Putting Kids in Charge of Their Learning Needs
Students taught to speak up for themselves learn a lesson that extends beyond the classroom.
During their school years, children with ADHD and learning disabilities have many people looking after them — parents, teachers, tutors, special-ed teams. After high school, however, they’re on their own in determining what they need to succeed and how to get it.
At Windward School in White Plains, New York — a first-through-ninth-grade school for kids with language-based learning differences — eighth-graders learn to become effective self-advocates in a course called Getting Ahead in School (GAINS). We spoke with Windward’s director of guidance, Julie Liebman, who runs the GAINS program, about preparing kids to take the reins.
How do you teach kids to advocate for themselves?
We work on goals that are important for everyone — to feel competent and comfortable with ourselves, to accept our weaknesses and build on our strengths, to use our resources effectively. For our students especially, these skills are critical. These young people have to learn what it means to have a learning difference, and how to successfully communicate their learning needs.
Many of these themes are explored in earlier grades, but in GAINS we put them into practice. For example, we help students find a comfortable way to explain that they have a language processing disorder. A child might say to her teacher, “I have trouble processing oral language. I may know the answer in class, but it takes awhile to formulate the idea. Can I have an extra minute to respond?”
Isn’t communication particularly difficult for these children?
Yes. Children with ADHD can be impulsive in their language and in their tone of voice. Some students with learning differences can be overly literal with expressions like “pulling your leg,” or they find it hard to understand another person’s point of view.
In GAINS, we talk about the effect of communication — the difference between passive, assertive, and aggressive communication, and the importance of body language and the timing of our words. We practice these skills in class, and students keep a log of their interactions outside of school.
Don’t children worry about their learning problems long before eighth grade? When can parents begin to explain learning differences?
By second grade, a child may realize that he’s the only one in the class who is having trouble learning to read. Many parents want to shelter their kids, but it’s important for a child to know that his learning needs differ from those of his classmates.
Before your child is evaluated, you can say: “We’re taking you to see someone who can help us figure out why you’re having trouble learning to read.” Afterward, explain the results in simple terms: “Everyone needs something different for their learning. Now we have ways to help you learn better.”
By fifth grade, children are ready to hear about the different ways people have problems with learning, and the proper terms, like “dyslexia.” The language should still be basic, and I like to offer mental images, such as describing the brain as a file cabinet filled with great information. For kids with certain learning disorders, the right file just takes longer to find.
As students begin to understand their weaknesses, we also focus on their strengths. Many believe that, if they’re not good at reading, they’re not good at anything. We find the things they are good at — art, science, sports.
When are kids ready to take charge of getting the help they need?
In high school, students should begin to handle things on their own — it’s an important step toward adulthood. By the time they apply to college, they should be comfortable asking for the resources they need.