Children's Voice September/October 2007

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Exceptional Children: Navigating Learning Disabilities and Special Education

Reaching for Resilience: A Lifeline to Success for Children with Learning Disabilities

By Ellen Notbohm

You can't bounce the bounce if you can't even pronounce the bounce.
--Tigger


"And that's why it frequently all falls apart in middle school," the special education administrator concluded. He was speaking to me as both a professional and a parent. I have two sons, one with ADHD and one with autism, but he has one son with both rolled into one, proving once again you can always find someone with greater challenges than your own.

From his position in district-wide administration, he had noted the nurturing culture embraced by most elementary schools tends to disappear at the middle school level. "Middle school teachers seem to want to treat their students as little adults," he said, "and of course they are not. But this level of expectation only makes things that much harder for the kids with language- or social pragmatics-based disabilities."

The expectation of "little adulthood" hits such children so much harder because it has at its core the difficult and enigmatic skills we call "theory of mind" (ToM). These are the skills embodied in critical thinking (classification, comparison, and application); executive management (attention, planning, and memory functions); and social pragmatics (perspective-taking), and they are largely missing from the thought processes of many children with communication-based challenges.

The lack of these invisible, intangible, unquantifiable skills can be hugely detrimental to learning. Many if not most teachers are not well-versed how to teach a student who lacks ToM skills and may not even see it in a child who outwardly appears as competent as my son Bryce does.

Seventh grade was a difficult year for us, as the curriculum and assignments began to require an ever-increasing amount of abstract thought. Much more onerous than the factual aspects of world history or earth science were the confounding ToM requirements of the assignments: comparative perspective, inferential ability, generalization and reclassification skills, and the cognitive and social agility to do it all in prescribed timeframes--sometimes independently, sometimes in small groups, sometimes along with the class as a whole.

It's not what you could call a strengths-based curriculum for language-challenged students. Lucky for us, the school's speech language pathologist, Christine Bemrose, had a deep understanding of these core issues and how they affected Bryce and children like him.

"For children identified with learning disabilities," Bemrose says, "as many as 80% of those difficulties are language-based. Students don't always end up with a speech pathologist, even though they may be struggling with reading, writing, or even math--all those things that are language-based activities. Struggling with learning language, using it flexibly, understanding the abstract nature of it, being able to hold information in your head, synthesize that information, carry it over to a new setting, pull it forward in an efficient manner, make connections between things--everything the kids do in academics is really a language-based activity."

When Bryce was young, he enjoyed Winnie the Pooh books and movies, and what tickled him especially was "Hoo-hoo-hoo HOO! That's what Tiggers do best!" followed, of course, by Tigger messing up whatever the activity was and deciding that Pooh sticks, climbing trees, eating honey, etc. was not what Tiggers do best.

I thought of Tigger's fumblings as I read through an excellent chart Christine put together for Bryce's teachers, illustrating "What Bryce is best at" and "What Bryce is challenged by," including suggestions for addressing those challenges in the classroom and at home. Recognizing our child's black-and-white core strengths and using them to push into the realm of the gray is what it's all about.

Equally critical is recognizing that those strengths--things our Tiggers do best--can lull their teachers and us into assuming they are automatically able to extend these skills to larger context. In hard fact, they cannot do that at all--until they are taught. To the uneducated, Eeyore tells us, an A is just three sticks.

A huge factor of Christine's effectiveness as a speech language pathologist can be attributed to her devoted efforts to educate the educators, to interact with teachers and with me in a manner that helped us understand those deep-seated ToM issues that are not apparent on the surface. I've adapted her work here in the hopes you will see your own child or student and be able to take steps toward helping her conquer these critical skills.

Just because he can follow a schedule doesn't mean he can
  • create a schedule,
  • easily assimilate random changes to that schedule (such as changing an assignment's due date due to illness or inclement weather), or
  • remember information that changes daily or weekly.
You can provide visual guidelines that help specify
  • the task needing to be done,
  • the timeframe in which it has to be completed, and
  • the steps necessary to accomplish it.
Just because she can follow a series of events presented in linear order doesn't mean she can follow a series of events presented out of order or out of familiar context.

You can
  • verbally reinforce and review temporal aspects of the events and details of narratives or real-life situations,
  • provide visual supports, and
  • encourage the child to create her own visuals aids.
Just because he can recall facts in prompted situations, such as cued oral discussion, multiple choice, matching lists, or word bank tests doesn't mean he can retrieve knowledge in free-recall mode, such as assessments structured as story problems, or tasks involving multistep directions.

You can
  • provide prompted or cued assessments to compensate for impaired free recall abilities and slower processing speed;
  • employ other alternative assessment methods, such as oral assessment or assessing work in a manner similar to how it was taught; and
  • assess the quality of homework and class work vs. test or quiz outcomes.
Just because she can remember concrete facts and details (rote memory) doesn't mean she can understand
  • why those facts are relevant,
  • how the facts may be interrelated,
  • how they may apply to a larger or completely different context, or
  • how they may suggest further facts (inference).
You can
  • explain or demonstrate how facts and details contribute to the big picture;
  • provide supporting visuals;
  • provide opportunities to use new facts, concepts, or vocabulary in new ways;
  • specifically identify passages containing inferential knowledge; and
  • review and check for comprehension of figurative, nonliteral language.
Just because he can follow clear, concrete directions given directly to him doesn't mean he can understand expectations presented to the whole class or group, or that he can follow multistep directions without visual support.

You can
  • provide written and verbal prompts for necessary steps and outcomes, and
  • check for comprehension at each step in the process.
Just because she can complete work independently doesn't mean she can
  • recognize when work needs revision, or
  • work collaboratively with others to complete assignments or tasks.
You can
  • provide cue cards, hand signals, or verbal prompts to check, reconsider, and revise her work when necessary;
  • provide structure for group activities and clarify each person's role within the group;
  • team the language-challenged child only with flexible and supportive group partners; and
  • always check for comprehension.
Just because he can answer questions in a small group of familiar people doesn't mean he can retrieve information and volunteer answers quickly enough to keep pace with a larger group.

You can
  • provide adequate pause time for him to formulate a response, and
  • assess group participation skills in small structured groups.
I've heard Tigger described as a poster child for ADHD, a close cousin of autism spectrum disorders. It's true ToM skills are not what dear Tigger does best, at least not yet. "I didn't really bounce Eeyore," he protests in a grand display of faulty social pragmatics. "I had a cough, and I happened to be behind Eeyore, and I said 'Grrrr-oppp-ptschschschz.'"

What I think Tigger does best is maintain his zesty worldview, even when the chosen activity turns out to be more difficult or unpleasant than what he bargained for; he is always up for new experiences. This may be the most useful ToM skill of all, and perhaps it cannot be taught per se. Perhaps it comes naturally after we diligently teach "all of the above," and the net result is a child who experiences success and confidence.

A two-time ForeWord Book of the Year finalist, Ellen Notbohm is author of Ten Things Every Child with Autism Wishes You Knew and The Autism Trail Guide: Postcards from the Road Less Traveled, from which this article is adapted. © 2007 Ellen Notbohm. To contact Ellen or explore her work, visit www.ellennotbohm.com.




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