I have been asked this question often as a Learning Differences World employee. It’s one I am always happy to answer, because of the breadth of the definition of Learning Differences and the meaning of this phrase in particular. For folks who haven’t gotten a chance to talk with Roxanne or Julia or I at events to hear the answer, I think a blog post might be a helpful place to start.
Let's take a moment to consider the person first.
Molly is a 6th grader at a public school in Colorado.* Molly has trouble reading at the same speed as most other kids in her class. She has difficulty learning new vocabulary words and using them in sentences, especially without having a word bank and definitions in front of her. Molly sometimes gets nauseated and edgy at the idea of school. She becomes overwhelmed when there are school events that send everyone to the auditorium for long periods of time, or when there are standardized tests to prepare for. This has caused her to miss school on more than one occasion. In fact, Molly is now falling behind when compared to her peers’ classwork, because of the amount of school she is missing.
In this scenario, Molly could have dyslexia, a learning disability. Dyslexia does much more than make it difficult to read – dyslexia makes it difficult to spell, and when writing, to choose recently learned words. When a child with dyslexia can’t work out how to spell a new vocabulary word, they might decide not to use it. A child with dyslexia may also find it difficult to express themselves.
So Molly has a learning disability – identifying this is the first step to helping Molly learn better in the classroom setting. Molly could also have an anxiety disorder. This anxiety disorder might be situational- it might be connected to the social situations she faces at school. Or it could be a life-long disorder that will require Molly to take medication, receive therapy, and learn coping mechanisms. Here, regardless of the duration and severity, both dyslexia and an anxiety disorder are affecting Molly’s learning.
These are Learning Differences.
We use Learning Differences to catch the kids who fall through the educational cracks. Children who are able to learn but have not yet experienced the right environment, accommodations, or modifications to help them learn successfully. It is unfair to treat a child as though their entire education hinges upon one diagnosis. Diagnoses, for learning disabilities, mental illnesses, or processing disorders for example, are only a starting point for understanding the whole child.
For Molly’s teachers and parents, providing support for her dyslexia is equally as important as providing support for her anxiety. From here, the small village that will raise and educate Molly will have to get to know her, to learn about her strengths, interests, and preferences, in addition to her learning differences, disorders, and disabilities, to do the best they can to help her succeed.
The better we, as individuals and as a community, can understand Learning Differences and the children who live with them, the easier it will be to make learning accessible. We can make education accessible to every child who can learn; we only need to shift our own perceptions and actions. Shifting the system won’t be easy, but it will be worth it.
What are your thoughts?
Which term do you prefer for yourself or your child? What do you think should change first, our language or our system? Comment below or send us an email.
The Advantages of Dyslexia by Matthew H. Schneps. The tagline for this article in Scientific American reads: “With reading difficulties can come other cognitive strengths”
5 Of The Most Helpful Things You Can Say To Someone With Anxiety by Lindsay Holmes
Anxiety Affects Children in Different Ways - An analysis, by Bazian on NHS Choices, of a recent study in the UK, which researched the clinical characteristics of children and adolescents with anxiety disorders.
*This is a scenario and name invented for the purposes of this post. Any resemblance to real persons and events is purely coincidental.