By Linda Houston, OCT and LDAO Educational Consultant
A Brief Background
The First Nation, Métis and Inuit (FNMI) population is growing year by year. The report entitled Client Segment Profile: Aboriginal Peoples, Ontario (Service Canada, June 2014) indicates that close to 42% of the total FNMI population is comprised of children and youth aged 25 and under. This trend indicates that there will be increasing numbers of FNMI students in our schools in the years to come.
Factors that influence the FNMI population as a whole have a greater impact on students with learning disabilities. Social and historical conditions imposed by the Indian Act, which was enacted in 1876 and made Aboriginal people second-class citizens, resulted in the creation of an inequity that continues to impact the lives and education of the FNMI population to this day.
The following obstacles are described in the report (Service Canada, June 2014):
Families and Households
- Greater prevalence of lone parent families in Aboriginal communities.
- A higher proportion of Aboriginal peoples living in homes in poor condition.
- Aboriginal peoples living on reserves in overcrowded homes.
- Lower levels of educational attainment in Aboriginal communities.
- Aboriginal peoples on reserves facing greater educational barriers.
- Aboriginal youth less likely to attend school.
The report concludes on a positive note, though. In general, the level of educational attainment in the FNMI population is rising; however, existing challenges continue to present obstacles. Efforts to increase educational attainment and initiatives implemented to support the academic success of FNMI students must continue. Having said this, students with learning disabilities must not be overlooked and the required programming must meet the specific needs of this population.
The strategies in support of the school boards outlined in the Ontario First Nation, Métis, and Inuit Education Policy Framework were developed and based on a holistic and integrated approach to improving FNMI student outcomes for all students, including students with learning disabilities.
This Ontario Ministry of Education report indicates that the role of schools is to strive to:
- Develop awareness among teachers of the learning styles of First Nation, Métis, and Inuit students;
- Employ instructional methods designed to enhance the learning of all First Nation, Métis, and Inuit students;
- Incorporate meaningful First Nation, Métis, and Inuit cultural perspectives and activities when planning instruction;
- Implement targeted learning strategies for effective oral communication and mastery of reading and writing;
- Implement strategies for developing critical and creative thinking. (2007, p. 12-13)
School boards must also ensure that FNMI students have access to the accommodations, modifications and/or special education programs and services they need to achieve success. Even with the implementation of the Framework, there are some worrying trends. Data indicate that some students start school about a year behind their peers. Students with learning disabilities will certainly lag even further behind and be more likely to drop out of school.
In the Classroom
The document entitled Teaching Aboriginal Students with Learning Disabilities offers practical ideas for teaching professionals that contribute to their understanding of the FNMI community and how its perspective on learning disabilities differs from their own.
- Viewing disabilities as gifts is an important consideration, because it is an acknowledgement that each student has a unique learning style. The concept of learning disabilities is at odds with the holistic framework of Aboriginal education. Because of this, Aboriginal parents view the notion of learning disabilities with concern and worry.
- Is it actually a learning disability or is it another impairment? Challenges faced in the classroom may be a result of other issues, such as sensory or physical disabilities, problems at home or absenteeism. There may be a medical issue. If the student is calm and quiet, he or she may be uncomfortable in a school setting or even have a reserved personality.
- The Learning Circle is an important component for supporting the student. Parents and family are accepted as partners in the circle, which creates a positive relationship with parents and their child from the beginning. Examples of adaptations and supports for school subjects are provided, as are adaptations and supports for attention difficulties, memory difficulties, and fine and gross motor difficulties. Sample strategies for time management are also provided in the document.
- Characteristics of learning disabilities are often invisible or misunderstood. They must be uncovered through careful observation. It is important to focus on strengths and not lose sight of the influences of life outside school (e.g., cultural, social, socio-economic factors, etc.).
- Identifying a student with learning disabilities is not easy. A student must be observed for some time in order to understand what is intrinsic to his or her personality and what is a genuine difficulty or impairment. It is important to know, understand, and keep cultural differences in mind. The Learning Circle is key to understanding the student. A formal, culturally-adapted assessment may be necessary. (Alberta Education, 2006)
In her article entitled “Providing Culturally Sensitive and Linguistically Appropriate Services: An Insider Construct”, Aboriginal speech-language pathologist Sharla Peltier explains key information for educators who work with FNMI students with learning disabilities, including:
- The therapeutic environment is often unfamiliar to Aboriginal parents. Service providers must take knowledge of the school’s values and the parents’ values into consideration (2011, p. 127).
- Dialects are the result of community and outside influences. Some children already speak French or English or one of these may be their second language. Other students speak an Indigenous language specific to their community. (2011, p. 128).
- A culturally sensitive lens is fundamental to working with Aboriginal students and produces positive results (2011, p. 132).
Peltier also emphasizes the importance of the following language features:
- Omission of the regular past tense verb marker “-ed”
- Substitution of gender pronouns
- Generalized descriptions of objects and situations
- Substitution for prepositional phrases
- Differences in the pronunciation of certain sounds. (2011, p. 129)
As a rule, a best practice is one that has been tested and yields good results. It is one that has been assessed and validated. It has positive results that can be repeated. While the following success stories are not always specific to students with learning disabilities, they support students and could help to reduce dropout rates amongst FNMI students with learning disabilities.
Research that explicitly looks at FNMI students with learning disabilities is very limited. However, there is more general research that could offer interesting projects for this group. The universal design of these projects has had a positive effect on the academic achievement of FNMI students and could certainly have a positive effect on the achievement of FNMI students with learning disabilities.
In August 2014, the First Nations Education Council published a document entitled Success Stories: Education Partnerships Program. This document describes success stories in nine communities:
- The community of Wôlinak opened a community library and implemented a homework assistance program.
- The communities of Manawan and Wemotaci signed a partnership agreement with a CEGEP to facilitate the integration and academic success of local students.
- In the community of Odanak, a homework assistance program to support the transition from elementary to secondary school was set up.
- The community of Opitciwan joined other organizations in offering activities to students with the goal of improving their French proficiency and preparing them for the transition to high school.
- In Wemotaci, a sport-study program was launched.
- In Pikogan, students participated in specific activities to start preparing for secondary school as early as Grade 6.
- Wendake, located in an urban setting, has a program to provide support to students in their transition from elementary to secondary school.
- The Timiskaming community created a program to integrate non-Native students into their culture.
There is a multitude of best practices in FNMI communities. With further research and co-operation among communities, many more practices that support the achievement of FNMI students with learning disabilities will flourish.
FNMI students with learning disabilities can succeed when they are taught the skills they need and when appropriate compensatory strategies, that take their learning style and cultural environment into consideration, are applied.
Relevant Resources on the LD@school Website
Alberta Education. (2006). Teaching Aboriginal Students with Learning Disabilities: https://archive.education.alberta.ca/media/307140/o08.pdf
First Nations Education Council. (2014). Success Stories: Education Partnerships Program:http://www.cepn-fnec.com/PDF/CEPN/PPE-Bruno-en_web.pdf
Ministry of Education of Ontario. Aboriginal Education Office. (2007). Ontario First Nation, Métis, and Inuit Education Policy Framework. Link: http://www.edu.gov.on.ca/eng/aboriginal/fnmiframework.pdf
Peltier, Sharla. (2011). Providing Culturally Sensitive and Linguistically Appropriate Services: An Insider Construct. Canadian Journal of Speech-Language Pathology and Audiology 35(2); 126-134. Link:http://cjslpa.ca/files/2011_CJSLPA_Vol_35/No_02_103-213/Peltier_CJSLPA_2011.pdf
Service Canada. (2014). Client Segment Profile: Aboriginal Peoples, Ontario. Link:http://www.esdc.gc.ca/eng/jobs/lmi/publications/csp/abor/ontario/abor_june2014.pdf