Friday, September 07, 2007

Back to School: Support Your Child's Learning

What can you do?
Students with learning disabilities/differences typically begin the school year with a bang, yet somehow, mid-way through the year, find that they are behind and struggling despite every one's hard work. Here are a few tips to make sure your student makes steady progress during the school year.

  • Listen and Observe
People learn differently. Understand as much as you can about your child's learning. Naturally, we expect our children to do the things that we can do, well. So, as parents, we are puzzled when our children struggle with tasks that came easily to us. Alternately, sometimes parents were able to "power through" their learning difficulties, and so expect their children to be able to do the same. Many children do, but some cannot.

Learning Disabilities are common, affecting between 20 - 30% of the population. Learning differences reflect unique patterns of strengths and weaknesses. MOST IMPORTANTLY,

Intelligence can be developed and trained with the appropriate tools!

So, the first step to successful learning is to be a careful observer of your child's performance. What activities and skills are improving? Where does "trying harder" only lead to frustration? What does your child tell you? For instance, a student having trouble writing, exclaimed, "I hate it when your pencil gets stuck! All the words I want to say jam up in the pencil point!" I never noticed my pencil getting stuck! Yet, as I thought about his comments, and realized that this student experiences grapho-motor delays in addition to language delays, I realized that his exclamation described this perfectly! Another student asked, "Why are the letters moving around on the page?" I never had letters move on the page, but now I know that this is fairly common among students who have difficulty learning to read.

  • Get Informed
Learning differences are everywhere! In fact, learning difficulties arise when we are asked to do a task in a way that we cannot! For example, if an individual is gifted spatially, and everything you ask them to do is in two-dimensions (for instance, reading and writing), they may not excel until they can make connections from the 3-D world into the 2-D world of print. Find out all you can about any areas that seem difficult for your child. Do they have fine or gross motor delays? How is their language system? Do they know the meaning of words? Do they express themselves well when speaking? writing? Do they process sounds accurately? Can they interpret what they see accurately--i.e. do letters stay still on the page, or do they frequently reverse letters or words like b's and d's or was and saw? The more you learn about learning, the better observer you become.

Fair does not mean the same route for everyone - Fair means appropriate
and perhaps, different paths for each learner!

  • Set and Review Goals
Have your child set their learning goals for the new school year. What skills to they want to improve? Reading chapter books? Writing reports? Learning study strategies for tests? Passing algebra? Goals that are personal and set by the child are meaningful to note and post. I like using a 1 - 10 scale, and noting improvement toward a ten for each goal. Check in monthly. How does your child feel they are progressing? Celebrate your progress! When you reach your goals you can set new ones!
  • Be Your Child's Best Advocate
If you note that your child is not progressing despite their efforts, avoid the "just try harder" myth and search out other ways to approach the task. Discuss your observations and concerns with teachers, use the parenting resource section of the library, and check out info on the net. Consider professional support when you feel that you are not making progress, but "hitting the wall" repeatedly. With the appropriate instruction and tools, students make progress!
  • Quantity vs Quality
Monitor your child's homework, especially if your child works slowly. Check with teachers to see if doing less work may be appropriate. Sometimes you can agree on a time limit for homework, 15 - 30 minutes in the evening for younger grades, and perhaps 60 - 90 minutes for upper grades. Remember that if a student takes longer to complete work, they are almost always working harder---and have been working harder all day at school. For instance, for math problems, I might pick out 10 out of 30 problems that reflect the learning objective for the day for a student who works slowly.

Another strategy is to ask your child to do the number of problems they feel they can complete within a reasonable amount of time. Let your child increase their goal as they feel empowered. Feeling like you can complete the task successfully is important!

Success motivates!
  • Accommodations and Assistive Technologies
In addition to providing appropriate accommodations, students need instruction and practice in how and when to use specific learning strategies and assistive technology. For example, books on tape are wonderful tools to develop fluency, ease reading fatigue, and provide multi-sensory input when the student reads the book while listening to the tape. Being able to adjust the speed is important, as well as learning to stop the tape and note the important information in a given section.

Be a scribe for a student who has trouble producing written work. Part of writing is learning to develop one's expressive language. Student's language development can suffer when they are not able to produce the quantity or types of print expected. Add voice recognition software so students can begin to "write" independently and gain experience manipulating written language.

Look for the gifts in learning differently! The more I work with students and learning, the more I appreciate individual complexity. We can learn from each other. Each of us is unique in how we makes sense of the world around us!

Don Winkler uses his thinking outside the box to lead corporations. Read his story at

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