Strategies for Learning Difficulties

The word skills and bunting against student holding bookLearning difficulties come in many forms. Some students struggle with reading and writing while others have difficulty with math concepts and numerical operations. Still other students may suffer from attention issues, auditory processing, and numerous other educational impacting difficulties. Although the following strategies are identified for specific diagnosed learning difficulties, any student can implement them to help overcome struggles they may have.

ADHD – I can’t stay focused!

Attention Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) can make paying attention in class and sitting for long periods to do homework very difficult. Students diagnosed with ADHD will benefit from breaking large assignments into smaller pieces that they can focus on for shorter periods. For example, a student may have a 5-page essay to write. Rather than think of the essay in terms of number of pages, the student should identify manageable steps and approach each one as an assignment. Once a step is completed, the student can take a break and let the brain reset before moving on to the next.

In the example of an essay, Step 1 would be to brainstorm for ideas. Step 2 would be to create a thesis statement. Step 3 would be to write topic sentences. Step 4 would be to fill in an outline for the body paragraphs. Step 5 would be to write each body paragraph separately. Step 6 would be to write the conclusion. Step 7 would be to re-read the entire essay, making grammatical and content edits. Breaking assignments into manageable pieces rather than approaching the entire assignment as one project will allow students to maximize their attention spans and keep them from feeling overwhelmed.

Dyslexia – I can’t understand anything I read!

For some students diagnosed with dyslexia, reading individual words can be an enormous task. For these students I suggest getting books in audio format (MP3). Most textbooks now offer a convenient way to download audio files, and pretty much all classic works are in audio format, often times for free. These students should listen to the books on headphones while following along with the text. Any time they find themselves getting lost in the words, they should stop reading and take a break.

For those students who experience more of a reading comprehension obstacle, frequent breaks to self-assess their comprehension can help. Students should stop at the end of every few pages and ask themselves if they can identify the main idea of what they just read. If so, keep going. If not, go back and scan (not re-read entirely) the information they just glossed over. The brain retains more information than we realize, so re-reading word-for-word is not necessary. Reviewing chapter titles, headings and subheadings will also help students identify important information.

Dysgraphia – It takes me forever to write an essay!

Dysgraphia presents itself in two main forms. For some students, the actual act of handwriting can be arduous. These students typically have trouble writing legibly, experience hand discomfort, and ultimately cannot keep up with writing assignments. I recommend that students who suffer from dysgraphia explore the use of computers for writing. Although handwriting a necessary skill that needs development, for the sake of writing-intensive assignments, the use of a computer can save time and allow students to focus on the more important aspects of an assignment.

For other students, dysgraphia affects their ability to put their ideas into writing. I’ve worked with numerous students who have incredible ideas and creativity but simply cannot verbalize their thoughts. For these students I suggest a thorough brainstorming session before beginning an essay or project. Brainstorming may be difficult, but getting even fragments of ideas out and recorded will allow students to come back and piece them together. Once the main idea is pieced together, then elaborating will be much easier. Helping students talk through their thoughts by using creative prompts will help them as well.

Math disorder – I’m terrible at math!

Many people like to say that they are terrible at math. The truth is they aren’t. Numbers and math can be difficult, but for the most part, math is very logical and follows unbreakable rules. The most common problem I see with students who struggle with math is that they work too quickly, do too much work in their heads, and fail to double check their work. The best thing students who struggle with math can do is slow down and take their time. In fact many schools will provide students with extended time on exams if they have a diagnosed learning difficulty in math. I encourage these students to use this time to their advantage.

Under no circumstances should students who struggles in math try to do it in their heads. It’s amazing how easily we can make simple mistakes because we don’t write down our work. Even if it is as simple as 6×7, students should write it down. The brain can only do so many things at once, and trying to remember 6×7=42 while they are also trying to work on the next step increases their chance of making a mistake. Writing down work will also let students go back and figure out where a mistake was made if they discover the final answer is incorrect.

Auditory processing – I can’t understand what the teacher is saying!

ADHD and auditory processing go hand-in-hand. However, many students who are not diagnosed with ADHD struggle to understand lectures in class. For students who struggle with auditory processing, paying attention to the teacher is hard enough without having to worry about taking notes. Taking notes while listening to the teacher often causes the student to miss important points or become too fixated on writing everything down. I suggest that these students request a copy of notes either from a friend who takes good notes or directly from the teacher. Students can then focus on listening to the teacher and simply add a few details to the notes they already have.

Alternatively, students can ask their teachers permission to audio record the lecture. There are various digital devices that make recording both discreet and effective. If the student has a recording, then listening to the lecture during class takes a backseat to note-taking. Students now have the luxury of taking notes in class and filling in the gaps later by listening to the recording. This approach tends to work well with students who are already effective note-takers but struggle to keep up with the auditory information.

Learning difficulties provide obstacles for many students. However, our brains are wired to adapt. By working on these skills any student can increase his or her ability to succeed in the classroom.