Recently, I met a teacher friend for brunch. As we were chatting about school and life, she started to speak about IEPs (Individual Education Plans). Our Board’s IEP process has changed this year, and many modified IEPs have become accommodated ones. As a kindergarten educator with a Program Document that gives us permission to go back into the ELECT Document if needed, I really like these changes and the focus on how to get all students to meet expectations and succeed. One comment that came out of our brunch-time conversation was, “What is going to happen when these students grow up and get jobs? Nobody will change the expectations for them then.” This had me reflecting on my own experience growing up with a non-verbal learning disability. This learning disability hasn’t disappeared as an adult, but it also hasn’t stopped me in meeting my professional goals. What made this possible?
I first have to thank my parents for teaching me, even at a young age, to self-advocate. My parents were both in education — one as a teacher and one as a Speech and Language Pathologist — and when I was first identified with a non-verbal learning disability back in Grade 2, they made sure that I understood what I needed to succeed.
- They had me attend my IPRC each year, and as I got older, I often attended without my parents.
- They were also metacognitive in their approach. When my step-dad showed me ways to read maps by memorizing the order of countries — something I could do with strong memory skills — he talked me through why this approach worked. This allowed me to later apply this same approach without his support and to show teachers what I could do when it came to mapping.
- They got me to talk to my teachers about what I needed and why. This didn’t mean that they didn’t sit in on meetings with teachers, especially when I was younger, but they involved me in the conversation with the use of question prompts and the sharing of ideas. This allowed me to ask for what I needed, be it a diagram in a math class so that I could apply the formula, the use of a computer to write exams due to a familiar tremor, or additional time to finish tests and exams due to slower written output (especially if a computer was not available).
- When I was about to head off to university, and I knew that I needed an updated Psychological Assessment to receive the same accommodations there as I did in high school, they encouraged me to write a note asking for this assessment. I entered into conversations with the resource teacher and the principal about this need and why it was important. Yes, I could talk to my parents about what I had to do and why, but they encouraged me to own this process. It really helped me reflect on my needs, but also on what made success possible.
I also learned that having a learning disability did not mean that I was less capable or unable to meet my goals. Thanks to both my parents and my learning resource teacher, I learned that to be identified with a learning disability, you needed to be of “average to above average intelligence.” This is a point that I’ve returned to often even in conversations with colleagues. The identification comes because of a gap between verbal and non-verbal skills. With this in mind, the key for me, and I think for other students, is to use your strengths to overcome your weaknesses. Growing up, this meant choosing to convey my understanding of ideas in writing or orally, instead of through drawings or labelled diagrams. Later on, this included choosing courses (particularly in high school and university) that allowed me to capitalize on my strengths, such as taking more language, sociology, and history classes instead of geography ones, and choosing math classes that were not based fully on geometry.
I did not hide my learning disability. I worry that learning disabilities are things that we can become ashamed of or that we need to deny because they can make us seem less capable. If we want students to have some control over the accommodations that they need and apply them without always needing teacher support, then we can’t be afraid to be different. Yes, when I grew up, this meant often writing tests and exams in alternative learning spaces or on a device instead of by hand. As an adult, this means sometimes going to a meeting with only a computer and an iPad instead of a pencil or pen. Neither of these accommodations limited my ability to meet expectations, and nor did they impact on others’ abilities to do the same … even if in different ways.
As an adult now, and an educator, I know my limits and I know what works for me. I’ve taught every grade from kindergarten to Grade 6 in some capacity, and nobody has expected less from me because of a learning disability. That said, I apply accommodations all the time.
Before teaching geometry in Grades 5 and 6, I experimented with my step-dad on the concepts and how I could understand them. I took apart cereal and cracker boxes to understand nets, and I brought some in to support students that struggled as I did. I made sugar cube towers to help see what different sides of three-dimensional buildings would look like, and I helped kids build these same towers in the classroom when they needed to.
I connected with other educators to help read and create maps before exploring them with my students. Over the years, Google Earth changed things for me, as I could explore maps in a 3-D perspective and go on walking tours that helped me understand directions more. Google Maps also provides typed directions, which I could then compare to a map, to better understand what left and right looks like on a 2-D drawing.
I learned to appreciate the value of YouTube, Pinterest, and Google Images. Yes, Paula and I love to examine artists and artistic techniques with our students, but my drawing skills are limited. There are amazing videos and photographs that can act as provocations for kids. I can also use these guides to draw alongside students and meet with more success than I could without that support.
I ask for help. I’ve learned that colleagues can read the maps that I can’t, and if I’m still unsure, I can always send off an email to principals and double check. I’ve often had to do this once a year with the big questions of, “Where is our cohort zone? Can you give me a landmark instead of a visual? And where exactly is the room that we’ll be in, as the map has me lost?” I also realize my limitations, so I get students to help if needed. Right now, Paula and I do this with our fire drill book, as it’s so easy to forget the book inside each day, and you never know when a fire drill might happen. Paper overwhelms me, and I try to limit it, as organization of paper materials is not my strong suit. We have a student though, who always checks the white bucket on the desk for the fire drill books and brings it outside each day. She remembers to bring it back in as well if we don’t. A little help from a five-year old can go a long way.
I digitize as much as possible. Paper becomes an organizational nightmare for me, but with an iPad, I can keep most things electronically. I can also take pictures of paper items, which allows me to organize them digitally. This helps reduce my fear of losing that piece of really important paper, which I’m almost certain to lose.
I try to prepare ahead for social interactions and conversations. I know that I’m more likely to cry than some other people, especially in more emotionally-charged or stressful conversations. Sometimes writing down beforehand what I’m going to say or practising with a friend first, can make a difference. I’ve also learned to not let tears stop me, even though I wish that they wouldn’t always come.
I plan ahead. Paula and I do this all the time with our daybook plans. We plan together after school, and I find the links at night to help with provocations the next day. This doesn’t mean that plans don’t change, but being organized in this way reduces a lot of stress. Working through changes in schedule ahead of time also helps, as then we can anticipate problems and solve them before they happen. This doesn’t mean that there are never surprises, but this limits many of them.
I get to school early. Not only does this help with the planning and organization pieces shared above, but this helps me with parking … particularly in the winter time. Some people with non-verbal learning disabilities cannot drive due to their visual spatial skills. I’ve learned strategies that work for me — like lines on the road and predictable routes — but the lack of lines in the parking lot in the wintertime is a huge stress for me. If I arrive early, I can park next to the large structure in the lot. This helps reduce the problem of not knowing where the lines might be. If this doesn’t work, I use a little humour to soften the blow of possibly taking up multiple spots.
As we work through this new IEP process, I wonder if we could also consider this a call to look more closely at independence and self-advocacy. What might this look like for kids? A child in our class unexpectedly reminded me of this the other day. We have a visual schedule that we use for all students to help understand the routine of the day and reduce the stress with changes in routine. In addition to this, we also have an independent visual schedule for one child. When this student came into class, he accidentally placed his backpack on top of his schedule. I didn’t think anything of this until he said to me, “Can I see my schedule?” We then moved the backpack, and there it was. This is a kindergartener speaking up for what he needs. The beginning of self-advocacy and maybe a reminder for all of us of what is possible. Identifications do not need to limit options, but as we work through accommodations for kids, how are we also supporting them in gradually playing a more active role in this accommodating? I’m grateful for parents and educators that made this possible for me, and it’s what I hope is possible for all students.