Depending on the degree and extent of your learning differences, it is likely that there will be a disparity between your academic potential and your performance. This was definitely my experience. If you are really struggling at school, most schools will provide you with some level of support. However, if you are doing relatively well, especially when compared to your peers, you may find that there aren’t as many resources available for you.
Although most of my schools were aware that I have dyslexia and dyspraxia, I was given little, if any, learning support. Most my schools took the view that because I was near the top of my class, it would be irresponsible for them to spend their limited time and resources on me. As a result, in primary school and early middle school there was a significant disparity between my intellectual ability (I score very high on standardized tests) and my academic performance. This was extremely frustrating because I frequently underperformed and no matter how hard I worked, my teachers assumed I was lazy, unmotivated and undisciplined. I had to work very hard to try to overcome the difficulties caused by my learning differences. It took sometime to achieve, but I have finally reached the point where my academic performance now more closely reflects my academic ability.
Some of the issues that used to negatively affect my academic performance, include:
Forgetting to turn in my homework (even though I had done it and it was in my backpack)
Constantly loosing my text books and school books (making it difficult to study for tests and end-of-year exams)
Misinterpreting homework assignments and therefore, doing the wrong homework
Failing to show my work/calculations in math
Incorrectly copying vocabulary words off the board
Misreading and/misinterpreting exam questions (including significantly over complicating my answers)
Struggling to make my handwriting legible
Struggling to copy information off the board before the teacher rubbed it out
On this website I will post some tricks and tips on how to address these and other issues kids with learning differences commonly face. Never loose sight of the fact that you are not experiencing these difficulties on your own. Although you may feel that you isolated and different, take comfort in knowing that thousands of kids with learning differences are facing similar struggles every day. It is important to remember that with help and support you can take significant strides towards overcoming your personal learning differences difficulties. There are people that want to see you flourish. The first step is having the courage to ask for help.
Reach Out To Your SENCO
Every school should have a SENCO (Special Educations Needs Coordinator). The right SENCO can transform your life. She/He can advocate on your behalf, communicate with, and educate your teachers, give invaluable advice and be a great source of academic, social and emotional support. In other words, a good SENCO is worth her/his weight in gold.
Below are some examples of support I got from my SENCO:
In Year 9 (eighth grade) I was required to study three foreign languages: Latin and two modern foreign languages. I chose Spanish and Mandarin. Since I have dyslexia, this was a struggle. Thankfully, my SENCO negotiated that I drop Mandarin, which allowed me to spend more time learning Latin and Spanish.
My SENCO talked to my English teacher about not asking me to read aloud in class. Although I am an avid reader, when reading out loud I tend to paraphrase rather than read word-for-word and I mispronounce and stumble on many words. I hate reading out loud because in the past my classmates have snickered when I mispronounce words and have many incentive comments, such as "I thought she was supposed to be clever" and "She should go back to Year 1 (Kindergarten)."
My SENCO explained to my drama teacher that I am sensitive to touch and loud noises and have difficulty fluctuating my voice and adapting my body language. In other words, that I’m a very stiff and wooden actress. This was invaluable because at the school I attended in Year 6 (fifth grade) the headmistress and drama teacher accused me of ruining the school play and threatened to exclude me from the mandatory performance.
What to do if you don’t have a supportive SENCO
Unfortunately, not all SENCOs are the same. I have had some less than ideal SENCOs. At one school (an academic girls boarding school), the SENCO was more of a learning differences tutor. She did not interact with my teachers nor did she advocate on my behalf. I was very much on my own. At another school, my teachers did not respect the SENCO and so they were generally dismissive of her. I think one of the reasons my current SENCO is so successful is that she is also a regular teacher. Straddling both teaching and learning support means she is much better placed to communicate with my teachers.
Ask Your Parents For Help – If your learning differences are causing you problems at school, don’t be afraid to ask your parents for help. If one or both of your parents have a learning difference, they will be familiar with the difficulties you face and may be able to provide you with lots of advice and guidance.
If, on the other hand, neither of your parents have a learning difference, they will not have any knowledge from which to draw from. It will be up to you to educate and explain to them the difficulties and specific problems that you are facing. For example, if you have dyslexia and a teacher penalizes you for spelling mistakes, you may want to explain to your parents that not only is this unfair but that it is very demoralizing and discouraging. If you are constantly reprimanded for being the last person to change into your sports kit, you may want to tell you parents that you need extra time because of your poor motor skills. Don’t assume that your parents know what you are experiencing and how it makes you feel. The more you share with them and the more details you provide them with, the more likely that they will understand where you are coming from and be better placed to help you.
Have Your Parents Advocate On Your Behalf – If you do not have a SENCO or your SENCO is not supportive, have your parents advocate on your behalf by asking them to meet with your teachers. Your parents should provide your teachers with detailed information as to how your special needs affect you and your academic performance. This will ensure that your teachers are able to provide you with the specific help and support that you need.
You will find that some teachers are more knowledgeable about special needs and more receptive to supporting you than others. Sometimes it helps to provide copies of any educational psychologist reports or other reports that explain your learning differences, especially if they include recommendations on how your teachers can best support you. For example, if you tend to misinterpret homework assignments that are given verbally, it may be recommended that your teacher provide you with a written version of the homework assignment instead.
Have An External Learning Support Expert Advocate On Your Behalf – if your parents feel that they are not making adequate progress with your school and would like some advice and support on how to advance the dialogue, they should consider whether to arrange for an external learning support expert to educate your teachers and advocate on your behalf. Many learning support experts have experience in dealing with schools and are able to support schools by giving them specific guidance and information on how best to help you.
Learn To Advocate On Your Own Behalf – if you feel comfortable talking to a teacher about your learning differences or a specific learning difference problem, you should definitely do so. Most teachers will appreciate you for having the courage and maturity to ask for help. Since most teachers do not have any learning differences training, I recommend that you give your teacher some tips on how to best support you. For example, if you have trouble copying vocabulary words off the board correctly, suggest that your teacher provide you with a print out of the vocabulary words instead.
If you feel uncomfortable speaking to your teacher try sending her an email. The benefit of an email is that you can take your time crafting the language and you do not have to worry about your conversation with your teacher being rushed, overheard or interrupted.