If there is one sure thing in the world of education, it’s that one size does NOT fit all.
Long gone are the days when students gathered in classrooms, sat at desks and listened to lessons all day long. If they couldn’t sit still, they were punished. If they were unable to learn, they stayed back a grade to try again.
Interventions to support unique learners are numerous and growing by the year. Speech and language therapy, occupational therapy, extra reading instruction, resource rooms, special education… All are designed to address certain needs, but the perspective with which these specialists approach their students can make all the difference.
“Once I realized that my job wasn’t to magically make a child catch up to a certain point or make them fit into a certain box, I was able to be a better teacher,” says Maria Witt, a special educator at Miriam School.
Maria is referring to the shift in mindset over the years among special educators. As teachers have recognized that students’ learning differences are simply a part of who they are, not a broken element that needs to be fixed, they have begun to meet children where they are and support them as they learn how to learn in their own ways.
This approach is strength-based, not focused solely on a student’s perceived shortcomings. Maria says, “I’ve learned through trial and error that a huge part of being an educator is to help students be more authentically themselves and to give them supports and tools to succeed in their individual ways.”
The shift is huge when it comes to both academics and self-esteem. When a child is told repeatedly that what they are doing is “wrong,” not only will it squash their desire to learn and try – but it will lead to a negative self-image, believing that they are not as good as their peers.
Students with learning disabilities are not able to learn in the same way as their peers. They need to learn strategies that will help them in class. Students with ADHD are unable to sit and focus through the entire school day. To be punished for this only perpetuates the challenge. Students with a language disorder might not be able to verbalize what they know, or they may not understand the words others are speaking, regardless of intelligence level.
Special educators like Maria tailor their curriculum to reach each child. “I like to focus on multi-sensory learning when teaching with different needs in the class,” Maria says. She can teach in a hands-on style for one student, while another may benefit more from modeling.
“I don’t do every different style for every new topic, but I try to switch it up,” Maria says. “I also teach in small groups frequently and have chosen the groupings based on each student’s needs, so I can really focus on a specific learning style.”
She also pays attention to curriculum outside of a student’s challenge area. For instance, some kids may be working on grade level in math, but their reading challenges make it difficult to access the curriculum. In this case, Maria records herself reading the lesson and math problems, so her students are able to complete their work and continue to stay on track.
Speech and occupational therapies and a sensory diet also help students regulate their bodies and emotions, so they are ready to learn. This is known as reaching the whole child – addressing these sensory and speech needs, along with meeting the student where they are, tailoring curriculum and emphasizing their strengths all work together to help each individual student reach their full potential.
“Learning shouldn’t be stressful,” Maria says. “Students aren’t going to learn the same way at the same time. My job is to figure out what makes them tick and build a relationship on that, so we can work through the harder stuff.”
She concludes, “I think, for educators, the shift from a mindset of ‘fixing’ a student to that of helping each student succeed in their own way comes from experience and from working with students of all abilities. Every year, I get new students who teach me so much.”