What was it like when Abigail was first diagnosed with a learning disability?
ABIGAIL: I discovered I was dyslexic at the end of the third grade. In the first and second grade I felt different than everyone else in my class. I didn’t understand why. Once I was told I was dyslexic and given an explanation of what it is, I was happy because now I could be helped!
MOTHER: It was a very moving experience. My husband is Anglophone, so he didn’t clearly understand what her reading difficulties were [Abby attends a French school]. When we were doing her homework in grade one and two, it was very frustrating because it would take her an eternity to read. We would practice reading a lot, but it was laborious. In the beginning, we wanted to believe that nothing was wrong. With time, we realized that she needed help and we couldn’t help her without knowing what the “problem” was. We felt incredibly powerless. We had her eyes examined 3 times, we registered her in a reading summer camp before she began the third grade, we paid a babysitter to watch the 3 youngest kids so I could bring Abby to the library to read, and with all this, we didn’t see any progress. Finally, with the assistance of her third-grade teacher, we paid for her to have an assessment. This is how we found out she was dyslexic. The diagnostic was key as it helped adults put strategies in place that would be helpful to Abby. We spent a lot of money, but it was money well spent because we were able to help our daughter. She loves school and that is what’s important!
TEACHER: When I met Abby, 2 years ago, she was a sad child who never smiled. I often explained to students that some of us are often strong in one subject and sometimes not so much in another; that we all learn differently and that this is what makes us unique children. We all have strengths and weaknesses to overcome. Abby felt immediately comfortable. She came to see me and explained a few of her challenges. Together, with the school team and her parents, we created an intervention plan to help Abby in her journey as a learner. The strategies helped her improve academically. Between the resource centre, the classroom and home, Abby now has the strategies, resources and support to help her succeed. Abby shines with self-confidence that is both rewarding and inspiring!
What are Abigail’s strengths?
ABIGAIL: I like to work with my hands, play with Lego blocks and K’NEX games because I can build buildings and landscapes. I like to plant seeds and watch them grow. I like cooking a lot and animals. I like to be a lunch helper at school because I take good care of the younger kids. I like my swimming lessons, and my dancing and gymnastic classes. I like to go to the cottage, catch frogs, fish, kayak, pedal boat, go tubing and pick blueberries. My favourite subjects at school are math and science.
MOTHER: Abby is very creative. She takes good care of her little brother and her 2 little sisters. She’s very hands-on. Whenever I’m having troubles assembling something that we’ve bought that comes in many pieces, Abigail comes to my rescue! She loves to plant plants and take care of animals. She’s a very intelligent girl who understands concepts that are quite advanced for her age. This is what upset me the most when she was in the second grade. She had all of the required knowledge but had no way to show her teacher! She loves going to the cottage and spending time with her family. She is always ready to help others.
TEACHER: Abby is a happy student who is very happy in her own skin. She’s always in a good mood, very helpful and always ready and willing to be an active participant in her own learning. Abby understands everything she is told, and she overcomes her challenges in reading and spelling with strategies and assistive technologies that are available to her. She is very persistent.
What are Abigail’s needs?
ABIGAIL: I have a lot of difficulty reading and writing in French and English. The part of my brain that is supposed to remember how to spell words is broken. I have a lot of knowledge that I can say but can’t write. I have a computer with Word Q that helps me and I’m allowed a scribe during tests so I can prove I really know the answers. I am also working on a multisensory program in the resource centre.
TEACHER: Abby knows what she needs to succeed. The accommodations we provide give her a chance to demonstrate her strengths and knowledge. These tools are essential for her to succeed. These tools include Kurzweil, Word Q, Inspiration, additional time to complete tasks and a calm environment where she can complete her work.
What strategies have you learned that help you succeed at school? How did educators at your school help you learn these strategies?
ABIGAIL: My computer is very important because I can type my answers. I know how to start my computer, open Word Q/Kurzweil, and then Word. I know how to type my answers and save my work on a USB key. I know how to find my saved work on my key. I know how to go on the internet and I like Google because when I write the beginning of a word, the rest of the word appears and I can click on it.
I learned many reading strategies such as predicting, note-taking, recognizing words I already know, etc. I’m an auditory learner, so I can remember key words that help me answer questions correctly really easily.
I also like my multisensory program that I do at the resource centre because it helps me better understand words and why they are spelled a certain way.
What is the impact of having a family member with a learning disability?
MOTHER: Parents always want to believe that their child is in the “norm”. Being part of the “norm” ensures that your child will succeed just like everyone else: easily. It’s difficult to admit that your child has a learning disability because it’s invisible! I would say that the earlier a diagnosis is made, the better it is for the child. It’s easy to hate school when you have a learning disability! If we can help students throughout their academic journey, they’re more likely to pursue post-secondary education. These kids have strong and resilient personalities because, every day at school, they face many emotions, including fear, uncertainty, anxiety, sadness, doubt and their self-esteem is constantly in a fragile state. Loving and accepting them for who they are while helping them develop their strengths is the answer to “how can I help?”.
What should educators know?
ABIGAIL: It is important to know each other well and to help each other. For example, in science, my teacher left because she had a baby, so even though it was difficult, I stayed behind after class with the new teacher to tell her I am dyslexic. She was very nice and she was able to help me because she knew I had trouble with reading and writing. She finished writing my answers if I ran out of time so that I could study for my final. I had a scribe for the exam so I could prove I had the correct answers in my head!
MOTHER: The most important thing is to keep an open mind and to never break the spirit of a student with learning disabilities. Maybe the child is not the best reader or writer, but they may be able to assemble a major Lego project in an hour, something not every teacher could do! Respecting the strategies in the IEP (Individualized Education Plan) is also important. Not just doing it because you have to. The will to love and accept each student the way they are without trying to change them is very important.
TEACHER: As a teacher, you shouldn’t be afraid. Often when we speak of students with learning disabilities, it causes feelings of insecurity among teachers. It’s important to take risks, to create a safe learning environment, to accept our students as they are, with their personal strengths and needs, to create a community where differences are respected and where all our students feel they belong. We also need to know that we are part of a school team, and that there are many services at the board level that can support and guide us, and that will help ensure the success of our students.
Can you provide an example of successes or obstacles that have been overcome?
ABIGAIL: During the first and second grade, I did my homework with my mom and it was really frustrating because she did not understand why it was taking me so long to read. She was always telling me to try harder and one time I missed my swimming lessons because she wanted me to keep practicing reading. This upset me because I really like my swimming lessons. Since my diagnosis, my parents understand that I always give 100%! My mother bought me a special necklace that I hold in my hand whenever I feel anxious at school. Reading and writing can make me feel as though my throat is closing up. When this happens, I hold my necklace, I catch my breath, I use the strategies I’ve learned, and I continue to give 100%.
TEACHER: The beauty of being in a classroom with a diversity of children is it has allowed me to grow as a teacher! Abby has brought a lot of satisfaction to the work I do as a teacher. She has pushed me further as an educator by giving me the will to learn about LDs, such as dyslexia. This ensures that I use the best teaching strategies to meet Abby’s needs. I quickly learned that these strategies could be used for all of my students. Learning with Abby and with all of my students brings me great satisfaction. I take great pleasure in knowing the profile of all of my students. I want to discover their strengths, their needs, their interests so I can better plan learning activities using differentiated instruction that can help all of my students succeed. For me, it’s important that all of my students feel comfortable in their classroom. I aim to develop abilities in my students that will help them succeed throughout their journeys as learners, such as autonomy, organization, oral communication, taking initiative, and more. It’s important that my students feel that they are part of a community in a respectful classroom. The group works together to achieve their goals.