minute meditation. He went back to class and stayed in school for the rest of the day.  The stomachache disappeared.

The science on the benefits of meditation is clear and from my own experiences and those of others that have tried it, it seems that a daily practice of the relaxation response is highly beneficial. We look forward to bringing this program to our students.

amy ballin headshot

more learning disability posts

Tags:  Benson Henry Institute of Mind Body Medicine chronic health problems counseling dyslexia focus health Landmark School Landmark School Outreach Program language-based learning disabili LBLmeditation mindfulness mindfulness education mindfulness workshops stress in education

An Interview with Vanessa Rodriguez

Blog Type:  Learning Disabilities Teaching Date Posted:  Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Dr. Jessie Voigts from Wandering Educators recently reviewed Landmark360 expert blogger Vanessa Rodriguez’s latest release, The Teaching Brain: An Evolutionary Trait at the Heart of Education. Below you will find a brief review and interview with the author.

“Let me tell you about “The Teaching Brain”. I picked it up, and couldn’t put it down. It delves deep into how teachers teach – and provides an interactive model for teaching – and learning. The process of teaching isn’t simple. There are myriad factors we need to think of and there are a plethora of teaching models that have been promoted over the years. And yet, there has still been something missing, a common-sense approach to teaching the same way we live our lives – thoughtfully, interactively, developmentally, and with purpose. This book, this exciting research, is that piece of the puzzle that has been missing.”  – Dr. Jessie Voigts

Interview with the author

Voigts: Please tell us about your new book, The Teaching Brain 

vanessa rodriquez headshotRodriguez: The Teaching Brain challenges widely accepted theories of teaching and offers a unique idea based on a simple yet empowering truth: we are all teachers. This book draws on the science of human development to redefine teaching as a social cognitive skill that develops in all people over time. The book marshals a wealth of research and experience to construct an entirely innovative framework for thinking about, talking about, and supporting this essential social endeavor.

Voigts: What inspired you to write this book?

Rodriguez: I spent over a decade in a classroom trying to defend my teaching decisions. I often found that the language I was using was not what administrators, researchers, and policy makers felt was appropriate evidence. I thought that a doctoral degree would help me to do this. What I found instead was that we don't have an understanding of teaching as we do learning – we don't understand the natural development of teaching in all humans. It suddenly made perfect sense to me that for all of those years I struggled to describe my teaching because we have a very limited vocabulary and overall framework for what it is! I wanted to open the door to a new way of defining teaching.

Voigts: Your theory of teaching takes into account real life interactions — and the growth of teachers. Can you give us a few examples as to how you developed your theory?

Rodriguez: It's hard to identify a specific example within the development of this theory since this theory is just how I see the world.  Teaching is a human interaction. Any time something involves an interaction with another human you have to take into account the complex nature of the brain. Our brains are complex dynamic systems.  Because they are dependent on our personal context they are forever changing. I would also note that most theories of teaching are actually stemming from theories of learning which is why they don't account for real life interactions or the growth of teachers. They are learner-centric and not about how humans teach but how humans learn. My theory is specifically about how we all develop our ability to teach.

Voigts: Why do teachers need to read this book?

Rodriguez: We are all teachers from as early as age one, we have the ability to teach and we teach without any prompting. However, we've never considered why we naturally teach nor how that natural ability shifts when we teach in the artificial setting of a classroom. By understanding the natural development of teaching, you'll become enlightened on your personal development.  Rather than being told how to teach based on a one-size-fits-all approach, you can discover your own teaching awarenesses; and therefore how you can more effectively interact with your learners.

Voigts: What's up next for you?

Rodriguez: The book highlights the overall theory I've developed on teaching but there's actually a side of my research that it doesn't delve into much. I'm currently designing and conducting studies to further understand the development of how humans teach.  In the fall, I'll be looking at teachers and students brain activity as they interact. I hypothesize that when they feel like the interaction has been successful, we'll likely see their patterns of brain activity synchronize. So rather than just saying "when it's working you can feel it," we'll actually be able to say you can also see our brain activity synchronize and act as a cohesive system rather than individual parts!

more teaching posts

Tags:  classroom practice education policy makers education research education technology interactive model for teaching Landmark School Landmark School Outreach Program language-based learning disabilities learner-centric student assessment teacher evaluation teaching styles teaching theories

Disability Discrimination

Blog Type:  Learning Disabilities Date Posted:  Tuesday, March 3, 2015

By Angela M. Timpone

Last fall, while I watched the Norwich University football team win 19–9 against Gallaudet University, I overheard words like “dumb,” “stupid,” and “retard” from NU spectators. These words weren't comments on the Gallaudet players’ performance. The derogatory remarks referred to the players’ disabilities; Gallaudet students are deaf or hard of hearing. Disability discrimination is often more socially acceptable than high-profile race discrimination. We chuckle or look away when remarks fly about a person’s disability.

As a parent with two children with disabilities, I struggle knowing their journey will be plagued with discrimination. By early elementary school both Dylan and Tristan were labeled by peers as “stupid” and/or “dumb.” Tristan and Dylan learn and think differently compared to typically developing children.

Disability discrimination isn't limited to children on the playground. In 2013, I left a high-profile lobbying career in Vermont for Dylan to attend Landmark School. Shortly after moving to Beverly, I wrote an open letter to Vermont Governor Shumlin (who also has dyslexia) and key legislators urging them to consider ways of educating students with dyslexia. In Vermont, there are little options to educate students with dyslexia— no language-based classrooms, no trained teachers and no similar peers in our small school districts. I thought I had sympathetic readers.

In my letter I mentioned that Dylan has a superior I.Q., but he hardly knew the alphabet and that our highly regarded schools had failed him. My letter sparked responses ranging from sympathy to outrage. Some suggested, I reduce my expectations for Dylan. No way— without basic reading and writing skills all doors for Dylan’s future were closed.

My mommy magic-wand can’t eliminate discrimination. I have no good solutions. What I do know is that I am part of the problem. I shy away from talking about disability discrimination. I want to fit-in and I especially want my children to fit-in to society. I worry my avoidance to disability discrimination adds to the problem. Perhaps we need to follow the examples of race discrimination and have public conversations about disability discrimination? Better yet, maybe we can change the conversation— let’s instead talk people’s strengths and abilities versus looking at people’s deficits.

angela timpone headshot

Angela Timpone is a certified educational advocate serving Vermont and Massachusetts and founder of Camp Kaleidoscope, a camp for families with children with autism. 

more learning disability posts

Tags:  disability disability discrimination discrimination Landmark School language based classrooms language-based learning disability LBLD

Painted Yellow Lines

Blog Type:  Learning Disabilities Date Posted:  Thursday, June 9, 2016

road with yellow lines

At Landmark School's recent commencement ceremony, graduate Matthew Pramas '16 sheds light on what it means to learn differently and reminds his classmates that it can have its advantages. 

I remember sitting on the swings, 11 years ago, on a beautiful spring day. My teacher let my class out to recess for the last 20 minutes of school, and we were allowed to use the entirety of the playground and field. I was minding my own business and then I looked over to my left to see, only 30 feet away, the resource room kids. They weren’t allowed to play with us; they couldn’t reach me on the swings. They were restricted to a small fire lane by the back door of the resource room. They were trapped, penned in by some painted yellow lines outlined on the ground. And I looked around the entire playground where my class was running on the field, playing on the jungle-gym, filling the air with their laughter; and then back at that tiny, quiet box the resource room kids were left in. Even then, I knew this was wrong.

In a way, I wasn’t with my usual classmates at all; I was with those resource room students. I knew what those kids were going through because, for several times a day, I was one of them. I too was restricted; I was trapped by my school and put in confining places like the resource room. My possibilities were decided by my school, and they were very narrowly defined, just like those resource room students. And just like them, my classmates and I have been defined. We’ve had decisions made for us, things chosen for us; but now, as we graduate, it’s time to make our own decisions, to be in control of our own lives. That is why we all need to find something-whatever it may be-that speaks to us, that leads us on our own journey.

We just need to know that this label we bear is not a disability, but a great ABILITY.

We have an ability to succeed in what we want to do like few others. I wouldn’t dare say that to any other group of seniors, but we do things differently. We have always done things our own way because we have language-based learning disabilities and we have needed to find different ways of doing routine activities in order to survive in the classroom. I know that many of us would trade our disability if we had the chance because we have gone through so much, and we’re even still advised to conform to a world created by other people. People who aren’t like us. Remember, we haven't been seen as outsiders for the things we have done, we have been seen as outsiders for who we are as people. But none of that defines us now.

We just need to know that this label we bear is not a disability, but a great ABILITY. The ability to think differently and take our own path. It is our strength.

Malcolm Gladwell argues this very point in his book David and Goliath. Gladwell talks about how people’s weaknesses can actually be strengths, and he mentions one lawyer, David Boies, who is severely dyslexic, but who turns his disability around to be an asset by memorizing every case. This has made him one of the most respected lawyers in the United States. Gladwell chose this title “David and Goliath” because in the old story, David is the young, weak boy who challenges Goliath, the strongest fighter on the enemy side, to a duel. Everyone assumes David will be easily killed as they gear the boy up with soldiers’ armor, like everyone before him. Only for David, the usual armor won’t work for him because David doesn’t fight the normal way, he uses his slingshot, which is unusual. So he takes his armor off, leaving himself completely vulnerable. We know what that feels like. Except this supposed vulnerability isn’t a weakness for David because no armor meant increased mobility, and when it came time to fight, David shot a rock in between Goliath’s eyes and won. He won because he turned his supposed weakness into his strength — into a force no one else expected.

This is our story. We are the David who can dare to think differently.

He won because he turned his supposed weakness into his strength.

Don’t lose this ability to see different sides, think of new solutions, and use creativity to solve the difficult problems.

And as I look back in on those resource room kids, after all these years as my fellow peers and I prepare graduate, I know that this spring day liberates me to live; it no longer confines me. It motivates me to see how far things need to be taken, how much better things can be — that it isn’t pointless to make the world a better place or try to advance something just a little more for the sake of humanity. We all have this motivation, this passion somewhere. Some of us have already found it, some of us haven’t, but we all have it. For me, living means becoming a writer. It means waking up every day to channel that passion to work for justice, to fight ignorance, to do something great. We can all do great things. Because for me living means taking every opportunity, seizing every moment. It means that if I ever have the chance to grow old, that I will look back on my life and regret nothing. It means for me, at this time, being satisfied with what I did with my life and deciding to choose a way of life over a job, and a vocation over a career.

A-Pramas2

Class of 2016, we escaped from our confining places a long time ago, but there are those who never got the chance to leave. Let us prove that we are not bound by some painted yellow lines. Matthew Pramas was a part of the 2016 Landmark School graduating class and was a student speaker at our recent commencement ceremony. Matt is headed to St. Michael's College this fall.

more learning disability posts

Tags:  ability class of 2016 confidence dyslexia graduation Landmark School language-based learning disabilities LBLD learning differences learning disabilities Malcolm Gladwell self-esteem

Dyslexia: Making Learning Relevant

Blog Type:  Learning Disabilities Date Posted:  Wednesday, May 25, 2016

Recently, we spoke to Dean Bragonier, founder of Noticeability, a nonprofit enabling students with dyslexia to cultivate their strengths and providing tools to the adults that serve them. Dean will also be addressing our graduates and families at Landmark's 2016 commencement.

What was the inspiration for starting Noticeability?

I have an 8-year old son who has dyslexia. Both my wife and I are dyslexic so we knew there was an 80-100% chance that our son would be dyslexic as well. Having personally struggled in school, I knew our boy would require social and emotional support to help maintain his confidence. I had no idea that through Noticeability I could possibly address the needs of millions of other dyslexic students.

We have a culture that uses text as the principle medium in education. People with dyslexia, of course, are tremendously burdened by this. Noticeability harnesses technology to make learning interactive and relevant. The key is accessibility. It's vitally important to develop phonemic awareness and build reading skills but technology should be used to support and augment reading, not bypass it.

Our focus at Noticeability is to reach students, mostly in public schools and juvenile justice facilities, who have been conditioned to think that they are broken or stupid because of their dyslexia. Our goal is to expose these students to the professions where dyslexics find the most success (entrepreneurship, arts, engineering, and architecture) while providing them with an accessible, meaningful, and rewarding moment in their education.

NoticeAbility offers teachers a one-day training session where they learn about the neuroscientific advantages of dyslexia and gain the essential skills of social emotional instruction. Once their training is complete, teachers are awarded professional development points and their students are given access to NoticeAbility’s online learning platform. Our curricula, which is comprised of 10 online modules and 10 classroom sessions, enables students to access lesson plan content through a variety of modalities (video, audio, graphics and pictures). The intention, of course, is to enable students to work at their own pace and through a medium that resonates with their specific learning preferences.

When students come together in the classroom, they begin the project based learning component of the curriculum. Students are divided into teams and work, as groups, in SOUL centers: Self-Organized, Unbridled Learning Centers. In our entrepreneurship course, for example, students generate entrepreneurial ideas and build a business plan and prototypes for their ideas. Teachers, meanwhile, provide students with the appropriate scaffolding to facilitate teamwork and emotional development. When the course is complete, SOUL Center teams presentation their creations to their parents, teachers, and student body.

How can we raise awareness about dyslexia and other language-based learning disabilities? Responsibility rests on the many people who have dyslexia who live, work, and contribute to society in a positive way—despite their disability. Landmark graduates should be the spokespeople for this learning difference. They know what it feels like, first hand, to be completely misunderstood in a classroom despite being extraordinary problem solvers and critical thinkers. As successful dyslexics like Charles Schwab, Steven Spielberg, and Richard Branson speak often and openly about their experience with dyslexia, the paradigm will inevitably shift from a deficiency-based narrative to a strength-based perspective.

We have Noticeability t-shirts that say "dyslexia is cool". The more dyslexics come out and talk about the nuances of their learning difference, the more the stigma will be reversed. My hope is that one day people will add "dyslexic" to their resume to give themselves a competitive advantage. Sure, there will always be professions where dyslexia is a liability (I doubt there are many of us in proof reading departments), but there are so many careers for which having dyslexia can be a huge advantage.

Responsibility rests on the many people who have dyslexia who live, work, and contribute to society in a positive way—despite their disability.

What are you most excited about in preparing to speak to our graduates? Even though I don't know these students personally yet, I feel like I know so much about them. I want to remind them that their perseverance was forged from adversity. They must understand that they have just completed one of the most challenging periods of their lives. If they can have confidence in who they are and maintain their determination, these students will have remarkable lives.

Check out Dean's TED talk.
dean bragonier headshot
Dean Bragonier is the Founder and Executive Dyslexic of NoticeAbility. Shaped by the challenges associated with his dyslexia, Dean became a diligent and successful college student after struggling through the traditional secondary education system. It wasn’t until he enrolled at Bates College that he developed a true love of learning, fostered in large part by the institution’s unique approach to education and its support of students with learning differences. Upon graduation from Bates, Dean embraced his entrepreneurial instincts and acquired a small seasonal restaurant on Martha’s Vineyard Island that he transformed into a successful full-scale enterprise (see Boston Magazine, July 2001).  It was through this endeavor that he was able to contextualize his years of laborious academic learning and discover the true gifts of his dyslexic mind. As a social entrepreneur, Dean has founded his own nonprofit organizations and served as board member and advisor to a number of others.  NoticeAbility is the culmination of Dean’s passion for education and his conviction that the advantages of dyslexia far outweigh its associated challenges.

​​​​

more learning disability posts

Tags:  dean bragonier dyslexia Noticeabilit language-based learning disabilities

Pages

Subscribe to RSS - Learning Disabilities