The importance of educating teachers on learning disabilities – Swati Malik

The importance of educating teachers on learning disabilities

Ms. Swati Malik, Head Mistress, St. Lawrence Public School, Delhi

It was merely a decade ago, that the term ‘Learning Disability’ came to light in the Indian education society. What exactly is a learning disability?

A learning disability (or “LD”) is a neurological condition in which the brain’s capacity to send, receive, and process information is affected. A child with a Learning disability may have difficulties in writing, reading, listening, and understanding mathematical and even general concepts. The most common learning disabilities, that most of us have heard about, include dyscalculia (mathematical disability), dysgraphia (writing disability) and dyslexia (reading disorder).

Learning disabilities are not caused by any physical, mental and economic condition, or cultural background. Neither do they indicate that the child is in any way weak or lazy. In fact, children with learning disabilities are of average or above average intelligence. There often appears to be a gap between the individual’s potential and actual achievement. This is why learning disabilities are referred to as “hidden disabilities”. The child may look like any other child without learning disability and may even seem to be very bright and intelligent, yet may be unable to demonstrate the skill level expected from someone of a similar age. If their disability is dealt within an appropriate way, they can achieve all that they are capable of.

Teachers, second only to parents, are the single most influential agents of change in a child’s life. Hence, they definitely need special training about how to help these kind of pupils, who are intelligent, but don´t learn in accordance with their intellectual coefficient. Most teachers have, of course, seen such students in the classroom, but unfortunately only a small number understand how serious this matter is, and know how to deal with it.

Schools, and more specifically educators, have an important role to play in identifying individuals with learning disabilities. Having a child with a learning disability in the classroom can make even a qualified teacher seem inadequate, and leave the children with learning disability and their parents feeling bewildered, frustrated, overwhelmed, helpless and angry. Hence, it is the need of the hour to expand awareness, and sensitise our teachers about identification of these children and ways of dealing with them. Currently, however, not much attention has been paid to whether general education teachers are being prepared to address the needs of such students with Learning Disabilities. For teachers to be ‘classroom ready’ on day one, general education teachers, too, need to be prepared to shift and align instructional practices and content delivery methods to meet the needs of each student. The most effective way to do this is empowering teachers to identify early warning signs.

Identifying a learning disability is a complex process. The first step is to rule out vision, hearing, and developmental issues that can overshadow the underlying learning disability. Once these are ruled out, a learning disability is identified using psychological assessment, which includes academic achievement testing along with measuring the child’s intellectual capability. These steps help determine if there is any significant variance between a child’s potential and capability and the child’s actual academic performance.

Once the identification is done, there are various strategies that can be used to teach students with learning disabilities. Teachers can teach them to “learn how to learn.” The various steps taken by teachers can include breaking learning into small steps, providing or imparting regular, quality feedback, using diagrams, graphics and pictures to augment what they say in words and providing ample independent, well-designed intensive practice. Teachers can model instructional practices that they want students to follow; and engage students in questions like– ‘How the strategy is working’ and ‘Where else can they apply it’. Success for the student with learning disabilities requires a focus on individual achievement, individual progress, and individual learning. This requires specific, directed, individualized, intensive remedial instruction for students who are struggling.

Whether the student is in the general education classroom or learning in a special class setting, focus the activities on assessing individual students’ potential and monitor their progress through the curriculum. Concerns for the individual must take precedence over concerns for the group or for the curriculum or for the organization and management of the general education classroom content.

All teachers cannot be trained to cater to the needs of such students. However, they need to be made aware of the basics and trained in the steps to follow after early identification. The first step is to inform the school’s counsellor, as well as the child’s parents. The parents can be guided to an educational clinic, a learning support centre, or a qualified private practitioner, such as an educational or clinical psychologist. Further, all teachers must be given considerable support such as information on the nature of children’s problems, the types of classroom intervention strategies available and training to develop individualized programs and support from educational authorities in terms of time, physical resources and human resources.

While children with learning disabilities have difficulties in some areas of learning, they also have great aptitude, skill and talent in other areas of their interest. Most often, we focus on the disorder and neglect the child’s talents or skills. The child should not be defined by their learning disability. Therefore, it is important that parents and teachers recognize this hidden potential and encourage the child to pursue them.

Thus, it has now become imperative that all educationists and teachers are trained and sensitised to work with such diverse needs of the students. For this, the school leadership must recognize and provide a platform for proper training and awareness of the teachers. The success of these students with learning disabilities rests on well-prepared, and effective teachers.

However, even today stigma and misconceptions around learning disability continue to be the most obstinate obstructions in overcoming this issue. Learning disability is a lifelong disability only if teachers fail to identify and remediate. If it is left unaddressed, we are risking the lives of these children, who will be burdened with low self-esteem, and low expectation; which weaken their chances to pursue their dreams. Thus, trained, aware and well informed educators are the biggest hope which these special children deserve and it is imperative that we as a community recognise this need and act on it asap.

Swati Malik graduated from Hansraj College, Delhi university and completed her Masters in Business Administration from the prestigious Warwick Business School, UK. She completed her second masters in English, and also completed B.Ed to be a teacher. At a young age she has gained all this knowledge and has even greater ambitions to apply them to the education sector. She has been heading the junior classes at St. Lawrence Public school, Delhi. She focuses on the language and speaking skills of the young learners. She has organised various seminars and workshops in the school for continuous professional development of the teachers. 
With a focus on personal growth and development, she wishes to help all her students in achieving their highest potentials and tapping into all talents from their early ages.