How students diagnosed with learning disorders can succeed in public schools

11/15/2012  |  PAM ALTMAN and THERESA MILLER
special needs

Public schools can be very difficult for students diagnosed with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), Aspergers, Dyslexia and other learning disorders. These students often struggle with basic skill sets including the ability to focus in class, understanding and having success in social interactions, reading, writing and more. Most students are unable to attend private schools, which often tailor a program to meet their individualized needs. 

As a parent or educator, understanding some strategies that will assist students with learning disorders acclimate to a public school environment is essential to their success. This article attempts to address some of the challenges students with learning disorders may face when they are integrated into a public school system. In addition, the article will outline some helpful strategies that may provide the structure and support these students need to be successful in a public school setting. These students must first acknowledge and understand their learning disorder in order to help others do the same.

One of the first steps in helping a student navigate the public school system, is ensuring they understand what their learning disorders are and how it may impact them. Knowledge is power for students with learning disorders. When a student understands what type of learning disorder they have, they will be more available to understand how to utilize accommodations, strategies, and modifications to assist them. For example, if a student is diagnosed with a comorbid diagnosis such as ADHD, with underlying Anxiety, he or she may be more distracted in a large classroom type setting. Moreover, a student with Aspergers may become frustrated with a performance studies class that requires the student to portray emotional states using only facial expressions. Students who understand what type of learning disorder they have are more likely to be successful navigating in the classroom. Students and families should do research on their disorders to understand how their brains work differently, what type of learner they are, and therefore understand what strategies will work best.

Other aspects that are important to instill in a student with any type of learning disorder are an awareness of strategies that will work and the willingness to advocate for their needs. Students with learning disorders may require accommodations such as extra time on assignments, preferential seating, the use of assistive technology, or a scribe to help them get the information down on paper. Speech and Language Pathologists can complete assessments; they will help identify the appropriate accommodations and modifications, and assist in developing strategies your student may need. However your son or daughter must become aware of what needs they have and be able to articulate it to teachers so they can successfully complete school work. At times, the most difficult obstacle is the student, as they often will see a need for an accommodation as a weakness. Helping them understand that the use of a scribe for a student diagnosed with Dyslexia or Dysgraphia is not any different than a person who is near sighted using glasses or contacts. The use of strategies in and out of the classroom is an important tool to assist the student with becoming a successful, lifelong learner. Once strategies are identified based on disorders, they must be utilized frequently to become second nature.

Utilizing strategies will vary from one student to another depending on the individualized needs of a student. It is very important that the student is an active participant in developing individualized strategies. The student must see the value in utilizing the developed strategies and believe the outcome will be more positive than the alternative. Strategies for students diagnosed with learning disorders can be simple or they can be very complex.

For students with focusing issues, who learn best when they have something to keep their hands busy, they may need some form of manipulative. Some ideas for manipulative devices include, but are not limited to, silly putty, play dough, stress balls, rice bags, etc. Some students find that using a manipulative in the classroom is beneficial because it may reduce anxiety, provide a physical outlet to release nervous tendencies or ticks, and for some it may be a calming effect to assist them in focusing on what is being taught in the classroom. These devices are common strategies and are proven to be effective.

When working with students who are easily frustrated or distracted by loud noises or multiple conversations occurring at the same time, developing a plan prior to starting the class is crucial. These students may require the ability to take a break from the classroom, receive a copy of the teaching notes, and/or be given preferential seating in order for them to be successful in the classroom. Developing a plan and discussing strategies with the teacher prior to class may eliminate issues that could arise. For example, if the student and the teacher understand that a group discussion or debate may trigger some anxiety or frustration for the student, a code word or a physical cue may be developed so they student can “take a break” without having to announce they are frustrated or anxious to the entire classroom.

Another key element for students with learning disorders to excel in a public school system is to ensure parent and teacher awareness. It is important that parents assist the student in implementing strategies while they are at home. Students who practice implementing strategies (in the moment) while at home are more likely to use them in the classroom. In addition, talking to teachers about the developed strategies before school starts, can assist with the transition. Teachers, families and students must continue to communicate throughout the school year to ensure that strategies are being utilized and are working as intended, not distracting the student or others in the classroom. If knowledge is power then communication is key for these students.

Although public school can be challenging for students diagnosed with Learning Disorders it is possible for these students to succeed. With the right balance of knowledge, awareness, strategies, communication and hard work, students can find success in the public school setting. Students must take ownership for creating and implementing strategies, planning, using cues and advocating for their needs.

Theresa Miller is the Dean of Student Life at Brehm Preparatory School in Carbondale, Illinois. She has more than 18 years experience working with adolescents; the majority as the Associate Administrator for a licensed residential children’s home. Before working in residential care, she worked with victims and witnesses of violent crime (children and adults) at the Jackson County State’s Attorney’s Offi ce and also in the Investigations Unit at the Jackson County Sheriff’s Offi ce. She has a Master’s Degree in Education and has served on many boards, task forces, and committees throughout the region that address adolescent issues and concerns. Theresa was the recipient of the Minerva Award in 2007, an award given to a female in the community for outstanding community service and leadership. She received instructor certifi cations and taught through the Illinois State Police Training and Standards Board and the Non-Violent Physical Crisis Prevention Institute.

Pam Altman attended the University of Saskatchewan for her Bachelor’s of Science in Chemistry and obtained a Masters of Social Work from the University of Missouri in 2006. She started work at Brehm as a Supervisor of Boarding Services in June of 2006 and is currently the Assistant Dean of Student Life, supervising residential staff and helping students with social emotional issues. For more information, visit
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