Teaching Disabilities

While most of the public debate focuses on No Child Left Behind and whether the new standards implemented by states can effectively assess teacher’s performance, many students in schools across the country are still years behind and have trouble grasping the basic concepts in math and English.

The term learning disability is still relatively new to the world of education. As education experts realized everyone learns in different ways it became apparent they need to figure out ways that account for all different learning methods. Today, over six million students have been diagnosed with a learning disability and have sparked debate within the community on how best to teach students. As a way to figure out ways to help students that are behind, they have been diagnosed with different disabilities that describe the problems they are having in class.

“I have dealt with kids who curse and scream and fight and cut class, and read on a 1st grade level (when in 6th grade), and can’t understand basic concepts, can’t spell or write ‘properly,’ are three grade levels behind (age wise), and kids who talk back and refuse to do work.” Jonah Stevens, a Special Education teacher in New York’s South Bronx, said when asked to describe his experience teaching students who have learning disabilities.

A learning disability is different from being mentally retarded or emotionally disturbed because these students can still be in the classroom with their peers. A disability can affect different aspects of learning and are diagnosed as affecting specific areas where the child is struggling. Almost half of students diagnosed with a learning disability are performing below where they are supposed to be in math and English and 22 percent of them drop out of high school.

Some of these diagnoses are more popular than others such as Dyslexia, a language and reading disability, or dyscalculia, where students can have problems with arithmetic and other math concepts. Not as well known are Dyspraxia where students have difficulty writing, and Central Auditory Processing Disorder where it can be hard to process and remember language-related tasks. While they may be able to remember words to a song they hear, the learning disabled may process thoughts slowly and then have difficulty explaining them later.

After determining what kind of disability the child is facing, a Individualized Educational Program (IEP) is written for that child that the school is supposed to follow. These accommodations could mean extra time on a test, a computer to take tests or write papers with, and at times placed in another room to learn methods that will help them study. But even with these tools in place, Stevens said “most of the students I have dealt with are just very far academically behind and therefore can be behaviorally difficult” making it harder for him to give his students the individual attention they need.

While it is not known what causes someone to have a learning disability, it does not break down ethnic lines, but usually socio-economic. In many districts across the country, schools do not have the resources necessary to handle their students’ needs. According to Dr. Louis Kraus “There are some schools that are incredibly well positioned to do that, and there are other schools that are less able to do that.” Dr. Kraus works with children and families with learning disabilities and advises fifteen school districts in Chicago. As most school districts around the country get their funding based on the neighborhood they are in, it becomes harder to get what students need to learn. It should not come as a surprise Stevens is facing an uphill battle since the South Bronx is one of the poorest districts in the country. According to Kraus “some of the better school districts have been able to provide some of these needs and less funded school districts are less able to provide for these kids.”

While many experts agree that inclusion in the classroom is best for these students, figuring out the best way to teach them still remains a problem. Studies have shown teachers with more experience are better equipped to help them, and knowledge of different teaching methods for new teachers is useful as well. Like everyone else, students with learning disabilities can have difficulties in one area but excel in another. But even in the areas where they can excel, it becomes harder because they have to focus more on the areas where they are struggling. For teachers, their goal is to figure out the most effective way for students to express their interests in ways that suits them best. Stevens said that “The number one thing in dealing with students with disabilities, and teaching in general, is having good management skills. In many cases it means developing good personal relationships with students in order to have control and the respect of your class. If you do not, your teaching experience will become an awful battle.”

In most cases students diagnosed with a learning disability are pulled out of the classroom for a time so they can receive extra help. But new concepts are being implemented that keep students in all inclusive classrooms.

The Universal Design of Instruction (UDI) takes into account current technologies, combined with proven teaching methods, and puts them into one classroom. The theory is that whether a child is learning disabled or not they will have all the resources he or she needs in one place. Dr. Srikala Naraian, of Teachers College at Columbia University, describes that concept as shifting “the focus from the deficit to the social environment. What kinds of support can be given to all kids in the classroom instead of looking at these kids of needing or having deficits. Recognize they are inseparable from structural support and see what they can do.” This new concept is meant to get the students the support they need because, according to Naraian “there are areas they may be struggling in that may not qualify them to get special ed.”

Every student already has strengths in different areas and UDI is meant to bring them out. According to Naraian teachers in the UDI classroom are supposed to present “a choice (for students) in all different ways you present the content to engage their learning and different ways to get them how to demonstrate how they learn.” That way you are focusing on their strengths while making sure they understand the content. While UDI has been gaining momentum in recent years, there are still many questions that need to be answered.

“No matter how much of an idealist that may sound for many kids there are many kids who just can’t have their needs met because of behavioral outbursts that can occur within the mainstream classroom.” Says Kraus, who does agree that all students should be with their peers, went on to say “but it tends to be quite costly because of the amount of staff they have to have.”

The Principal of Philadelphia’s Science Leadership Academy (SLA), Chris Lehmann, says that UDI isn’t a bad idea “I think any time you move away from cookie cutter curriculum and you allow them to practice their own skill sets, their own interests, and don’t assume a deficit model it helps all students including those with learning disabilities.” Lehmann believes the real problem is “you assume that everyone can do the exact same thing, then you really put kids with learning disabilities at a real disadvantage where as if you allow people to play to their strengths and learn how to minimize their deficits, because everybody has deficits.”

SLA is a magnet school which has allowed them to have a little more freedom then other public schools. Lehmann said they designed a curriculum that all the teachers were involved in, which helped teachers and students alike. “One of our big winners has been for us at SLA is that we have developed a very strong language for learning between teachers and I think that kids many times suffer from getting lost in school in many ways that are avoidable.” Having this common approach to teaching, he notes, helps students with disabilities because they do not have to adjust to different teaching styles throughout the day. “So the more you can create a common language of learning the more teachers can walk the same walk and sort of enforce their own sort of internal discipline of what they need. Then you are individualizing with a common set of goals, a common set of language, and common set of rubric, a common set of input, and when you do individualize in that environment the individualization becomes very, very powerful.”

But of course there is only so much a school can do. “There’s no special education society” Lehmann says. “You walk into a voting booth and you vote for who you vote for. And it’s the same way with jobs you work for who you work and it’s up to parents to help realize their full versions of themselves when they leave our walls.”

In order to best help those with a learning disability, Dr. Kraus believes a early diagnosis is necessary. That way these children know what to do early on to prepare for class and which studying methods work best for them. Parents should also be aware of other issues, such as corresponding emotional problems. The majority of parents are happy to have their child diagnosed with something after noticing the problems they are having in school. “Much more often than not the parent, with good intervention, learns an appropriate understanding of what their child’s needs are and can work irrevocably with the school systems.” But it is not uncommon to find parents looking for a cure. Kraus said many parents ask “When will it be fixed? And you can’t tell a parent, when, if at all, it will be fixed. You don’t know how far the child will go with interventions. Sometimes it goes incredibly well, sometimes not so well.” It can become a difficult situation for parents and put teachers in a difficult situation because “you can’t guarantee it but what you get to do is work with them and get those interventions in place as early as possible.”

Lehmann said “it’s an understandable impulse to think that a school can cure their child, and it’s not about that as much as we may want it to be. It’s about helping kids to mitigate their deficits and play to their strengths. And learn how to live with a disability that isn’t going to go away no matter what you do.”

For many of the teachers who work with the learning disabled the reward comes from trying to help. Stevens insists that despite the obstacles “I always come back because every student deserves the opportunity for an excellent education.”



Filed under Education, Learning Disabilities

2 responses to “Teaching Disabilities




  2. Joe Armenti

    Very interesting read, well written.


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