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Learning Disabilities Awareness Month: How to Support Students Who Learn and Think Differently

Illustration of a boy holding a brick that's a part of a wall he's building, as a metaphor for learning.

RevBlogEducationLearning Disabilities Awareness Month: How to Support Students Who Learn and Think Differently

October is Learning Disabilities Awareness Month and this year, it’s more important than ever to understand how to support diverse learners as the Coronavirus pandemic continues.

The switch to virtual school has been a tough transition for all kids, but especially so for those with learning disabilities. In most cases, students’ support teams and daily routines drastically changed. Replicating in-person support needs in an online setting feels daunting for many.

While 2020’s been a rocky road in education, there are many success stories and new tools available to help students with learning disabilities thrive in online schooling.

What are Learning Disabilities?

Learning disabilities are diagnosed when a child’s academic performance in a particular subject is significantly below expected for their grade level. Common examples are difficulties with reading, writing, math, listening, or speaking.

Having a learning disability is not connected to intelligence. A child with an extremely high IQ can have the same learning disability as a child with a lower IQ.

It also doesn’t mean a child can’t learn or can’t succeed in school. It simply means they need specialized help to acquire the skills necessary to learn in their unique way.

Common learning disabilities in children are dyslexia, estimated to affect up to 20% of the world’s population, and ADHD, which is diagnosed in 9.4% of American children, according to the CDC.

There are many types of learning disabilities, but a few other examples are:

  • Dysgraphia (difficulty writing or with fine motor skills)
  • Dyscalculia (difficulty with math)
  • Executive function difficulties with planning, organization, remembering details and paying attention
  • Apraxia of speech (difficulty speaking even when they know what they want to say)

It’s important to remember that while learning disabilities can be associated with another diagnosis, that diagnosis itself is not a learning disability. For example, autism is associated with speech delays, but by itself, autism is not a learning disorder.

Impacts of COVID-19 on Students with Learning Disabilities

The COVID-19 pandemic and subsequent lockdowns have had a much more severe impact on students with additional needs.

A few major impacts have been:

  • Loss of in-person access to Teacher’s Assistants and other support staff in school
  • Adapting to new routines of virtual school
  • Adapting to virtual school for blind or deaf/hard-of-hearing students
  • Parental stress and anxiety, as parents are not always equipped with specialized training or tools to help kids in a homeschool environment

For some children, traditional virtual learning does not work, sometimes due to reasons such as impulsivity, inability to focus on self-directed work, or visual impairments.

But there are ways to make virtual learning accessible to all learners with a little creativity and modern technology.

4 Ways to Virtually Support Students with Learning Disabilities

1. Caption All Your Video Content

You may think video closed captions only benefit deaf or hard of hearing people, but they actually benefit everyone.

Studies have shown that for some autistic people who have auditory processing difficulties, being able to watch TV with captions made it a fun experience for the first time. Often, those with auditory issues have trouble differentiating speech from background noise, or following the social/dramatic impact of emotionally-charged, fast-paced scenes. By adding captions, they can more easily follow dialogue and connect it to the social situations happening in the show.

Additionally, people with dyslexia often report improved spelling from watching media with captions, as well as increased retention. It’s suggested that dyslexic people learn more from watching subtitled videos than reading from a textbook because with video, they can see and hear the content at the same time, improving understanding.

With virtual learning making up a large part of education, ensuring you caption all your class video content is a basic accessibility measure that should always be done.

For recorded video content, Rev offers human transcription services as low as $1.25 per minute. 

For live classes or events, our industry-leading real-time captions for Zoom integration is only $20 per user, per month.

2. Develop a Communication Protocol

Parent-teacher communication is necessary for the success of all students, but especially those with additional challenges like a learning disability. And, especially now that in-person learning has not resumed yet for many students.

While specific communication times may be included in a child’s IEP, educators or parents can go above and beyond those minimum requirements when necessary.

For example, if bi-weekly check-ins worked for a student before lockdowns took effect, they may not work in a virtual learning model. The student may need more frequent support with virtual learning. The teacher could suggest weekly check-ins instead; an offering parents would be grateful for.

Besides a check-in schedule, your communication plan should include:

  • Details for how parents and students can reach the teacher for urgent questions
    • Email? Zoom? Phone? Be specific!
  • Expected response time (e.g. same day? 1 business day?)
  • Expectations for where to find class materials and homework, post assignments and for parents to review progress (ideally in an all-in-one online portal, if the school has one)

This is a stressful time for parents, as well. Having strong communication with their child’s school can ease the transition to virtual learning. It also ensures parents feel heard in discussions around their child’s educational goals, which is not only important but also mandated by the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA).

3. Consider One-On-One Help for Students Who Need It

100% virtual learning does not work for all students. Some may not have the cognitive skills needed to navigate an online education portal or work independently, without hands-on help from a trained education assistant. Others may have impairments that make it difficult or impossible, such as blindness or physical issues with arms or hands that make using a computer difficult.

For students with these challenges, one-on-one, individualized learning should be made available. This depends on your state’s specific lockdown laws and the school district’s COVID-19 action plan, but all efforts must be taken to ensure each and every student has equitable access to education.

That could take the form of a teacher briefly visiting a student’s home for support, where all parties are wearing masks and other PPE. It could mean the student coming into the school to meet with staff. Or, weather-permitting, it could mean an outdoor meeting, which is considered safer due to the ability to physically distance.

As with all things IEP, there is no one-size-fits-all answer. Each student’s needs should be evaluated against the risks associated with a one-on-one session.

4. Bring Students Together

Sometimes, additional help doesn’t need to come from school staff or parents. Other students can be excellent assistants in the classroom.

Brusly High School in Louisiana has a creative solution for extra help: enlisting student volunteers to read sections of books to help other students who struggle with reading. The volunteers read the books in energetic, over-enunciated voices that help the struggling students clearly identify words on the page. Other students create short videos on how to solve math problems for students with dyscalculia.

Teachers can post those videos in their virtual classrooms so students struggling in those areas can watch them for extra help.

Not only is this a cost-effective way of providing resources, it also helps bring students together and foster a sense of community at a time when that is needed more than ever.

Conclusion

The Coronavirus pandemic disrupted much of the 2020 school year and these changes will continue into 2021, and potentially beyond, as well.

However long it lasts, it’s safe to say education and life will never be truly “back to normal.” Virtual learning will be a part of our educational structure permanently, much like how working from home is expected to increase after the pandemic, as well.

Accessibility is different for every person with an access need. The conversation about how to make the curriculum accessible needs to be an individual one, with each learner and his or her family, to create a plan that will be successful.

As we shift more of our lives online, it’s imperative to ensure all tools are accessible to all types of learners. Education flourishes when all students are included.