Why Learning Differences Require Alternative Methods of Teaching


By Steve Barnes, Psychologist at The Prentice School–

Bright students who struggle in school are often described as having a learning difference or a learning disability. Conditions such as dyslexia or attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), as well as conditions like dyscalculia and dysgraphia present a challenge to children, their teachers and their parents. Children who have a learning difference may experience difficulty reading or completing a math problem. Under the proper teaching methods, however, most children with learning differences can learn well and even excel. These students need to be taught via alternative methods in order for them to fulfill their potential and succeed in school and life.

Difference versus disability

Although many use the terms “learning difference” and “learning disability” interchangeably, others are concerned about the implicit negative connotation of “learning disability. They purport that the term fails to put those with a learning difference on the same plane as other people. Instead, it isolates them from their peers and decreases the perception of their intelligence, despite the fact that learning differences have no effect on intelligence – only on the ability to recognize or remember numbers and letters. Further, use of the term can fail to recognize the advantages that come with a learning difference. Individuals with dyslexia, for example, can better understand abstract information and demonstrate higher levels of creativity.

Dyslexia and learning

Dyslexia is often called a language-based learning disorder. The student with dyslexia may have trouble with reading fluency and spelling. He or she may be unable to distinguish between letters like “b” and “d” or to sound out a word. A child with dyslexia often substitutes small words: “is” for “I” or “he” for “the.” Alternative learning strategies that may be successful include using a laptop rather than requiring hand-written essays and assigning an oral report rather than a written book report. These children should be be taught to use logic instead of relying on memory. Material should be presented in small units, with plenty of time provided to absorb the material. Audio books may be better for such students than physical textbooks.

ADHD and learning

ADHD makes it difficult for children to focus and concentrate. They are typically impulsive, easily distracted and restless, may have behavior outbursts (meltdowns) and can be disruptive in class and at home. Children with ADHD often do better in small groups (two or three students) or with one-on-one instruction. They typically learn better with simple, concrete instructions and short, focused lessons interspersed with physical activity. Although ADHD does affect focus, children with this learning disorder also have periods of very intense focus, during which they can accomplish a great deal. If a teacher can recognize and tap into these phases, the child can make great strides.

Other learning difficulties

Dyslexia and ADHD are probably the best-known of the learning disorders. Dyscalculia, another learning disorder, affects a child’s ability to grasp mathematical concepts and perform such processes as addition, subtraction, multiplication and division. Like dyslexia, dyscalculia can affect memory, making it difficult to complete a math problem with multiple steps. Dysgraphia affects writing ability. Letters may be poorly formed or backwards, spelling suffers and the child finds it difficult to organize thoughts on paper.

Children with learning differences do best when they receive support and attention both at school and at home. Parents can partner with teachers to promote the learning strategies that are most helpful for the individual child. At the Prentice School, we serve the bright child who has a learning difference, as well as related conditions such as anxiety. Our focus is on a nurturing environment and support systems for both parents and children to help all children reach their full potential.

Steve joined Prentice in the summer of 2017. He has experience with the IEP process, PBIS procedures and NonPublic School placements. He received his Pupil Personnel Services Credential, and has his Educational Specialist Degree in School Psychology and his Master’s Degree in Educational Psychology, both from Chapman University. His Bachelor’s Degree is in Sociology with a minor in Education from University of California, Santa Cruz. Mr. Barnes has a passion for building relationships with students and families and thinks it is incredibly important for students to feel heard. He is enthusiastic to put his experience to work. The Prentice School, located in N. Tustin, California, is a private, Certified Nonpublic School (NPS) through the California Department of Education, and is fully accredited by the Western Association of Schools and Colleges. Prentice offers an unparalleled learning experience to students with learning differences who possess average-to-high intelligence and whose needs have not been met in a more traditional classroom setting.

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