1. What sparked your interest in helping children and families with learning disabilities and attention issues? Why did you feel LDA of America was a good fit for that passion?
I have always had a passion for volunteering and working with nonprofits. However, I was thrust into the world of learning disabilities with the birth of my third son.
He was initially diagnosed at 8 months with hypotonia and we started on the physical and occupational therapy path early in his life. But as he got older we added speech and language therapy. We moved three times to different states during his elementary years and utilized the Pre-K special education system in three states: Texas, California, and Georgia. Each move I had to learn a different set of rules to access services for him. When he was in third grade the Georgia public school he attended, although a highly-rated elementary school, was slow to provide district services and the class sizes were increasing. It was then that my husband and I decided to place him in a private school with a small classroom environment. While I was searching for the right fit, I realized how difficult it was to locate resources and landed upon the Learning Disabilities Association (LDA) of Georgia.
LDA of Georgia opened up a new world for me as a parent. They offered a network of professionals who understood the needs of my child as well as a local conference that not only educated me more on learning disabilities, but offered access to local resources available in my area. I also found a support group of parents to share my frustrations and my son’s triumphs. This fueled my passion for helping other parents of children with learning disabilities.
I have now been a member of LDA for over 10 years and a board member for seven. I was elected President of the Board of Directors at the 2018 LDA annual conference in Atlanta. One of the requirements to be president is to be a parent of a child with a learning disability. This is a huge honor and I hope to use my experience as a parent and a nonprofit leader to bring LDA into the spotlight as an organization that provides support to parents, educators, adults with learning disabilities, and professionals. This means meeting them where they are in their journey to obtain the resources they need to help their child or themselves.
2. Can you speak to the need for things like early intervention, professional development, use of high-impact strategies, etc, particularly for students with learning and attention issues?
I personally am a firm believer that early intervention is the key to long-term success. If my son’s pediatrician hadn’t suggested that I seek help when my son was 8 months old, I truly don’t think he would be as far as he is today. And I wasn’t afraid to put my child in special education classrooms, when offered, to get the help he needed. The difference between those obtaining early intervention and those who are diagnosed later in life is dramatic; not only for the academic struggles but also in their self esteem. Parents need to push aside the denial if they sense something is wrong and seek the help their child may need as early as possible.
Additionally, professional development is so important for our teachers today, especially when children with learning disabilities and attention issues are placed in the general-ed classroom with today’s Response-to-Intervention (RTI) tier system in place. My experience has shown that many general education teachers in both the public and private school systems that I have encountered do not understand the needs of our kids with learning disabilities and don’t have a firm grasp on the signs and symptoms as well as the strategies they can use to help our kids be successful in the classroom. It is very frustrating as a parent to have to “teach” the teachers the strategies that we assumed they already knew.
Many parents of children with learning disabilities and attention issues can relate to this scenario of spending hours at night with their children researching and relearning material so that their child can have a fighting chance to receive even just a passing grade on the test the next day.
Which brings me to another issue for our kids: providing the right type of testing to allow our kids to access the information they learned. This sounds obvious but it is not. My husband and I spent many long nights helping our son, only to have him do poorly on a test because it was offered in a format where he couldn’t access the information that he learned the night before due to poor memory, spelling, or a format that threw him off-base.
Reading by third grade is another critical milestone for success. Children who are not reading proficiently by third grade are four times more likely than their peers to not graduate high school. Students with learning disabilities are at even greater risk of falling behind and not graduating. (Hernandez, 2011; NAEP, 2007, 2009, 2011, 2013). Additional information and statistics can be found here.
How did I know these strategies as a parent? I educated myself by attending conferences such as the LDA annual conference as well as other events offered by like organizations. I read books. I attended local workshops and listened to many webinars. I was able to bring back suggestions to the school not only to help my son but to help the other students as well. I highly suggest that parents educate themselves as much as possible since we are our child’s number one advocate.
Joining an organization like LDA is also important. Information is not only available through the LDA website, but it is also offered through LDA local and state affiliates. One of the biggest benefits of membership is that LDA is one of a few organizations that keep up with public policy and legislation affecting individuals with learning disabilities. As such we contract a Policy Director to be our voice in Washington and educate and inform legislators as well as collaborate with other organizations to help protect the rights of children and adults with learning disabilities.
3. We hear often that new teachers feel they are unprepared to teach students with learning and attention issues, what can schools do to help empower those teachers to have better tools and knowledge?
First, schools can seek help from professionals like the Institute for Multi-Sensory Education and LDA to coach their teachers on the proven strategies that help our kids with learning disabilities and attention issues. Again, the right professional development can help teachers meet the needs of our students with learning disabilities and attention issues. If a school district cannot afford to send every teacher to an LDA annual conference, then send a few and have them come back to provide the training to the others. I can say with confidence the LDA conference registration is the most reasonable and it offers a wide range of topics. For those interested, the next annual conference is Feb. 18-21, 2019 in Forth Worth, TX.
I would also like to see more specific training on learning disabilities happen at the university level as well so that teachers graduate from teacher training programs prepared from the start. Students majoring in education can become members of LDA for a reduced fee and also attend conferences and state events at a lower manageable cost. Several universities bring groups of students who not only will learn from leading experts around the nation, but can volunteer at the conference to help defray costs.
4. What do you think school districts struggle with most in terms of meeting the needs of students with learning disabilities, particularly when it comes to things like reading and writing?
In order to meet the needs of students with learning disabilities and attention issues school districts should and must obtain specialized training for their teachers. It is unfortunate that funding for education in many states is being cut and school districts are not able to send as many teachers to this type of training needed for every classroom teacher. Statistics shows one in five children have learning and attention issues.
If all teachers, Pre-K through High School, had a true understanding of the proven methods to help kids who struggle with reading and writing, it could create a ripple effect in our schools and with our students: higher test rates, higher graduation rates, lower juvenile detention rates, lower behavior issues, higher college retention rates and the list can go on an on.
We all learn differently but those with learning disabilities and attention issues have a harder time without the right proven supports and the accommodations to even the playing field.
5. What can help districts better meet the needs of those students?
Besides identifying students early, and educating our teachers to learn and use the proven methods, techniques and strategies needed to teach students with learning disabilities and attention issues in the classroom, it is also important to understand the need to help our kids feel empowered to understand their own learning styles. Teaching our kids how be self advocates at a young age not only helps them but also can be a help to the teacher as well.
Student-led conferences are one way to help our kids learn more about themselves and create an environment where they learn best. These experiences and self-advocacy skills can extend well past high school into post-secondary options and the workplace.
6. What do you want people to know about children with learning and attention issues? There often is a lot of stigma surrounding that, although we know it is very common and those students have just as much to contribute as a student without learning or attention issues.
First, LDA would like to spread the message that children with learning disabilities and attention issues are very capable of learning, albeit in a different way than their peers. I am saddened when I hear a teacher or parent say “if only he weren’t so lazy.”
Understanding and using a variety of techniques and strategies as well as accommodations necessary to help our kids should be the goal of every classroom teacher.
There are seven disorders under the umbrella of specific learning disabilities: dyslexia, dysgraphia, dyscalculia, auditory processing, language processing disorder, nonverbal learning and visual perceptual/visual motor deficit. The definition of each as well as signs symptoms and strategies are listed on the LDA website.
Each of the seven disorders range in severity and may interfere with the acquisition and use of one or more of the following:
- oral language (e.g. listening, speaking, understanding);
- reading (e.g. decoding, phonetics knowledge, word recognition, comprehension);
- written language (e.g. spelling, written expression and writing fluency); and
- mathematics (e.g. computation, problem solving, number sense and math fact fluency, spatial sense and verbal mediation of math concepts)
Second, learning disabilities and attention issues do not go away. They are life-long. Helping our kids understand their disabilities and how to advocate for themselves is a skill they will take with them into adulthood.
LDA believes that, “Research continues to confirm that we can teach students with learning disabilities to ‘learn how to learn.’ We can put them into a position to compete and hold their own.”
Intervention practices include direct instruction, learning strategy instruction; and using a sequential, simultaneous structured multi-sensory approach. Scaffolding is also something that seems to make a real difference. Whether the student is in the general education classroom or learning in a special class setting, activities should be focused on assessing individual students to monitor their progress through the curriculum. Concerns for the individual must take precedence over concerns for the group or the curriculum or for the organization and management of the general education classroom content.
Third, LDA believes that a comprehensive cognitive evaluation is needed for diagnosis in order to provide interventions for specific skill instruction, accommodations, compensatory strategies and self-advocacy skills. Some states use RTI as the evaluation for a learning disability. LDA believes RTI alone is not a comprehensive evaluation; RTI when implemented with fidelity is a useful instructional strategy and can provide information as part of a comprehensive evaluation, but alone RTI is not a comprehensive evaluation. LDA also has concerns that many states and schools struggle to implement RTI with fidelity, and that RTI can delay a comprehensive evaluation for specific learning disabilities, and thus leaves many children with learning disabilities unidentified and without the services at a very critical time in their development.
And lastly, learning disabilities and attention issues are not connected to an individual’s IQ. The term Twice-exceptional (2e) is used to describe a person who is gifted, and who also has specific learning disabilities (e.g., dyslexia). This is an area that LDA and others are bringing more to the forefront to educate teachers and the public about the support that these students need. LDA welcomes others to join us in our endeavors to protect the rights of individuals with learning disabilities and we are grateful for the support of organizations like the Institute for Multi-Sensory Education.