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A Fresh Look at Teaching Children with Learning Challenges
By Sarah Major, Child1st PublicationsA decade ago when I was in graduate school, I could hardly contain my excitement when the time came for taking remedial reading courses. I just couldn't wait to find the answers to questions that had plagued me about why seemingly bright children struggled to learn to read. Imagine my chagrin when I found that the classes prepared me to test, detect learning differences, track reading rates, and classify text as to reading level… in short… to do everything but successfully teach reading to a non-reader.
Over the past ten years, I have learned about a whole array of classifications for disabilities. There are so many! One could get the impression that children are getting more and more broken, and we are developing more and more detailed labels for describing them. What I have NOT seen, however, is more and more evolved solutions to accompany all this highly classified collection of labels. The SOLUTIONS are what have always interested me!
So should I scrutinize the child or the educational system?
1. If we continue to examine the child, we are "pitting" thousands of children against one educational system. There is one specific educational approach with teensy variations here and there (but still basically pretty recognizable) but there are thousands upon thousands of unique children out there. Which are we going to scrutinize? The children or the method? Which are we going to measure against the other? Imagine taking your five children to shop for clothes. You walk into Kid's Clothes dragging your children after you. Kid's Clothes is very organized and research-based to give you the shopper the best shopping experience. There is a long rack of boys' shirts, another of boys' pants, a long rack of girls' dresses, etc. So you take your girls to their area and the boys to theirs. Within a few hours all of you are distressed and upset. You have only one child that fits into the clothes! OH NO! The other four children are ALL WRONG!
2. When we focus on the child and label him using a term that sounds absolute and professional, the child will become that even more! (Imagine pouring concrete into a wooden form… and watching it set up). One day that is branded on my memory was a day in which I was subbing for a fourth grade teacher. I entered the room and was accosted by a very articulate, slender boy, who announced assertively that he was ADHD and could not control himself. And he spent the rest of the day proving it. He informed me, very articulately, every few moments what he couldn't help doing. He was living up so perfectly to what his diagnosis said he was.
3. The more we focus on the imagined problem with the child, the less effective we will be as teachers. When I was a little girl trying to learn to ride a bike, there were two big things I wanted to NOT hit as I wobbled across the yard. One was our concrete block house, and the other one was a particularly thorny orange tree. The more I wanted to avoid hitting those obstacles, the more I looked at them, and guess what? The more unerringly my bike steered right into them! If I am teaching my child and in my mind I am focused on her inability to memorize spelling words, my disbelief in her will be transmitted to her and my focus on the problem will become her focus on the problem as well. Nothing good will come of this.
4. Every adult I have taken the time to talk to can describe at what they excel, and what they enjoy doing, how they remember things, etc. Some of us know well that we can't hear verbal directions and recall them for more than a nanosecond, so we look at and rely on maps to navigate by. Other people can do really complex math problems in their heads. Why is it then, that we assume every single child should be able to memorize strings of letters (spelling) or memorize math facts, or memorize and apply phonics rules? Does this make sense? I don't think it does. We are all wonderfully designed to perform exactly what we should in our lifetimes, and none of us should compare ourselves to the other person. We don't tend to as adults, but the minute a child comes along, we try every way possible to get him to fit into a narrow educational mold. Oh dear!
Let's take a look at our traditional educational system. It doesn't work for many children. So the question is, do we change it or try to change our child to make them fit into the system? Following are some rules of thumb for teaching all children, but especially children with learning challenges.
1. Get rid of the unnecessary clutter. For instance, in teaching reading, you DON'T have to learn all the names of the letters first, nor do you have to memorize their related sounds, nor be able to put the letters in ABC order, etc. Those traditional steps, including sounding out, memorizing blends, etc., are SO familiar that we feel if we don't teach them, we will fail our children. The best way to teach a child to read is to get to the point immediately. I can attest to the amount of clutter that exists in our teaching day. One really foreign concept to many adults is the fact that some children learn whole words more readily than they do the little pieces and parts of words.
2. Learn to distinguish between effective lessons and busy work. Much of what filled our day in the classroom (yes, when I was teaching) was busy work with minimal gains made by the child. You can tell which activities fall into this category because the child will simply not be enjoying it and will not be engaged. For instance, copying is often a waste of time. It will make the child's hand tired and put the brain to sleep. Try it yourself. Put on a TV program that interests you a whole lot, and then sit down and copy a whole page out of the dictionary while you watch the program. Did you get much out of the copying? Any activity that is effective and useful and that will engage the child is going to be one in which she has to figure something out, has to invent something, has to think! If she is engaged, she is learning!
3. Use images everywhere you can. Images are magical for many, many children who don't memorize well. Try it for yourself. Ask someone to do you a favor. Have them drive to a street not too far from you and snap a picture of something distinctive such as an interesting house, or a weird building, or anything that is out of the ordinary. Then have them come back to you and first describe verbally, orally, what they saw. When they have finished, have them show you the picture they took of that very interesting object. Which is most effective at getting across the reality of the object: the oral description or the photo?
4. Use a body motion to help remember. When I have trouble remembering a phone number (which is always), I know to "dial it" on a key pad. While I am doing that, I notice the shape of what I dialed and I also am storing up that visual pattern in the muscles of my body. Every child who is good with some physical activity is going to benefit from a physical movement to accompany learning. And I don't just mean bouncing; I mean a movement that reflects what they are learning. When counting by two's, for instance, have them march in a line but lean over heavily on each even number. Their bodies will remember the even numbers as they hear their mouths say the even numbers at the same time.
5. Relate the learning to a real-life experience. When learning to tell time or count money, do it throughout the day, not at a desk with pencil and paper. Measurement is best learned when the child is creating something very interesting to him.
6. Have the child figure out some things for herself. With any science lesson, the more hands-on and real the lessons are, the better. Anything a child can just cut out and paste is marginal at best. It might just be time fillers. Anything a child investigates and then makes or writes or puts into action (that she has to figure out) is going to be valuable.
7. Find patterns and likenesses in all you teach because that is what the brain loves. There is beauty in patterns, and nature is full of them. Music is made of patterns; math is as well. I have seen a child come to life when he saw the patterns in learning. Unrelated details are hard to do anything with.
8. Don't just tell; SHOW. I would love to have a nickel for every time I've heard a teacher complain, "I already told you that more than once." Hmmm. Could it be that telling is not effective? Show them. Show them examples; show them how you do it (modeling); show them what a good outcome is. Remember, "Don't tell me… show me!"
9. Keep lessons as short as you can. Stop the minute the child is tired or restless. Of course I don't mean ten minutes into the school day! I mean, however, that when your child begins to wiggle or be restless, check the activity or lesson you are doing for interest level. If you can inject some mystery into it, some novelty, by all means do it! But if you follow step one and get rid of the clutter and stick to the meat and potatoes of school work, you might just find that your daily work, the meaningful part, can be accomplished in a couple of hours in the day or three.
10. Don't, please don't, keep on doing what you see doesn't work. What the child needs is not more drill, but a radically different approach. Remember, we are going to abandon the notion that the child is broken! We need to change up what we are doing when the child at first doesn't respond.
Child1st Publications, LLC offers Multisensory Phonics and Multisensory Reading Instruction Programs and Products. For Learners with Dyslexia, Aspergers, Autism, Reading Comprehension Problems, Visual Learners, and other Right Brain Learners, we provide a path to reading success using explicit phonics instruction. Buy their products online from theChild1st website or call them at: 800-881-0912.
Disclaimer: Internet Special Education Resources (ISER) provides this information in an effort to help parents find local special education professionals and resources. ISER does not recommend or endorse any particular special education referral source, special educational methodological bias, type of special education professional, or specific special education professional.
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