Friday, October 28, 2011

Lessons Learned About School

This column first appeared in the Fall 2011 Newsletter of the Spina Bifida Association of Iowa.

Just as a child’s physical needs change from year to year, so does his or her academic needs. The school year brings ongoing opportunities for parents to learn how to academically support their children. Stross is now 20 years old and taking one to two classes a semester at a local college. After two decades of learning – his and mine – I continue to value this advice:

1 – Address physical needs separate from academic ones. Sometimes teachers and parents – out of eagerness to accommodate a learning obstacle – fail to fully break down an academic issue into physical and academic components. In first grade, Stross began arriving late to his classroom after lunch. The teacher, believing his trek to the cafeteria using his walker was too taxing, allowed him more time. Stross continued to be late. My diagnosis: He was enjoying his time at lunch more than the lessons that followed it. Once we addressed the academic issues and provided a learning incentive, he made it back on time, walking – and learning – on pace with his peers.

2 – Break through teacher barriers. Teachers may have preconceived ideas about what it will be like to have your child in his or her classroom. They may also have used methods and accommodations with other students that they assume will work equally well with your child. Each child has a unique learning profile. That remains true for children with special needs. For our family, that once meant constant, polite reminders that our son with spina bifida (and an assortment of learning disabilities) was different than the boy with cerebral palsy (and his own set of learning issues) that she taught the previous year. Communication is a must. Talk regularly with teachers about your child’s interests, and share stories about ways that he or she learns best at home.

3 – Keep using methods that work. Proven learning methods or tools keep working, but you may need to help teachers adapt ones that you know work well. For instance, Stross played a stellar game of Barney Concentration as a preschooler. I helped his middle school science teacher (and his paraprofessional) see how helpful that skill was when learning the names of elements on the periodical table. One weekend of Chemical Elements Concentration helped him earn a perfect score on his test that Monday.

4 – Support social aspects of learning. Children with special needs must reintroduce themselves to their classmates year after year. Because their uncommon life circumstances fall outside “the norm,” they need to help friends understand how the changes that they are experiencing differ. You may need to encourage your child to have conversations with their friends about uncomfortable topics and even practice conversations about things such as why they need to use a bathroom on a regular schedule.

5 – Enjoy each year. Your child – and you – build on accomplishments from one year to the next. Your child’s ability to be successful in the future is tied to the successes he or she experiences now. Enjoy what you are learning, individually, and together. The future is yours to create.

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