First Person

A Simple but Powerful Way to Destigmatize Learning Differences

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Learning disabilities impact all of our classes. Identified or not, they erode our students’ sense of potential and are the root of hidden shame and anxiety. Obviously, identifying student-learning issues can allow us to address their challenges with specific accommodations and interventions.

However, what is most troubling is that many students wrongly confuse their mechanical skill struggles (spelling, handwriting, reading, rapid memory, and so on) with intellectual ones—or at least worry that others will. No wonder many struggling students spend most of their day hiding their learning challenges from their teachers and their classmates. They fear that an admission of their use of audiobooks or their struggles with spelling or pronouncing common words will signal that they are stupid.

My colleagues and I recently organized a panel on learning differences with the purpose of demystifying and destigmatizing learning struggles. We wanted to invite our silent strugglers out of the shadows so they could wear headphones to read without embarrassment, or speak into a Chromebook to type without worrying what their classmates might think of them. Hoping to leverage the power of peer influence, we invited a group of 8th graders with learning challenges to share their experiences and advice with our 5th graders, intentionally selecting students who are confident self-advocates and use accommodations effectively.

We anticipated that it would be a helpful discussion, but it was immediately obvious from the silence and body language in the room that this was a long overdue conversation. We watched in awe as the same three classes that commonly fidget, squiggle, and squirm when we bring them together for other class meetings sat in rapt attention as they earnestly listened to their older schoolmates share their embarrassing stories, triumphs, strategies, and tips for navigating school with learning disabilities. Their learning journeys collectively communicated that, with extra effort and thoughtful strategies, students with learning challenges can survive school and in fact thrive. It was clear that this was a message that the younger students were quietly craving.

A 'Healing Day'

The beginning of the gathering was presented interview-style, with a teacher as moderator, using a set of questions that the 8th grade panelists had reviewed in advance. We wanted the panel to feel safe and also assure that the students addressed certain key issues (i.e., strategies for managing workload, the importance of self-advocacy, and the potential embarrassment associated with using special supports in front of their peers).

About halfway through the discussion, we opened it up to student questions. By then, the 8th graders had done such an effective job at engaging the younger students that the volume of student questions exceeded our allotted time. Nonetheless, we just kept going, the momentum of the meeting leading us to forget the clock.

The first 5th grader to raise his hand caught everyone off-guard when he asked the panelists, “I just found out that I have dyslexia. What would you recommend to help me besides audiobooks and a tutor?” His brave comment established a tone of safety and was followed an avalanche of student “confessions.” We heard from students with ADD and ADHD who asked for strategies to help manage their attention. Some said things like, “I take medication for my attention but I do not think it helps very much. What do you do?” Others, without learning issues, shared their revelations as well: “I didn’t know that dyslexia was so common until today.” The 5th grade teachers seized the opportunity to remind students that we cannot help them unless they alert us to their challenges, assuring them that there are many ways we can make school less stressful if they just talk to us.

Ultimately, no one could question the impact or importance of the panel. In fact, several students may mark it as one of their most important days of school ... ever. Reflecting on the panel later in the day, a student who had recently been diagnosed with dyslexia announced to his classmates, “I am very grateful for the 8th graders who shared. I had planned to keep my dyslexia secret all year.”

And he was not alone. One of my colleagues described it a “healing day” for her class. The other 5th grade teacher felt compelled to write a personal note to all the student panelists thanking them for making her job easier. The panelists reported they loved the experience and some asked if they could do it again. After hearing the buzz about the panel, a 4th grade teacher suggested we organize a similar panel for younger students. Finally, as if to offer up concrete proof of the panel’s impact, one student found me before school the next day to explain that she may need some extra time to finish assessments. She said she usually feels that she understands the material—but only if she reads everything slowly and carefully.

Who knew so much suppressed shame and worry could be diminished in one gathering? If one morning panel could invite our struggling students out of hiding and encourage them to dream big, I suggest that other schools might give something similar a try.

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