A student’s journey through learning differently
January 4, 2016
At the beginning of his first grade year, senior Matt Paal took a series of tests pertaining to his attention span, reading fluency, spelling skills, and his ability to retain information. The results of these tests concluded that Paal had dyslexia, a learning disability characterized by a lack of connection between written words and verbal sounds. After being diagnosed, Paal went to lessons up to three times a week before school to practice sounding out vowels, making connections between written words and their sounds, and spelling and speaking the English language. Many lessons later, Paal challenges himself by taking AP Language and Literature, an intensive English course with a focus on reading and writing. “I actually like [English classes] just because they’re so challenging,” Paal said.
Paal’s love and appreciation for writing and reading despite having dyslexia came with many trials, like surviving Mrs. Maura Brew’s vigorous Honors English 9 class. For students and teachers with learning disabilities, school presents a different set of challenges than those traditional students face. Paal struggles the most with in-class essays and time management. “It takes me longer to do things. It takes me longer to do my AP Literature readings. It takes me longer to do my history readings,” Paal said. “It takes someone who doesn’t have dyslexia less time to read and understand things, whereas it takes me around double the time to comprehend what I just read… my brain just isn’t able to function at the faster rate at times, so then it adds more stress and I end up falling behind because of stuff like that.”
English teacher, Ms. Anna Overbo describes herself as “massively ADHD” and understands these struggles that her students with learning disabilities face. “I have a lot of compassion for the anxiety and shame that a lot of these kids carry around because of how the manifestation of that learning disability is so different than what the person is carrying around on the inside. Sometimes it looks like not caring, when there’s really an abundance of care,” Overbo said.
Oftentimes it is the misconceptions Overbo spoke of that pose the greatest barriers to students with learning disabilities. Overbo hadn’t even heard of ADHD or ADD until midway through her college experience. Fortunately, schools have come a long way in the methods they use to support students and foster efficient learning environments for all types of students. Benilde-St. Margaret’s caters to the needs of students with learning disabilities by offering different levels of core classes and giving students the option of extra help and more intimate learning spaces than the traditional classroom. “They have this thing called the 504 plan which is essentially like an education help plan that gives you special recommendations… I’m able to get notes from teachers on stuff I’ve missed, as well as get extended time on tests and be in my own secluded area if I’m having problems thinking or processing,” Paal said.
Paal’s plan is catered specifically toward him and may look very different from the methods and systems used by other students with dyslexia or other learning disabilities. In addition to granting extended time on exams and providing differing class paces, BSM allows outside tutors to work one-on-one with students during their BSM hours and works with parents to create a plan that works best for the student. Many students even take advantage of devices and instruments, like Smartpens, that provide even more help to boost performance in class.
BSM’s goal is to give students the tools to be successful and help them live up to their potentials in the classroom. There are two classes in the school that especially focus on these goals: Learning Lab and Academic Support. “Learning Lab is geared toward freshmen so they can learn organizational study skills to be successful in high school,” Freshman and Sophomore dean, Ms. Nicole Rasmussen said. According to Rasmussen, Academic Support is offered to older students and moves past providing tips for organization by simply providing “a smaller environment where they have adult support if the need it.”
Schools like Benilde are constantly developing new programs and educating themselves on how to best aid students with disabilities like ADD, ADHD, anxiety, and dyslexia. It is difficult to tackle the problems students face, because each student is different and has different needs. “There are different severities [of dyslexia]. I kind of got a minor to lighter version, while I know some people got a harder version. I’m still able to read at a decent level, it just takes me a lot longer,” Paal said. Assisting kids with learning disabilities is also difficult because of stereotypes and misinformation that pegs such students as less intelligent or incapable. Paal has encountered skeptics who question the authenticity of his disability. “Typically they are understanding. If they don’t understand, I just ignore them because they don’t know what it’s like. Or, I don’t ignore them, I just disregard their thoughts about it,” Paal said.
Learning disabilities are not an indicator of someone’s intelligence. Rather, they simply pose barriers to the means of gathering information and keeping up with the pace and rigor of traditional education. Overbo decided not to major in pre-med after realizing that she didn’t have the means to be successful in the process of medical school. “I knew that I couldn’t function that way and get through medical school, and I knew that I was smart enough… I knew that it wouldn’t work and I didn’t know how to do school differently. It looks like a lack of self-discipline in a way. But it was more being able to step outside myself and say ‘this is just not going to work,’” Overbo said.
Obtaining self-awareness and realization is something that all people struggle with, but for those with individualized needs, this growing process can be even more difficult. “What we see, especially with students with layered diagnoses, is that they’ve struggled with school for so long and they’ve never found success, so they kind of quit trying,” Rasmussen said. “They think ‘If I try and do poorly, I’m a failure. If I don’t try…it’s the same result.’” BSM works to change this mentality and guide students down a path of success. “‘I’m going to work hard, and it’s going to pay off. I just have to realize that it’s going to take me a little more time, and I’m going to need this extra help,’” Rasmussen said.
Because of the structure of high school that is geared toward a traditional student, especially in a college prepatory school, it is easy for students with various diagnoses to feel defeated––which is why it is so important for teachers, parents, and peers to do all they can to create a learning environment adaptive to all students by continuing to ask tough questions about learning disabilities and progressively changing the format of education. “I have a hard time holding [students] accountable when things come in late because I am aware of how things like that can be, especially if I’m behind in correcting; I feel like I might be too much of a hypocrite to be too righteous about late work. But, on the other hand I know that to not hold those students accountable is actually hurting them, especially the kids struggling with time and ADHD,” Overbo said.
It’s empathetic conversation like this that needs to happen every day within classrooms. It’s important to provide necessary tools for students who need them, without patronizing their abilities and disregarding their potential for success. “I came to terms with me not being a ‘perfect person,’ and that I am going to have challenges for the rest of my life, but that doesn’t make me any worse or much different from other people,” Paal said.