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10 Ways To Help Kids With Learning Differences That Could Benefit All Students

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 (iStock/David_Mohn )

Schools are typically designed to serve the average student, and those with learning differences -- such as dyslexia or trouble with executive functioning skills -- usually make up a smaller part of the population. Estimates find that 5 to 20 percent of Americans have learning differences. If struggling students don't find the help they need in school, keeping up with the rest of the class can be an enormous challenge.

Currey Ingram Academy is an independent school in Nashville developed specifically for kids with learning differences. As a way to spread the word about tactics that have worked at Currey Ingram Academy, head of school Jeffrey Mitchell shared 10 principles the school uses that are “realistic for every school in every context” as they seek to meet the needs of diverse learners. He presented his findings at the SXSWedu conference in Austin.

He said that educators might already be applying the following ideas, and some might not work at their school. "But if you take home one or two or three of these things and tweak what you’re currently doing, I think that the outcome will be positive.”

Be Intentional

Let the mission of the school -- and your own personal mission -- guide your work, said Mitchell. School mission statements should be “understandable, memorable, powerful and simple,” so that teachers and administrators can say with confidence, “I know that, I believe in that, I live that. That’s what we do as a school.” The mission at his school is to create an academy "that empowers students with learning differences to achieve their fullest potential."


Teachers can also adopt personal mission statements to help guide their planning. For example, when Mitchell was a seventh-grade science teacher, he wanted his students to be able to “ask questions like scientists,” and he infused that idea into each of his units.

Rely on Evidence

Whether the topic is reading instruction or classroom management, there is rich research available if you take the time to look for it. For example, recent advances in neuroimaging are changing intervention methods for students with dyslexia. Mitchell also pointed to John Hattie’s research on 1,200 meta-analyses in an effort to determine the variables that truly impact students' achievement.*

“If something is not working, consult the evidence,” said Mitchell. “Because chances are somebody out there is doing research on it and there’s good evidence to support a practice that you might not know about.”

Break Down the Traditional Structure of School

“I love being an educator,” said Mitchell. “But most everything about the industrial-factory model of school is not ideal for learners.” However, there are ways teachers can work around this structure, such as focusing on the word “variety.”

“When you, as an administrator or teacher, are constructing curriculum, think about variety," said Mitchell. He reminds educators that classes will have a variety of learners so it's important to have several offerings. "Think about multiple-sensory inputs -- let them hear it, let them see it, let them feel it -- and think about multiple instructional forms.” He also said variety is important when assessing student understanding; one form of test or assessment will not adequately reveal every student’s knowledge and skills.

Provide Clear Instruction on How to Think

At Currey Ingram Academy, teachers explicitly teach executive functioning skills to their students. Executive function and self-regulation skills are, according to Harvard’s Center on the Developing Child, “the mental processes that enable us to plan, focus attention, remember instructions, and juggle multiple tasks successfully.”

Mitchell shared a strategy used by a third-grade teacher who was giving a short unit test. Immediately prior to the test, she spent 10 minutes reviewing test-taking strategies with her students -- with the test right in front of them. “She reminded them of seemingly simple things like, ‘There are four blanks for question two, and that means four responses are needed.'” After students were done with the test, they engaged in one more learning exercise. “They went over the test again. Not the answers, but the test itself. Did you answer all the questions? Instead of a typically summative learning experience, she made it a formative learning experience.”

Be Mindful of Working Memory Limitations

Working memory is a brain system that temporarily holds information while you process it. It’s where humans store data, step-by-step instructions, or a list until they don’t need it anymore.

“The fundamental friction between the human brain and the traditional learning structure of school resides with our relatively poor working memory,” said Mitchell. He believes that sometimes teachers misinterpret a working memory issue as “willful misbehavior.” For example, what an adult might call “difficulty paying attention” may simply be that “there might be too many things for that child [to hold in working memory], especially children with learning differences.”

Working memory also affects students’ ability to access information, remember instructions, get started on a task and copy information from the board. For some students, “three instructions may be too many. You may need to break it down to one or two.”

Teach Reading Explicitly

Evidence reveals that “explicit, direct instruction works,” said Mitchell, “especially for younger and struggling readers.” There are many evidence-based programs available, but they all contain five strains: phonemic awareness, phonics, fluency, vocabulary and comprehension. But even with a great program, a school must still schedule enough time for students to master these skills, said Mitchell. “You need an hour to an hour and a half every day to make the difference.”

Manage Behavior Through Prevention

Mitchell believes that 90 percent of classroom management is prevention: rules, routines, engaging instruction and structure. Rules should be simple, generated by consensus and reviewed regularly. Routines should include regular brain breaks (Mitchell’s teachers use egg timers and take a one-minute “learning break” when it dings), and instruction should use a variety of activities to engage learners. “For the other 10 percent,” said Mitchell, “you need formal, systematic behavior plans and support.”

Use Communication to Your Advantage

Schools “teach families, not just students,” said Mitchell. “If you reach out to your students or parents before they reach out to you, you have built up immense capital.”  He recommends that teachers and administrators conduct regular surveys to hear feedback about how things are going in the classroom and at the school. Mitchell has found that his constituents often respond to the surveys with “ ‘thanks for listening to me,’ and that’s probably the most important thing that happens.”

Use Supporting Programs in a Targeted Way

Strong schools engage in “robust and targeted professional development,” said Mitchell. “By targeted I mean you’ve set a goal as a district, you’ve set a goal as a school, you’ve set a goal as an individual, and you target your professional development based on those goals.” Given the financial constraints every school faces, targeting professional development to goals is the "most effective way to utilize your finite resources.”

Celebrate and Empower Students

“Systematically, identify and celebrate at least one strength in every student,” said Mitchell. Then, “give each student opportunities to showcase this strength.”

Students who enroll in Currey Ingram Academy after attending school in a more traditional environment “come in and they are fragile – they have had little success in the academic setting,” said Mitchell. He hopes that these 10 ideas his school employs can help schools that aren't specifically designed for kids with learning differences better meet the needs of all learners.


*An earlier version of this post confused the number of meta-analyses as the number of studies. We regret this error.

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