Supporting Students Who Learn Differently
Principals and school leaders play a critical role in setting high expectations, fostering an inclusive climate, and supporting educators. And for the 1 in 5 students who have learning and attention issues—those with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), specific learning disabilities such as dyslexia, or related conditions that impact learning—the role of school leaders becomes even more essential to their success.
In the United States, individuals with learning and attention issues often face lifelong challenges, frustration, and failure. Compared to their peers, they are less likely to graduate from high school, enroll in and complete college, and hold a job. Despite often having average or above-average intelligence, most of them are achieving below grade level—their strengths and potential are going untapped.
The National Center for Learning Disabilities (NCLD) and Understood.org—two organizations whose missions are to empower educators and families of children who struggle with learning and attention issues—set out to better understand the experience of educators in the classroom. By doing so, they hope to chart a path forward that will allow everyone in the education system to help the 1 in 5 students with learning and attention issues succeed. In May 2019, NCLD and Understood.org published a groundbreaking study, Forward Together: Helping Educators Unlock the Power of Students Who Learn Differently. It examines the state of K–12 general education classrooms for students with learning and attention issues and highlights implications and considerations for practitioners and policymakers.
The Problem Schools Are Facing
In today’s public schools, most students with learning and attention issues spend the majority of their time in general education classrooms. While that’s good news for students, general education teachers often feel unprepared to meet these students’ needs, leaving them systemically disadvantaged by the K–12 system. Often, their outcomes consistently lag behind. For example, one-third of these students are held back. They’re twice as likely as their peers to be suspended, and three times more likely to drop out of school. These inequities in K–12 programming reverberate throughout students’ lives. Only 41 percent who attend college complete it; 50 percent end up unemployed. We can and must serve these students better. And our research shows that teachers agree.
What Teachers Reported
In 13 focus groups and a nationally representative survey of 1,350 public and charter school educators, teachers reported feeling underprepared to serve students with learning disabilities in general education settings. But they want to improve their skills and knowledge.
- Many teachers are concerned about their level of preparedness for teaching the 1 in 5 students with attention or learning difficulties. Only 17 percent of teachers surveyed felt adequately prepared to teach students with mild to moderate learning disabilities. Few teachers said they believed that any of their coursework for those students was beneficial or still relevant to their current practice. Teachers say they learned to teach these students through “on-the-job training” and “trial-and-error learning.”
- Teachers’ understanding of these 1 in 5 learners is incomplete—some hold on to misunderstandings that have been debunked by research. Given the little preparation they’ve received in this area, it’s not surprising that some general educators seem unaware of scientific findings showing that learning disabilities and ADHD are based on differences in brain structure and function:
- 1 in 3 teachers view a student’s learning or attention issues as laziness.
- 1 in 4 teachers believe these issues can be outgrown.
- 1 in 4 teachers believe ADD/ADHD is a result of bad parenting.
- Many teachers feel overwhelmed and unsupported in teaching students who struggle with learning and attention issues—but they are interested in improving their practice. Only 30 percent of teachers surveyed felt strongly that, when they tried their best, they could be successful with students with attention or learning disabilities. Teachers find students with behavior challenges the most difficult to teach—and they believe they need to improve their own classroom management skills.
- Teachers’ beliefs vary about inclusion and what students with attention and learning difficulties can achieve. Only 50 percent of surveyed teachers felt strongly that students with attention and learning difficulties could achieve grade-level standards. Even though federal law mandates inclusion for students with disabilities, teachers differed in their mindsets about the benefits and challenges of inclusion. Teachers also noted that accommodations, IEPs, and 504 plans can be challenging. Only 56 percent of teachers surveyed said they believed that IEPs help students; 38 percent said they believed that IEPs helped them to be better teachers.
The more experience educators have in teaching students with learning and attention issues—or, more importantly, the more they believe in their own abilities to be effective—the stronger their mindset toward inclusion. Teachers report wanting to develop their practice around meeting the needs of these students. They want support from school leadership around preparation, resources, and professional learning. Research reveals a blueprint for the changes that educators, school leaders, district/network leaders, families, preparation programs, and policymakers can make together.
A Way Forward
NCLD and Understood.org identified three critical mindsets and eight key practices (www.ncld.org/forwardtogetherkeyfindings) that general educators can implement to change the trajectory for the 1 in 5 students with learning and attention difficulties—with evidence that these practices can also improve achievement for all students in inclusion settings. Employ these action steps to help implement effective mindsets and practices to better serve your students:
Set expectations and supports for inclusive classrooms schoolwide.
- Increase your knowledge on learning and attention issues. Understood.org offers an “Experience It” simulation to help educators see firsthand what it feels like to struggle with learning and attention issues. Share these with your team as a reflection activity.
- Prioritize schoolwide implementation of critical practices:
- Start with Universal Design for Learning—a framework to improve and optimize teaching and learning for all people, based on scientific insights into how humans learn, that helps teachers remove barriers to learning.
- Incorporate essential practices and teaching strategies in reading and math instruction.
- Agree on ways to build cognitive and metacognitive learning strategies schoolwide.
- Embed expectations and professional learning into your systems (e.g., faculty and department meetings, classroom walk-throughs, teacher feedback, and evaluations).
- In hiring, look for teacher candidates to show evidence of critical mindsets and essential practices.
Build systems for an inclusive school.
- Implement multitiered systems of support (MTSS) with faculty training.
- Identify and train in-school champions who are implementing these practices well to lead collaboration, coach, model, and provide resources.
- Rethink your school schedule to facilitate collaboration among teachers and within teacher/family partnerships—and to ensure strategic ways to group/regroup students.
- Find tools at Understood.org for building partnerships with families, and connect families with resources that will empower them to understand their children and relate to their children’s experiences.
Create impact beyond your school.
- Advocate with your superintendent and school board to prioritize and resource: 1) time for collaboration; 2) the elevation of in-school champions to teacher leadership positions; 3) district-wide leader and teacher training on understanding these 1 in 5 students, strategies for schools and classrooms, and MTSS; and 4) curriculum aligned to the science of learning, integrating essential practices.
- Become more involved with NCLD to learn and inform policy for improving how we serve these students.
- Share your school’s work and celebrate your teachers through district, area, and state principal meetings; social media; board meetings; state and national conferences; and more. Tag key organizations—@NCLDorg, @UnderstoodOrg, and #Ldchat—on Twitter.
This research serves as a catalyst for teachers and leaders looking to make schools more inclusive settings. It’s time to take steps toward effectively reaching and teaching all students, including those who struggle with attention and learning difficulties—we can’t afford to wait.
Meghan Whittaker is the director of policy at the National Center for Learning Disabilities in Washington, D.C. Joe Daly is the associate director for educators at Understood.org.
Sidebar: For More Information
The National Center for Learning Disabilities recently released a toolkit (www.ncld.org/forward-together) to help you get started with educating children who struggle with learning and attention issues. Sign up for email updates from NCLD at www.ncld.org/signup.
Visit Understood.org to find free, evidence-based resources for educators, and sign up for their newsletter at http://u.org/educatornews to hear about new resources.