The Bravest Students in School

I read in our local paper, The Pendleton Times, that all elementary students in our county are now able to eat breakfast and lunch in school for no charge.  As a former teacher (and I’m not the only one) who used to keep stashes of food in my classroom for students who were hungry, I have no objection to this news at all.  I do wonder how the high schoolers who have no food in the house or no money with which to purchase a meal will fare, however.  When I used to substitute teach in high school, I’d take lunch supplies and cookies for those two- and three-hour block classes – auto body, woodworking.  These guys were too embarrassed to fill out any application for a free lunch, much less admit to needing the help.  How is a high school student supposed to keep going on an empty stomach?

That newspaper article got me thinking about some of those students I used to feed.  I also remember how some of those high schoolers felt about themselves and their abilities.  Unfortunately, some of those fellows ended up in those classes because their mastery of typically academic subjects like reading and math was poor.  I don’t think it was due to any conscious decision they made, like “Hey, I think I’ll just blow off first and second and third grade and not learn to read so that I can struggle in school and try to just get by and get out of high school by the skin of my teeth.  Yeah, that sounds like a plan!”

I admit, I’m biased.  I actually believe that all students want to learn and all students want to be successful in school.

But for those students who have learning challenges, every day they walk into their schools and through the doors of their classrooms is an enormous hurdle to overcome.  They have to return each day, each week, each month of the school year to a setting in which they already know they do not excel.  They have to face teachers who don’t understand the frustration, anxiety, and tension* that these students endure or the teasing or ridicule from other students equally at a loss for understanding learning disabilities or the challenges of ADHD/ADD.

How many adults would chose an occupation in which they struggle to succeed each day?  Not one!  Yet this is exactly what we are expecting our students to do – their “job” as students is to learn, to succeed in school.  But with learning disabilities and attention issues, that is sometimes asking too much – especially without the help of parents, teachers, and supportive important people in their lives (grandparents, friends, etc.).

Developmentally Ready?

Some students just need another year of growth to help them be truly ready for school.  Sure, they may be “of age” for kindergarten, but developmentally, it may be advantageous for them to have another year of growth before beginning school or advancing to the next grade (especially in kindergarten).

For students who need extra support to be ready to learn, preschool programs like “Head Start” are available.  Additional programs like “Right From the Start” and “Parents as Teachers” are offered in some areas at no cost to parents.  And young children who have been identified with certain disabilities can receive assistance from other county and state programs – local school districts and Departments of Health and Human Resources will be able to provide information about these.  Help is out there!

Discipline is Crucial!

Some students need a strong dose of discipline – and I am NOT equating “discipline” with “punishment” – two different things entirely.  Discipline is learning and actually doing what is expected of us as contributing members of our families, as members of a classroom, a community, a society.  Discipline is knowing that I need to raise my hand and wait to be called on by the teacher, not just shouting out an answer.  Discipline is knowing the importance of following directions – and actually doing it.  Discipline is what teaches a child his role in life.  A well-disciplined child is responsible for and maintains a clean bedroom, makes his bed each morning without reminders, helps with appropriate chores, and uses words like “please” and “thank you” and knows how to greet people kindly and treat people with respect.  Discipline is understanding that the word “No” actually means “No”, not “Keep asking and maybe I’ll give in.”  Discipline is what will help a child turn into a responsible adult who is able to get along with all sorts of people and be a contributing, valued member of society.

Discipline is not achieved by watching TV for hours, nor is it gained by remaining glued to an electronic game or computer.  Discipline is learned by actively taking part in the smooth functioning of a home whether the child is 3 or 13.   (Yes, three years old.)  It is learned by completing homework not just to get it done, but to actually learn the lessons.  Discipline is learned by hanging around with others who are disciplined, who value education and an excellent work ethic.

What’s the Big Deal with Discipline?

So, why have I spent the last two paragraphs writing about the need for discipline?  Because if a child with learning disabilities or ADHD/ADD lacks the necessary discipline  in his family life or school setting, it will make his job as a student – as a child – so much harder!

I understand how a parent who has a child with a disability of any sort might be tempted to be a bit easier on him.  But this is not doing the child any favors!  For those of you who question that statement, just watch the old film biography of Helen Keller, starring Patty Duke.  Once Helen (rendered blind, deaf, and mute by illness in infancy) was given discipline by her teacher, Anne Sullivan, she was able to communicate with the world, learn, even attend college.  The reason I suggest watching this movie instead of reading her biography is because the image of a spoiled Helen going on a rampage in her family’s formal Victorian dining room will stick in your memory.  And any time you start to question whether you’re being too lenient with your child, that image will come to mind.

You will do everything in your power to avoid having your child be another spoiled Helen Keller.

For new parents, it’s so much easier to simply NOT raise a spoiled child.  Attempting to unlearn years of bad habits is harder, so just don’t do it!  (And yes, it is easier said than done.)

Something Just Doesn’t Seem Right…

Once the issues of maturity and discipline are squared away, it’s a bit easier to see if educational issues truly are based in a learning disability or an attention issue.

Parents, if you have a concern about your child, raise it with someone at the school who will really listen – and keep asking until you are satisfied.

Teachers, if you have a student who baffles you, ask your special education teacher or a mentor to conduct an observation or give you some suggestions.

The sooner any problems are discovered and dealt with, the better it is for the child, his family, his teacher, and his classmates. 


If ADHD/ADD is suspected (and it runs in families), by all means ask your family doctor about this.  If a child cannot focus due to ADHD/ADD, how is he expected to pay attention for learning?  There are ways to help and if medication is presented as an option by your doctor, please know there are many different types available.  I will just let you know up front that I do feel medicine is incredibly helpful for children with ADHD/ADD but it is not the only thing necessary to help a child with attention problems.  Parents and teachers also need to learn to interact in different ways with children with attention issues.  (And when adults learn how to do this, it actually benefits the adults as well as the children – life is so much more pleasant for everyone.)  In my experience, children who have received appropriate medication as well as a more structured environment to help with attention issues are able to attend to lessons, focus long enough to complete their work independently and successfully, and – perhaps best of all – find it easier to make and keep friends.  Who wouldn’t want this for their child?

Dyslexia?  Learning Disability?

“Dyslexia” is a term that refers to a number of different types of learning disabilities – a student might have a specific learning disability in written language or reading or math – or any combination of them.  And to make matters a little more complicated, learning disabilities occur on a spectrum – this means that they can run from a fairly simple disability that can be accommodated more easily to one that requires more intense intervention and modification.

How Can I Tell?

Teachers and parents might suspect a child has a learning disability if reading is a challenge.  It might be difficult for a child who is just learning the letters to remember that “b” is not “d” and “p” is not “q”.  That is a developmental thing – with time, they won’t mix these up.  For a child with a learning disability, however, that reversal issue stays with them – third graders typically have outgrown reversals.  So when a third grader is still struggling to correctly read “big” and “dig” and, when working math problems, reverses the numbers 3 and 5 and 7, then that can be an indication that he’s dealing with a learning disability.

Some students with learning disabilities write words as if they were writing in a mirror – completely backwards, right to left.  I had a third grade student who wrote an entire sentence like that.  I took her to Child Study – and she was diagnosed with learning disabilities.  More on her in a minute.

So What Can I Do?

It is understood that teachers can ask for a Child Study for any student in their class who is having difficulty learning despite numerous strategies implemented to address the issue.

But parents who suspect their child may have a learning disability can also ask their child’s school to convene a Child Study – this is where a team of educators meet with the parents and the child’s teacher to learn what the concerns are and suggest ways to help.  If needed, further testing can be done and a follow-up meeting held to determine if more specialized education would be helpful.

In addition to requesting a Child Study, or your school’s equivalent of one, parents can also ask an advocate to come with you to these meetings.  An advocate is someone who understands the Child Study process, knows your child well, and can help you ask questions and understand what is taking place.  Two heads can be better than one!

At these meetings, ask questions if a term is used that you aren’t familiar with or you need further clarification.  If you disagree, speak up and state how you feel. Don’t be afraid to advocate for your child.  This is your job.

Perception is Everything to a Student

Remember that third grade student I mentioned earlier?  The one who wrote an entire sentence backwards?  She confided in me that she’d overheard her kindergarten teacher talking about her with the other kindergarten teachers one day.  She heard her teacher tell the others how “obnoxious” she was.

And over three years later, that same student was asking me, “Mrs. Sweeney, am I obnoxious?”

No, she wasn’t.  She was a very smart young lady who had struggled to learn, who’d fought to make sense of what her teachers were presenting.  But that perception – “I’m obnoxious” – had stuck with her.

Having a Learning Disability Does NOT Mean “Dumb”!

I’m just going to add here that having a learning disability does not mean a student is “stupid”.  Oh, this is such a common presumption by the students themselves!  A child can be gifted and have learning disabilities.

Now, imagine what this perception – “I’m stupid” – does to a child’s self-confidence if it festers one year, two years, or more.  When a child think they’re “dumb” at any subject in school, they stop trying eventually.  And why not?  When they’ve tried really hard in the past, they may have been “rewarded” with yet another paper marked with red X’s, a failing score, and sometimes an inappropriate comment from their teacher.  Why keep trying?

Please don’t assume things will get better on their own.  They don’t.  A two year-old may have temper tantrums.  A sixteen year-old with a bad attitude can get into a lot more trouble – they have driver’s licenses, friends of the opposite sex, and access to all sorts of stuff that can mess up their lives – or end them.  And if you think a two year-old is tough, just imagine that energy in a bigger body.

The Bravest Students…

In my opinion – and I share this opinion with thousands of teachers – the bravest students in every school are those who face these daunting learning challenges each day.  The bravest students are those who endure teasing and senseless comments by folks who don’t understand how difficult it is just to walk through those classroom doors.

And Some Incredible Teachers…

Teaching students with learning disabilities is not “dumbing down” the curriculum – this is making it accessible for all students to learn.  Students who have LD will benefit from learning how to learn – and an effective teacher will help with this.  In my experience, teaching students who have LD makes one a better teacher.  You learn how to teach in so many different ways.  You learn how to present material very sequentially, very systematically – very thoroughly – and you learn to include review of previously-learned materials frequently.  What works well for a student with LD works well for any student.

Parents and Teachers…

You have the ability to make this school year a successful experience for your child, for all of your students.  It’s never to late to learn!

*F.A.T. City

For those of you who would like a glimpse of what it’s like to have learning disabilities, I encourage you watch Richard Lavoie’s classic documentary, “How Difficult Can This Be?  The F.A.T. City Workshop”.  It’s available free on You Tube and most school districts will have a copy of it on DVD.  Richard Lavoie skillfully demonstrates just how Frustrating, Anxiety-invoking, and Tension-inducing a typical classroom can be for a child with learning disabilities.  Since it lasts a little over an hour, try to make sure you can watch it uninterrupted.  This demonstration is more effective when you experience it non-stop.

You cannot watch this video and walk away unchanged.