Showcasing Strengths: Students with Learning Disabilities
Article by Kathleen Ross-Kidder, Ph.D.
The Enormous Hill
There is a huge hill. I like to ride my bike down that very steep, dark and bumpy hill. When I ride down that hill I feel the wind hitting my face. I like to pick up a lot of speed and perform some tricks on my bike. When I am at the bottom of the hill, I will turn a corner and ride over some bumps in the road. Once I come to a dead end, I circle around and peddle up the hill. And I will do the same thing over and over again.
By Cameron, Grade 5,
A student with a learning disability
Students with learning disabilities are bright students with many talents. Too often these talents remain hidden, or even worse, smothered by a system that looks more at what they can't do than what they can do.
Based on normal statistical assumptions of exceptionality, 2-5% of children in today's classrooms can be expected to have a learning disability. A child with a learning disability has trouble getting information to brain centers that store, code, and use information. This makes retrieval of needed information difficult. A child who has difficulty reading may not encode the sound of semantics, or word meanings, correctly. He hears the sounds. Nonetheless if the auditory input message is incorrect, it is difficult to match sound patterns to letter patterns to achieve an understanding of written words.
This does not mean the child does not understand what the word means. The child can point to pictures of the word, define the word, and use the word in conversation. The learning disability lies in the area of recognition of the written word, and thus in reading.
Here's an example that helps some understand the concept. Count out loud from one to 20. That was easy! Now write the numbers from 1-20 with the hand you do not use normally when writing. For most this will be the left hand. Imagine now that in spite of your strengths and talents with the right hand you are judged based on what you wrote with your left hand.
Too often this is exactly what happens for children with LD. Teachers, parents and others who work with students with LD focus on what students with LD can't do rather than what they can do. Writes Darby, a Grade 8 student, "If I could change just one thing about myself I would want to be without a learning disability." LD, rather than Darby's many strengths, has become his defining characteristic.
Students with learning disabilities possess tremendous gifts and talents. They often have painting, drawing, musical, dramatic, athletic, people skills and other talents. Too often these talents are masked or hidden by the intense pressures of trying to achieve "success" as measured by an academic standard.
Thomas West, in his book, In the Mind's Eye, presents a different way of looking at students with reading disabilities. He looks at the ironies of creativity. The strengths of students with visual-spatial talents, though not valued in the verbally driven academic model, create a freshness of perspective that affords unique creativities. Jamie Hanover, a musician with a learning disability writes: "Actually, it seems to me rather odd to call them disabilities, because for me, those disabilities have turned out to be among my greatest sources of strength and a powerful asset!" Artist Pat Buckley Moss, a person who has struggled with LD across her life span, founded the P. Buckley Moss Foundation for Children's Education, a program to highlight the artistic talents of children with LD.
Children with LD often also lag behind peers in maturity. Again, a quality often viewed as a negative. Yet Einstein, a person many identify as having had LD, attributed his discoveries to the fact that he asked questions that "only children ask." He asked himself why he discovered the theory of relativity. "The reason, I think, is that a normal adult never stops to think about problems of space and time. These are things he has thought of as a child." (Einstein to James Frank, quoted in Clark, Life and Times, 1971, p.10.)
As Cameron, at the beginning of this article, writes, children with LD have perseverance. They can race down the hill with joy and excitement when free to "be." They can form creative circles at the bottom of the hill but most importantly when they hit a dead end they have learned how to circle around and peddle up the hill again. With this, too, comes a self-understanding of how they learn.
Dr. Edwin Ellis suggests in an article on "Watering up the Curriculum for Adolescents with Learning Disabilities" that as teachers learn how to develop strategies of instruction that engage the learning styles of students with LD they learn methods that enhance their abilities to reach the learning needs of all students in the classroom. Teachers who recognize strengths enrich the school experience for all children. Emily, a student with LD eloquently shares her experiences with a teacher, Mrs. Manley, who saw her strengths in a poem called "Twiddley Bird."
Little Sunshine was a small twiddley bird.
Soaring over clouds like a kite she did.
Singing the spring like a choir of silver bells.
Little sunshine was truly talented,
and truly amazing.
A shadow of sorrow covered her,
for no one looked at how she could shine.
But one person did look.
Helped her see her might.
Little Sunshine will always remember
the one who flew with her.
Through the gray skies,
helping her find the way.
So she sang her song to her friend,
as little Sunshine flew out of sight.
To Mrs. Manley
By Emily, a student with learning disabilities
Project Heroes, is a project of the Churchill School, a school for students with LD, in New York City. This project facilitates interviews with heroes with disabilities (men and women of different ages, races, and vocations.) Students learn about their strengths and their achieved successes.
In the Mind's Eye, (1997) by Thomas West, Prometheus Books: Amherst New, York.
I Wish I Could Fly Like a Bird, published by Wildwood Creative Enterprises, tells the story of Chic L. Dee, a bird who flip-flops instead of flying. As Chic L.Dee struggles to accept his limitations he discovers his talents and begins to make his own way. This is fun reading for children who also struggle with learning disabilities.
I Know I Can Climb the Mountain by Dale S. Brown; Illustrations by Lisa Freeman.This collection of poems and prose was written as she was growing up, not knowing she had attention deficit disorder.
First Person Stories
- Jamie Janover, musician
- Pat Buckley Moss, artist
KidZone, LD OnLine, writings by children with learning disabilities.
About the Author
Kathleen Ross-Kidder, Ph.D. worked as the Director of LD OnLine (www.LDOnLine.org), the interactive guide to learning disabilities for parents, teachers and other professionals, and the leading Web site in its field. LD OnLine is a service of WETA-TV-FM, the public broadcasting station in Washington, D.C. Dr. Ross-Kidder is also a faculty member of the Department of Psychology at The George Washington University, a former teacher in both private and public education and a licensed school psychologist who has worked extensively in public education and private practice helping children with learning disabilities and/or ADHD and their parents.
Published: December 2002