I was so glad to see this issue being discussed at seminars and blogs. I have fought this battle alongside of parents for many years in my classroom. My students have experienced this issue first hand and have had to find ways to cope with the emotions that occur because of situations like this. Many teachers think that a learning disability is something that a student has control over or is making it up. Since they can’t see any physical limitations, many teachers deny that it is a real disability. Some of my students may not have a reading disability but they have major difficulties with math and since they can read okay, teachers assume that their math difficulties are due to laziness. Of course my students did not help themselves many times because it is difficult to admit that you have problems when you are a teenager, so as a defense mechanism, they refuse to do classwork or homework.
I had a student who suffered a traumatic brain injury at the end of his 8th grade year when he was hit by a car. He had been in a gifted program for years and was considered extremely smart. Since his mom worked as a receptionist at our high school, he had been walking across the street from the middle school for 3 years to wait for his mom to get off work and many of the teachers had gotten to know him. After he got out of rehabilitation to learn basic self help skills, he returned to school as a resource student. Using the last known test scores, he was placed in all advanced classes which was totally absurd and only caused him to have major self esteem issues. He was already realizing that he wasn’t the same person and had lost many of the social skills that most teens knew by this time. More and more of his friends were drifting away and he was having lots of difficulties in classes. Finally his class schedule was changed and he was placed in much lower level classes. Of course, this was another blow to his self esteem because he was no longer with his friends that he had grown up with in the gifted classes. As I worked with him on assignments for other classes, there were times that we had to back up and relearn basic skills for things such as writing paragraphs and learning study skills. What had been easy for him in the past no longer applied to his life. Teachers who looked through his records, even though they knew he had been in an accident, kept expecting him to perform much higher than he could and felt he was lazy. Since he didn’t look any different, they forgot that he had a brain injury and came down pretty hard on him. They had known him before the accident and remembered that he was smart, so they couldn’t understand why he wasn’t trying hard enough. They thought that if he just put effort into it, the brain trauma would just disappear. I worked with him for many hours after school and on weekends to get him caught up. I was so relieved when he finally graduated in spite of what some teachers made him go through. My heart ached for his parents who had to help him fight these battles that they never had to fight before.
I am also concerned about how we label students so that they qualify for special education services. Now that the law requires a different way to determine if a student has learning disabilities, I think it has opened up the door for many different interpretations. I am so afraid that we will have many students falling through the cracks. This is why I think we need to look at differentiation for all students and not just special education students. Many students may have difficulties in learning at different stages of their life and we need to take in factors such as maturity, emotional issues, physical concerns, and social issues at that specific time. A student might need extra help or different strategies at different times in their lives. I know when my oldest sister died when I was in tenth grade, I was not performing to the best of my abilities for at least two years. I was not labeled anything except “smart” which also put a lot of pressure on me at the time. No one asked why my grades dropped or why I didn’t seem interested any more in school. Luckily I was able to move past the grief and get back on track by myself. What if I was a struggling student with the same issues? These students need us to be there for them.
I hope that when I look at students and notice that they are having difficulties, I look beyond the standard generalizations of “it must be laziness”, “it’s just teenage angst”, “they will get over that”, “peer pressure will take care of that”, or “there is just no hope for them”. I hope that I don’t expect them to run when they really can’t do it. I need to remember that all disabilities are not easily recognized. I need to look beyond the physical student and see the student within if I want to be successful in teaching.