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Understanding Differences and Exceptionalities

Imagine being told to tie your shoelaces while wearing oven mitts. How about trying to understand someone speaking to you in a language that you do not speak? Imagine trying to hear a song while wearing noise-cancelling headphones. 

While this may all sound like a round of the game “Minute to Win It”, learning feels just like this for some of our students. 

Understanding that the whole child is made up of differences and unique and individual learning styles, can dramatically impact the way we plan, teach and support each student. 

My personal quest in trying to understand the uniqueness of each of my students began when I worked as a behavioural therapist for children with autism. I then spent time teaching classes across the elementary grades and circled my way back to the Resource Department. Using the skills and strategies I had developed and embraced, I was able to reflect on my teaching pedagogy and practice. I took time to refocus my approach, looking at each individual scenario and child, so that I could implement the accommodations best suited — not just for the child, but for that specific situation. 

I started to notice the trends in the level and types of support that students required. I realized that it was not just about being reactive, but that I needed to take a proactive approach to the way I presented specific tasks to my students. I began to ask myself and my colleagues, what was the reason behind particular behaviours? What was happening before the breakdowns, the confusion, and the loss of attention? 

As I started learning the answers to these questions, I experienced some “aha moments” that guided me in helping my students in a more meaningful way.

The process of understanding a child’s learning profile is just that — a process. As we learn from poet, educator and author, Robert Jon Meehan, “Every child has a different learning style and pace. Each child is unique, not only capable of learning but also capable of succeeding.” 

When a child is identified as having learning differences, we often try and “fix” what we believe to be a weakness, and, in the process we can lose sight of the amazing and positive qualities that make up the whole child. By differences, I am referring to their learning styles, their strengths and weaknesses, and the things they can do easily and not as easily. 

In the midst of a child’s challenges, it is so easy to lose sight of the  things they enjoy and are able to do effectively. What is important is that we embrace their differences and celebrate them. Focusing on their strengths allows a child to develop a positive self-identity and define themselves by their “can do’s” rather than those things that may hold them back. When they believe that they “can,” it nurtures their willingness to “try” and also cultivates a positive belief in their own success.

To help our children both learn and succeed, we should look for useful supports. In my experience, strong partnerships between parents and teachers can best facilitate a child’s positive self-esteem and development. Working collaboratively enables parents to align the supports their child needs and sets them up for success. It is critical for parents to open a conversation with their child’s support staff about all aspects of their child’s learning; this means sharing assessment results and intervention summaries, describing their child’s strengths and talents as well as situations that may induce stress or frustration. 

As parents, educators and support staff, how do we provide opportunities for our students and children to focus on their strengths and interests? How do we help foster confidence, independence and success no matter the challenges they face? While there is no magic or simple answer, you may want to consider the following tips:

  1. Listen to your child’s interests, ask them and give them options.
  2. Monitor their successes and stay calm and positive when things don’t pan out.
  3. Encourage a second attempt, take a break (meditate, breath, count to 10) and give it another go.
  4. Keep a list of what they enjoyed and what they didn’t, what worked and what didn’t work as well.
  5. Find extracurricular activities, resources (books, websites, speakers) that appeal to your child and their interests.
  6. Engage in these experiences together. Even if knitting isn’t your first choice of a leisurely past-time, join in with your child and participate enthusiastically, even if it takes some deep breaths and self-talk to stay engaged! 

Practitioners suggest that diverse learning styles and exceptionalities are developed as an outcome of many factors including genetics, experience and the environment. 

As parents and educators, we must acknowledge that effective instruction and support is unique to each individual learning profile. The way children think, learn and function will depend on how they interpret and engage with instruction and material. Regardless of the qualities, skills and abilities that make up a whole child, what is important to take away is that every child can grow, every child can learn and every child can engage in meaningful, purposeful and authentic learning experiences — if we commit to understanding how they learn. 

Ariella Shachar

Vice Principal, Himel West