Starting secondary school is not just an academic and social milestone for students. It also comes at a pivotal time in adolescence where students are given more choice and required to take more responsibility for their learning and their future. Beginning in grade 9, students are expected to enter a new school community, deal with new stressors and social pressures, take exams for the first time and largely manage their own learning to reach their goals.
For students with learning disabilities (LDs) these new responsibilities and expectations can become overwhelming. On top of the demands that their peers face, students with LDs must also understand their own learning styles, strengths and needs, and the accommodations that can be the difference between struggle and success. They must also find the confidence to be able to advocate on their own behalf to educators who may, or may not, have a strong understanding of learning disabilities.
In the face of so much change, students with LDs require extra care and support from the educators around them. Jenessa Dworet, Department Head and Special Education Assistant Curriculum Leader at York Mills Collegiate Institute, Toronto District School Board, had this to say about the importance of a supportive and understanding learning environment for students with LDs:
“I have taught in institutions for youth at risk for over 15 years in various different settings: group homes in California and Ontario, an orphanage in Guatemala City, a refugee settlement program in Vancouver, and custody, Intensive Support and mainstream programs in Toronto. Through it all, I’ve learned that the most crucial aspect to being an effective teacher is one’s ability to develop a genuine rapport with each student. Teaching and learning exist only in relation to one another – teachers who say that they taught that lesson, but the student never learned it is like a real estate agent saying that they sold that house, but the client never bought it. No transaction is made unless both parties are willing and able to participate.
Students, particularly those with learning disabilities, must feel a sense of connection and safety with their instructor if they are to take the risks required in genuine learning. In my experiences, students with LDs or other risk factors have had humiliating and traumatic experiences in education and, at first, it is only our connection that brings them back to the classroom. To do this, teachers must know their students well beyond just interests or musical preferences. Rather, effective teachers understand and use strategies that can unlock a student’s learning, validate their struggles and appreciate their strengths; listen to what the behavior is really communicating and support the mental health needed for success.
This module is crucial to achieving this goal, providing enough theory to give the practical strategies context and meaning. It is essential reading when teaching that one exceptional and struggling student in your classroom; however, it is also significantly important in developing the relationships your students need in order to feel safe enough to learn.”