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Educational Options for Students with Learning Disabilities: Maximizing Potential

Is your child struggling in school, or has he or she been diagnosed with a learning disability? While initially this may be difficult to accept, it is imperative that as a parent, you reach an understanding of your child’s academic needs. This will help you ensure that the current school is offering your son or daughter the best opportunity for success. However, should you begin to question the current school’s ability to help your child reach his or her true potential, it may be time to consider other alternatives.

With so many different options available, identifying the best educational environment for a student who has a learning disability can be a daunting task. Thorough testing that assesses cognitive potential and achievement in skill areas is an invaluable tool that will clarify an individual’s distinct learning needs and style while specifying accommodations he or she will need to be successful. Once the student’s strengths and weaknesses are delineated, there are many resources available (see resource list) to help parents find a school that will best meet their child’s unique needs. While it is valuable to research many programs, one option that should be carefully considered is a school that works exclusively with students who have learning disabilities.

Schools that focus on a LD population have many benefits. By offering integrated programs that consistently meet students’ specific needs, and creating an environment where weaknesses do not overshadow strengths, these schools empower students to realize their potential. Probably the greatest gift specialized schools give students is a rediscovery of the correlation between effort and success; that is to say that students quickly realize that “If I put forth effort, I will be successful.” Because all students in these schools have a learning disability, there is not a negative stigma associated with specialized instruction—everyone is taught in a way that strategically targets individual learning needs. These programs address academic strengths and weaknesses while giving students access to the arts, athletics, and other areas in which they might excel. Once in a true peer group, students quickly feel comfortable taking risks and participating in areas that they might not have before. As strengths are developed and weaknesses are remediated, self-esteem and confidence skyrocket.

Academically, schools that have programs specifically tailored to students who have learning disabilities offer unparalleled opportunity. Challenging concepts are introduced and taught by using multisensory approaches, experiential learning, manipulatives, multimedia—anything, in short, to engage all the senses and encourage students to be actively involved in the learning process. This ensures that students are appropriately challenged and can enjoy success. Furthermore, the child does not have to fit into a particular program; because every teacher has expertise and specialized training, they have the flexibility to offer instruction that is most appropriate to each individual. For example, when remediating reading, teachers must have the knowledge and skills to design and implement a truly individualized reading program: this is what is referred to as diagnostic prescriptive teaching.

Teachers at these schools are truly specialists. Whether it is a science class, a math class, or a history class, these teachers have a thorough understanding of and sensitivity to students who have learning disabilities. This compassion and knowledge is not limited to the “learning center” or “resource room,” nor is it limited to the classroom. Adults who are in contact with students throughout the day—on the athletic field, in the art studio, or in a dormitory—all share this expertise and specialization. The result is that students are understood, their strengths are appreciated, their needs are consistently met, and they are not misperceived or mislabeled as being “lazy,” “unmotivated,” or “stupid.”

It is also very important to note the difference between “support” and “remediation.” Schools that offer academic support help students keep up with what is happening in the classroom. For example, if a student has a deficit in reading comprehension, academic support might help that student keep up with readings in history class, but support services do not directly address the student’s reading comprehension deficit. Therefore, support services can be seen as a “band aide” approach to learning, where students simply get by. Conversely, remedial instruction is structured to explicitly and directly develop skills while teaching students important strategies to compensate for their weaknesses. Remedial instruction is evidenced by a separate and distinct curriculum that is individualized to students’ learning needs.

It is important to understand that while no school can “cure” a student’s learning problem, specialized schools offer effective, research-based instruction that will ensure your child has the best possible opportunity to make significant academic gains. Furthermore, by meeting the needs of the whole child, comprehensive programs help their students gain confidence, develop self-advocacy skills, appreciate their talents, and discover their potential.

Reasonable Expectations

Obviously, the best way to learn about a school is to visit. By visiting a school, you can see beyond the glossy marketing materials, and really get a sense of the school’s culture. You can discover if the students are happy, and witness, firsthand, the interactions between the teachers and students. It is also strongly recommended that you visit more than one school so that there is a basis for comparison— and always visit when school is in session. While there are many important things to inquire about during a school visit, the following topics for discussion are specific to schools that work with students who have learning disabilities:

  • It is very appropriate to inquire how the admissions staff determines if the school is a good match for your son or daughter. The admissions officer should be able to clearly communicate how the school's program will remediate weaknesses while giving your child an opportunity to develop his or her strengths. Remember you are interviewing the school as much as the school is interviewing your child.

  • Considering the spectrum of learning disabilities, the admissions officer should explain what population the school does and does not work with in the areas of cognitive potential, achievement in skill areas (i.e. reading, written language, math, etc.), social development, and behavior.

  • It is important to have an understanding of the level of structure and support the school offers and the minimum expectations the school has of its students.

  • Ensure you fully understand the school's mission (every school should have a mission statement).

  • Ask how the school measures student progress. There should always be an objective, standardized measure of progress.

  • Inquire about how the teachers (not just learning center teachers) are trained and what specific programs are utilized. It is always wise to observe a class to discover if these philosophies are practiced; it is crucial that schools do what they say they do.

  • It is important that the school offer professional development opportunities to ensure that teachers are using the most effective, research-based instructional strategies.

  • Consider what technology is available and incorporated into the program. Note: Technology is important, but it should not be the principal instrument for instruction.

  • Inquire about and assess how individualized the program is.

  • Examine how the school ensures that students reach a deeper understanding of how they learn, understand compensatory strategies they can use, and develop self-advocacy skills.

  • Attempt to gain the perspective of a current student.

  • Take the time to familiarize yourself with the school's Student and Parent Handbook. This document outlines different school policies, procedures, and rules.

  • Ask to contact a current parent; having the benefit of a current parent's perspective of and experience with the school is invaluable.

  • If possible, meet with the Head of School. This is the individual that is ultimately responsible for the educational program, the teachers, the school community, and, most importantly, for your child.

It is necessary to recognize that what these schools can offer is opportunity. The most significant variable is the extent to which your child engages in the program and puts forth effort. While this publication offers many suggestions, it is important to understand that choosing a school is not an exact, scientific process. It has to feel right, and you have to trust your gut instinct. People are the heart and spirit of a school. When visiting, pay close attention to the intangible human factor — the extent to which the community of teachers, students, and staff enjoy each other and create a culture of caring, mutual respect, and possibility.



Stewart Miller is the Headmaster of The Greenwood School in Putney, Vermont.

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