5th grader William (not his real name) attended the private school where I was a teacher and math specialist. As a young child, William witnessed his parents’ bitter divorce and suffered from clinical depression. His school attendance was spotty at best. His attention to school work was limited. He didn’t like to be called on, called out, or checked in with by his teachers. He seemed to want to dissolve into the background and be left alone. His schoolwork was below grade level in all subjects, but he seemed to be catching up in English class, science, and social studies. William was not my student, but I was asked to sit in on a parent-teacher conference to discuss what could be done to support him in math class.
It was clear that William suffered from a social-emotional disconnect. Head down, hair over his eyes, slouched in his chair, he rarely made eye contact with anyone and shrugged most of his responses. He never disrupted class, preferring to take out his frustration and anger by shutting down rather than lashing out. William was very behind his peers in math. He didn’t ask questions and wouldn’t ask for help; his paper would either be blank or full of random guesses. His teachers were frustrated and his parents were out of patience. How could they reach him without sending him farther into his shell?
After listening to the teacher and principal talk about their experiences with William, I suggested they root all of his interactions in social-emotional principles: respect his need for privacy, include him in decision making, and allow him to direct the best path for his learning. It was very important to William that he would not be called out or called on in class. It was equally important to the teacher that she could find out whether or not William understood the lesson. We devised a system of silent communication, using popsicle sticks. William would keep three popsicle sticks on his desk. One would have a red top, one a yellow top, and one a green top. William could put a popsicle stick on his desk to show that understood (green tip), had a question (yellow tip), or felt lost (red tip). The teacher would know to speak with William privately and quietly if he used the yellow or the red tipped stick. William was able to keep his struggles private while also signaling for help. This was a simple fix, but it met his needs and helped him feel safe and respected. William needed this foundation before he could interact with the class or absorb the instruction.
I won’t say that William was a brand-new person soon after, because that isn’t how progress happens. Recovering from trauma takes time. It can’t be predicted or rushed. However, I can say that William began to feel more comfortable in school. He made a few friends and became more talkative with his teachers. This was the first step on a long road to reaching grade level schoolwork. Luckily, his parents made the choice to keep William in his small, private school. He was able to have the same few teachers year after year, including me, and we had the chance to get to know his strengths as a student. We knew what to expect from William and we learned how to adapt our curriculum to his needs.
Years later, William had more friends and a great attitude, but he was still struggling in his classes. His parents took him to a psychologist for testing. Turns out, William had dyscalculia, dyslexia, and dysgraphia! His learning disabilities were hidden behind his stressful home life and his social-emotional needs. Once we had the proper diagnosis, we were able to ensure that William had the right accommodations: typing rather than hand writing assignments, using a calculator, and not being graded for spelling and punctuation. Then William was able to truly match his academic potential.
Why do some students get tested for learning disabilities late, or never? Sometimes, the delay is due to embarrassment over academic struggles, or ignorance of different learning disabilities, or spending too long in intervention cycles that don’t lead anywhere. Sometimes the delay is due to the high cost of testing or a lack of access to qualified professionals. In any case, it’s best to know for certain whether a student has a learning disability so that schools and teachers can provide the right kind of help as soon as possible.