Supporting students with Specific Learning Disorders by Dr Kate Jacobs

What is a Specific Learning Disorder/Disability (SLD)?

Individuals with SLD experience difficulty learning and using important academic skills (such as word reading, spelling or maths calculation), with these difficulties not being able to be explained by external factors, such as inadequate educational instruction, missing substantial amounts of school, or significant and distressing life events. Despite often being of average (or above) intelligence, individuals with SLD can possess specific cognitive processing deficits that make it difficult for them to progress as typically expected in the areas of reading, writing and/or mathematics. For example, dyslexia is a specific type of SLD that impacts reading and spelling. Most individuals with dyslexia have a weakness in their phonological ability, or the ability to associate speech sounds with individual or groups of letters, which is central to learning to read and spell. This pattern of intellectual and cognitive processing strengths and weaknesses means that while students with SLD are often intellectually capable of understanding the curriculum at their year level and producing grade appropriate work, these individuals will likely struggle to do so when traditional methods of presenting information or assessing knowledge are used.

When not appropriately understood and supported, students with SLD are at significant risk of underachievement, disengagement from school, as well as emotional and behavioural problems. Thus it is vital that they are provided with appropriate forms of support during their school years.

How can students with SLD be supported to reach their academic potential?

Students with SLD can vary greatly from one another in terms of the particular strengths and challenges they present with, not only within themselves but also within their environments. This means that there is not a “one size fits all” approach to supporting students with SLD. However, at a minimum there is considered to be three important aspects to supporting students with SLD: Remediation, Accommodations and Self-Advocacy.

Remediation

Remediation refers to educational interventions that are designed to strengthen areas of academic weakness in either reading, writing and/or maths. For example, students with dyslexia often benefit from additional and targeted support to develop their reading and spelling skills.

Research has shown that direct and explicit instruction works best for students with SLD, and the earlier this additional support can be provided (either inside or outside of school) by appropriately trained individuals the better.  Though this is not to say that remediation is not also beneficial to older students, and even adults.

Accommodations

Accommodations are educational strategies that do not change the difficulty level of a task or the learning outcomes, but instead either change the way information is presented to a student, or change the way a student is expected to demonstrate their knowledge.

Accommodations become more and more important for students with SLD as they progress through school, particularly when the focus of a learning activity is not whether a student can accurately perform the basic academic skills of word reading, spelling or recalling timetables, but whether they can comprehend what they have read, demonstrate the full extent of their knowledge, or complete more complex maths problems.  As explained earlier, while students with SLD often have the intellectual capacity to comprehend the curriculum and produce grade level work, they will often struggle to do so under traditional methods of teaching and assessment.

For example, students with dyslexia have difficulties with word reading accuracy and reading fluency which can make reading a laborious and mechanical process. When cognitive resources are focused on decoding text, limited resources are left for deriving meaning from what is being read. However, if the student is able to listen to a prescribed text, rather than read it, they will have much greater capacity to comprehend. This common accommodation is a type of Assistive Technology that is often referred to as text-to-speech and achieves the goal of changing the way information is presented to the student.

As another example, students with dysgraphia (which impacts written expression skills) find it very difficult to demonstrate their knowledge through writing. For these students, accommodations that change the way they are expected to demonstrate their knowledge are helpful. For example, instead of requiring a written essay on a topic, students with dysgraphia can be provided the option of giving an oral presentation. Alternatively, speech-to-text Assistive Technology can enable such students to effectively express their knowledge due to not having to focus on the mechanics of writing or spelling.

As a final example, students with dyscalculia often have weaknesses in the accuracy and automaticity of basic arithmetic, though not necessarily in more advanced areas of mathematics such as geometry or algebra. For these students, effective accommodations provide necessary support for lower-level maths skills that have not been mastered, such as by providing a table of subtraction and multiplication facts, allowing the use of a calculator, and/or providing additional time in tests and exams.

Self-Advocacy

An integral part of being a parent is advocating for your child’s needs, and parents of students with SLD often need to advocate for their child’s educational needs throughout their schooling. Ultimately though, we want our children to turn into adults who can advocate for themselves. This is particularly true for individuals with SLD who are likely to continue to require accommodations beyond primary and secondary school, in either tertiary or work settings. Therefore, the sooner the self-advocacy skills of students with SLD can be developed, the better.

Both parents and teachers can play a role in promoting self-advocacy skills in students with SLD. For parents the first step is often to help their child understand the nature of their learning difficulties. Following this, both parents and teachers can involve students in selecting and trialling different learning strategies (such as different types of assistive technologies) and support the student to reflect on whether they found the strategy helpful or not.  Parents can role-play with their child how they might request required accommodations at school or in a work setting, and can debrief and trouble-shoot with them afterwards as needed. Teachers can also be receptive to student requests for accommodations, and encourage them to seek assistance when unsure.

Final Thoughts Going Forward

Appropriately supporting students with SLD not only enables them to achieve to their potential, but fosters their belief in their ability to do so. Self-belief is extremely important since research has shown it can impact academic outcomes even after controlling for the influence of intelligence. Thus it is important that the significant adults surrounding these students do not inappropriately lower their expectations, since parental and teacher beliefs can influence self-beliefs.

The following organisations and resources may be of interest to parents and professionals wanting to learn more about how to support students with SLD:

Dr Kate Jacobs (B.A., Post.Grad.Dip.Psych., PhD/M.Psych., MAPS, MCEDP) is an Educational and Developmental Psychologist. In 2013 she was awarded the Mollie Holman Doctoral Medal for the best PhD thesis for the year in the Education Faculty at Monash University. In addition to working as a university lecturer and researcher, Kate is the founder, director and principal psychologist at Raise the Bar Psychology, a psychology clinic based in Moorabbin (with rooms also in Collingwood). Raise the Bar Psychology provides comprehensive psycho-educational assessments for students experiencing learning difficulties; with the goal being to provide individualised and targeted support to enable the student to reach their academic potential. Kate has travelled extensively around Australia presenting professional development workshops to parents, teachers, psychologists and other allied health professionals on identifying and supporting students with learning difficulties.