As the Head of School at Currey Ingram Academy, I am humbly blessed to be part of a school that for 50 years has successfully educated students with learning differences.
This Extra Credit article is a snapshot of the state of learning difference education.
What are Learning Differences?
Learning Differences are more formally recognized as brain-based learning and attention issues that result in difficulties in reading, writing, math, organization, focus, listening comprehension, social skills, motor skills or a combination of these. Importantly, learning and attention issues are not signs of low intelligence, poor eyesight, hearing, or lack of educational access.
Approximately 1:5 (20%) of the population is impacted by a learning difference. By itself, a prevalence rate this high points to the necessity of society-wide attention on this issue. Fortunately, much has been done in the past 30-40 years. Importantly, much still needs to be done.
To name a few of the most prevalent learning differences: Dyslexia1, Dyscalculia2 and Dysgraphia3 are defined as Specific Learning Disabilities (SLD). While ADHD and executive function deficits are more generally defined as Other Health Impairments (OHI). All are learning differences, that can range in severity, can occur together, and will have an impact on learning, especially if the proper instructional environment is not provided.
It is now beyond any doubt that the origin of learning differences is genetic and neurobiological. Although additional research indicates that exposure to toxins and adverse childhood experiences can increase the likelihood of occurrence.
Understanding Learning Differences
Despite the prevalence of learning differences, public perceptions still reveal widespread misconceptions and stigmas. For example, more than half of the parents in a recent survey say that they wouldn’t want other parents to know if their child had a learning disability and believe that children can grow out of their learning difference, especially if the children try hard enough.
Learning differences are lifelong conditions involving differences in brain structure and function. With the proper instruction, symptoms may wane over time. However, just getting older, by itself, does not vanquish a learning difference. Moreover, children with learning differences need evidence-based targeted interventions and accommodations that give them the supports and tools they need to work around their differences.
What can happen?
When students with learning differences don’t receive early or effective interventions, the statistics are clear.
They are more likely to be consistent discipline issues. Lost instructional time increases the risk of course failure. Being miserable in school leads to higher dropout rates and lower college attendance and completion … which ultimately then leads to a greater likelihood of unemployment.
What can be done?
First, spread the word. Learning differences do not reflect laziness or lack of intelligence. I have seen hundreds of examples in my five years at Currey Ingram of students who soared once they were placed in an educational setting aligned with their needs.
Second, train the educators. Learning differences are incredibly complex. Even within a particular learning difference such as Dyslexia, there are numerous approaches and considerations based on the presentation in a particular student. Using a highly individualized approach that aligns with each student’s interests, strengths and needs is perhaps the most important element of our educational model at Currey Ingram Academy.
Third, regardless of approach, it’s imperative to provide targeted, evidence-based instruction and intervention as early as possible. Many parents and schools wait too long to intervene. The tools to recognize and diagnose a learning difference have been refined and honed. Much more often than not, an accurate diagnosis of a learning difference can occur in children far younger than many parents and educators believe. Research unequivocally finds that early intervention boosts long-term academic and social-emotional outcomes.
Fourth, ensure there is an explicit focus on social-emotional learning (SEL). That is, providing instruction that is tailored for students with learning differences that can help develop important skills such as managing emotions and persevering.
Fifth — and in many ways perhaps the most important skill a school might develop in students — is advocacy. Students graduate and move on. When they do they may not end up in an environment as supportive and understanding of their learning difference. Advocacy is their equalizer.
Not educating students with learning differences is a preventable problem. The research is clear. There are solidly established evidence-based approaches for intervention. Although not easy and not inexpensive to implement, if a worthy goal is to promote a more inclusive society that recognizes the potential of all individuals, than I believe it is worth it.
Thank you for reading.
Dr. Jeffrey L. Mitchell is head of school for Currey Ingram Academy, a K-12 independent school in Brentwood, Tennessee, that empowers students with learning differences to achieve their fullest potential.