On “How Do We Identify & Teach Students with Learning Difficulties” and #edcampdeltaPosted: January 19, 2014
Supporting students who have difficulties in school has long been a priority for me in each assignment I’ve undertaken as an educator, whether it be classroom teacher, school-counsellor, administrator, or district administrator. More recently, that priority and importance took on a more personal note.
A few years ago a young girl was having difficulties in school. She was in Grade 1 at the time. The whole school was organized around multi-age groupings, and the girl had been with the same teacher in Kindergarten and it was expected that she would again be with the same teacher in Grade 2.
The teacher and the parents had discussed their concerns about her progress, and it was determined at the school level that she would get some support through the LAC teacher. Later on in communicating with the parents, the LAC teacher indicated that the student’s difficulties were ESL related. The LAC teacher continued that because the girl had been in a daycare in which the provider spoke both English and Chinese and because the girl’s grandmother (with whom she spent a lot of time) spoke mostly Chinese, her learning was delayed. There was no reference to assessments or other factors used to make this determination.
The parents were taken aback. Both parents had been born and raised in Canada. Both went through school without needing any type of ESL support, and both had completed more than one post-secondary program. The father is an educator. The father shared with the teacher his view that the girl’s problems were not ESL related, and that appropriate assessment and interventions were important. The father communicated that the interventions necessary for ESL students were likely different than the interventions necessary to support his daughter.
Subsequently, report cards were sent home with separate ESL reports attached. In bringing this concern to the LAC/ESL teacher, the parents were told that this was simply an error and the reports should not have been entitled ESL. In meeting with the Principal, the parents were again told that this was simply an oversight and assured that this identification was not reported to the Ministry of Education for funding purposes.
The girl’s difficulties in school continued into Grade 2, and the parents engaged private tutors. Typical communication that schools are under funded and resourced and that the girl’s difficulties would not be very high on the priority list provided a clear indication that it was unlikely that any testing through the school psychologist would occur in the near future. The parents made the decision to have their daughter tested by a psychologist in private practice. The father’s and mother’s extended health plans would cover only a fraction of the cost, but they felt that it was a necessary course of action. The testing began during the girl’s grade 3 year.
The private psycho-educational assessment was revealing and specific about the girl’s difficulties and suggested interventions and supports. There was no indication of ESL related problems.
The parents met with the girl’s classroom teacher, who she had for grade 3 and 4, and her new LAC teacher to discuss the findings of the report.
During teacher job action, periodically sent home with the girl were communications from the teacher about the issues related to the current job action and identifying the necessity of these actions in support of students. No meaningful reports were sent home. No communication from the school in regards to the girl’s progress or difficulties was received. As the teacher did not use email, the parents had to leave messages at the office for the teacher – none that were initially returned. Each time the parents followed up due to the lack of response, they eventually received calls back from the teacher who indicated that she had returned the calls and left messages. There had been no messages on the home phone, the parents’ cell phones, or their work phones. There was no indication on call displays of any calls.
During grade 4, after job action had concluded, parent-teacher interviews again began. Parent-teacher interviews in this class were student led. At the parent-teacher night the girl showed her parents around the classroom and told them what she had done in class. Afterwards, the teacher would hand the parents their daughters’ report card and stated that they could read it later at home. The parents would leave with no clear understanding of their child’s progress or plans of support for the remainder of the year.
At the end of the school year the only clarity that the parents had was that their daughter was behind.
This year, at the beginning of the girl’s Grade 5 year, the parents attended an IEP meeting with her new teacher and new LAC teacher. The meeting was student led with the involvement and support of both teachers. In this meeting the girl articulated what she believed were her difficulties and what she felt would benefit her in addressing these difficulties. Both the teacher and LAC teacher contributed context, support, and suggestions throughout the meeting. The teacher explained how students were grouped with a mixture of strong and weaker students, and explained the various strategies that would benefit all students in the groups. The LAC teacher also contributed her thoughts as to what would help during LAC time. The two teachers, parents, and the girl all discussed what could realistically be done at home and with the girl’s private tutor. An enlightening aspect of the meeting was a discussion about supporting the girl at school in developing the skills and strategies to self-advocate for what she needed given her learning difficulties.
The girl has had, so far, a positive year. At home with her parents she has been able to describe what she is doing and learning in class, the adaptations her teacher has been providing and implementing, the areas in which she is still having difficulties, and the different ways in which she has been encouraged to demonstrate her learning. While behind compared to her peers, she is positive about her learning and engaged.
It has so far been quite a journey for the family. From K-2, a positive relationship with the classroom teacher, but an incorrect assessment and possibly interventions through non-enrolling support; limited communication and clarity regarding the girl’s progress, strengths, and challenges for 2 years during grades 3 and 4; and now an eye-opening experience whereby, although still behind, the girl appears to be positively engaged and supported in her learning and also developing the skills to articulate and advocate for her needs.
This most recent experience is so important in that as the girl gets older and must take on more and more personal responsibility for her learning and progress, she is beginning to better realize and understand where her challenges are, some of the strategies that help and why, and hopefully, over time, how to let teachers….and her parents…know when and how she needs assistance.
However, I can’t help but think that if the father, an educator, had such a hard time getting information about and understanding his daughter’s progress in grades 3 and 4, how difficult it must be for parents who don’t necessarily have as strong an understanding of our education system to share in the responsibility for their children’s education.
Recently, I had the opportunity to attend another EdCamp in Delta. These type of opportunities are so important to me, as in my present assignment I have to be more proactive in seeking out professional development opportunities focused on teaching and learning. Out of necessity, Twitter and blogs have become a major source of ongoing professional development – but that’s for another post.
Intentionally, I attended sessions which had a lower subscription (fewer dots on the topics on the schedule board).
The session on “How Do We Identify and Teach Students with Learning Difficulties” had an impact on me, as I saw the power of student involvement and voice in an edcamp. In this session there were only a small number of educators and one parent, but it was also attended by approximately half a dozen secondary school students. Most of these students indicated that they had learning disabilities.
Some of the students’ comments during our discussions included:
It’s really hard to write and read out loud around other students
Helpful to be in a group with a student of similar level – not just a stronger student
Sometimes more comfortable if you can pick your partner to help edit
Helpful to have more than one person help with peer editing
When pairing/grouping students, will the stronger students want to help the weaker students?
Teachers asking an LD student to read out loud can be frustrating and embarrassing
If you have a learning disability and you get asked to read out loud you can get picked on
Not right to have students peer assess for the purpose of producing marks
Becomes a popularity game
Need to have more than one way to show our learning
Need a chance to improve our marks.
Sometimes teachers don’t give a second chance, and we don’t have the confidence to keep trying
While similar to the comments many of us as educators extol, the power of students sharing their views and experiences was incredible.
I appreciated the confidence these students displayed while participating in this group, and I wonder if they also have the confidence to share and advocate for their needs in their classes. I also wonder about the receptiveness of their teachers.
I also think about the journey of the girl described at the beginning of this post, and hope that she develops the same confidence I saw in the students at EdCampDelta, and, with the guidance and support of her teachers and parents, learns to effectively advocate for her own needs at school.
Photo via @EMSCarlson