In this blog post, I’m going to reflect on the experiences that I’ve had tutoring students with special needs. I’m going to discuss the challenges that students with special needs face and what strategies were effective in helping them improve and do better in their classes.
Many of the students that I’ve tutored have had a learning disability of some form. Some were formally identified as having a learning disability, while others weren’t but it was apparent that they learned at a slower pace. Learning disabilities are very common. It is estimated that 1 out of every 5 students has a condition that impedes their ability to learn. What are some signs that a student might have a learning difficulty or disorder? The three most common learning disorders are dyslexia (trouble reading), dyscalculia (trouble working with numbers), and dysgraphia (trouble writing). I’ve also found that some students with learning disabilities have trouble focusing and staying organized. A learning disorder often results in slower processing of incoming information, and in a delay when trying to express ideas and give clear explanations.
Many students with learning disabilities learn to accept their limitations and are still able to do well in school and be successful, if the right supports are put in place. It is especially important for a student to get assessed before starting high school, so that accommodations can be implemented. Otherwise, a student with a learning disability would be at a disadvantage since a mainstream classroom without accommodations would not be an ideal learning environment for him or her. Universities also offer accommodations to students with special needs but only if they have been formally assessed and had an individual education plan (IEP) in high school. A student with a learning disorder is given more time to write an exam and can write it in a less distracting environment.
I urge students that are not doing well in school to find their preferred learning style. Not everyone learns well from listening to a teacher talk while copying notes off a board or screen. I know that I didn’t when I was in school. I learned very little during class and would learn a lot more by reading the textbook and trying to answer questions. It’s not easy to focus in a classroom full of people and that’s why most students need to spend time to learn the material on their own in a place free of distractions. Doing this is especially important for students that have a learning impairment.
When working with students with learning disabilities, I’ve found that chunking information improved student understanding. Chunking involves breaking concepts down into manageable bits. I have also found that providing students with a problem-solving framework was also very beneficial to them. Some students don’t know where to begin when trying to solve a problem. Sharing strategies with students for approaching and solving word problems gave them confidence in being able to tackle problems without feeling overwhelmed by all the information in the question. I would tell my students to read the question more than once in order to maximize comprehension. I would also recommend for them to underline or highlight key pieces of information. The next step would be for them to write out the givens and the unknowns. I would also encourage students to draw a diagram of the situation in the question. After that they would need to start thinking of what formulas they could use to find the unknowns.
When tutoring students with special needs, I’ve found that it is especially important to frequently check for understanding. Students would often say that they understood something even though they didn’t, so I had to probe for understanding by asking questions. Most of my explanations needed to be supported with visuals; purely auditory explanations were ineffective. Explanations had to be brief to not lose the student’s attention. The student had to be continually engaged in solving problems and answering questions. Repetition was often crucial for a student to retain knowledge or a skill. Drilling, a learning technique that is looked down upon because it appears archaic, was oftentimes effective in improving mastery of a skill. Redirecting a student’s focus on the task at hand was necessary for those students whose attention would drift easily. I would also encourage students to take their time when trying to solve a problem and to not give up hastily. Students that have done poorly in a class often lack confidence and doubt that they are capable of doing well. It’s important to build up their confidence by showing them that they are capable of solving problems and answering questions correctly.
Students with special needs can be as successful in school as students that don’t have learning difficulties, but only if they put in a sustained effort and out work their classmates. It’s important for them to try not to compare themselves to other students. They need to go at their own pace even if it means that they would need to study a lot more than the average student to get similar results. A strong work ethic pays off in the end. In the end, it comes down to what an individual really wants to achieve and be in this life. A learning disorder is not something that can hold back an individual that is strongly motivated to reach his or her goals.