5 Strategies for Teaching Students with Learning Disabilities
October 1, 2021
Author: Brittany Roa
“If a child can’t learn the way we teach, maybe we should teach the way they learn.” -Ignacio Estrada
A few years ago, I volunteered in Thailand, teaching English to mentally and physically disabled students. It was an eye-opening experience that provided me with insight into the impact of education on a person’s life.
Following my time in Thailand, I have been determined to not underestimate others. Children (and adults) are extremely capable and adaptive and can successfully grow in positive learning environments. Oftentimes, they just need someone to believe in them and support them.
The students I taught in Thailand varied in their ability, but unfortunately, they were not grouped according to comprehension level. I had to constantly adapt in order to achieve inclusive teaching.
Fortunately, education has more funding in the states, meaning there are separate programs for students with intellectual disabilities. Therefore, the students you are likely to have in the general education classroom won’t be as diverse in ability.
For the purpose of this article, we will be speaking about students with learning disabilities, not intellectual disabilities. This means that creating an inclusive classroom should only take minor adjustments.
After consulting a general education teacher of 21 years and incorporating my own experience, I have gathered some useful strategies to help teaching students with learning disorders a little easier for all.
5 strategies to support students with learning disabilities
1. Make sure the learning environment is free of distractions.
If a student has trouble learning, their motivation will probably be low. It is extremely frustrating to not understand a concept, and this frustration can interrupt focus. Add external distractions, and the student may find it impossible to learn.
Place the child’s desk in an area of your classroom that has the least amount of distractions. Try to keep them away from walls where they can hear other classrooms or outside noise, and especially keep them away from talkative or disruptive students. These distractions can impede focus and disrupt the child’s attempt to learn.
2. Pre-teach the student(s) with learning difficulties.
When there’s a difficult concept that you know one (or more) of your students is going to struggle with, you can be proactive and pre-teach the main idea of a lesson. Pre-teaching can be done in a one-on-one or group setting before you teach the new concept to the whole class.
Along the lines of eliminating distractions, make sure that you aren’t pre-teaching during a time when students would normally be playing or having fun. Instead, you can coordinate a time with parents for students to come in early.
For instance, if school starts at 8:00AM and a child normally arrives at 7:45AM to play on the playground, have the child arrive at 7:30AM so you have 15 minutes to pre-teach the challenging concept. This will help prevent the child from being upset and unable to pay attention, thinking about how they lost valuable playtime. Hopefully it will become an incentive for the child to focus harder and learn the concept faster so they can join their friends.
By pre-teaching, you get to ensure that any children with learning disabilities are getting extra time to assimilate the idea, and also that the rest of the class doesn’t have to slow down to match the varying learning speeds.
3. Allow extra time to complete an assignment.
Since you know your students with specific learning disabilities struggle with a particular subject, you can allow them to have extra time to complete certain assignments. Providing this will help ensure they don’t feel pressured to hand in work that is incomplete or incorrect.
Giving a lesson as additional homework if they don’t finish it in class will give them extra time to work out the problem. This might be helpful for students who feel more comfortable at home and can therefore relax as they are learning, which will help with the integration of a concept.
Make sure you don’t overextend this invitation and allow students to take advantage of it. Confirm a child knows the assignment is due the next day with the rest of their homework. Be fair and accommodating, but also don’t allow students to slack off.
4. Re-teach, if necessary.
No matter how much time we put into teaching a student, when it comes to children with learning disabilities, there may be a need for a little more effort. While this may feel frustrating because you feel you’ve tried your best, sometimes all it takes is a little extra one-on-one time.
How many times have you forgotten where you placed something even though you told yourself not to forget? Oftentimes the brain needs several repetitions before an idea is fully understood or integrated, especially if there’s a pre-existing barrier to learning.
Reinforcing an idea with a child after pre-teaching and teaching, may just be the last repetition they need to grasp a concept.
5. Hold high, but reasonable, expectations.
If a student has had a learning disability their whole life, they may have received different expectations and treatment from parents and past educators. It’s important to hold your student to their best self, but also understand that their best may be different than the rest of the class.
Students need to be encouraged and taught that their learning disability doesn’t define them. Remind them they are still very abled people and that they are still capable of great things. Find the ways in which they shine and help them to embrace their talents in areas that might not be as obvious.
For instance, if a child with a learning disability is an excellent artist, encourage them to continue with their art and maybe make time for them (and other students) to share their skills with the class. All of our brains work differently, and as teachers we get to find the ways each child is special.
Final note: general education or special education?
It is no doubt an added stressor when you are teaching children with disabilities. You are asked to differentiate your lesson plan, which requires more time and energy. And after all that, sometimes a student will still struggle.
It’s important not to take it personally. We can try our best, but a student might need specialized attention.
Verify if you are able to handle the situation and the student’s needs on your own, or if the student needs extra help. They might need additional resources outside of your classroom to help them with their education. You can contact your administration and/or special needs department for further information.
When it comes to our students, we want to make sure we are setting them up for success in the classroom, but more importantly, in life. That’s why it’s crucial to stay alert and vigilant when teaching and make sure students are getting the attention and support they need.
If you’re unsure of what constitutes a learning disability or would like more information, the Learning Disabilities Association of America has a list of different types of learning disabilities that can be a helpful reference.
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