A Message from Matt:
I’d like to share that living with a learning disability is very hard at times, but you can’t just give up on life, you need to live up to your full potential. You need to want to help yourself before others can help you. The key to success is to want the help and then to go get the help. The people you have supporting you are going to be the difference in your life; if you have really good family and friends and teachers supporting you, then your success can be endless. If you really put your mind to it, try your best, and you get the support and your needs are met, then you can deal with your learning disability. You should never let a learning disability hold you back; you’re just as good as any other person out there or even better. If you have a dream or you want to go do something, let nothing hold you back or stand in your way; go do what you want to and be yourself. The only way to be successful is to learn from your weaknesses and work hard to improve them. You can think of your learning disability as a curse or as a blessing; it’s yours to choose what you want to do with it. God put us all on earth for a reason, he gave us everything we have and he gives the strongest of people the most challenging situations because he knows that they can make it through them and become better because of the challenges.
What was it like when Matt was first diagnosed with a learning disability?
MATT: I was diagnosed in grade 3 with a learning disability. I have a stutter and my feelings during this whole process were very up and down; sometimes it was good and sometimes it was bad. There were times where it was really difficult dealing with my learning disability. Sometimes you feel really down and like you just don’t want to do anything but you know you have to keep moving forward.
MOTHER: Matt began speech therapy at 18 months of age when I noticed that he was not reaching developmental milestones compared to children of similar age. During speech therapy, it was also determined that Matt’s fine motor skills were weak so he began therapy in a team approach with both occupational and speech therapy. Matt was first seen for psychological testing at the age of 5 and at this time, it was determined that Matt was behind by one to two years and he was placed in a small class for Senior Kindergarten to focus on language skills. My initial thought at this point was that finally someone else has confirmed what I had observed since he was 18 months old. And then it hit me, the realization that Matt would have many struggles that most don’t, that we would continue to face things differently. I felt everything from shock, guilt, anger, confusion and a sense of grief. But I was also relieved that the school would try to assist with accommodating Matt’s learning needs. This has been two-fold, where the earlier years have been more kind to Matt...the latter years more difficult. We have had a variety of experiences with various professionals that we have worked with, both positive and negative, since Matt’s diagnosis.
What is the Impact of Having a Family Member with a Learning Disability?
MOTHER: It has impacted our family’s life tremendously. Both my son, Matt, and daughter, Jessica, have a learning disability. Sometimes even the simplest of things will take three to four times as long to complete. Family discussions are also difficult with the train of thoughts from both children going in different directions. With Matt’s stutter, it has been an emotional roller coaster. These experiences have taught me to have greater patience.
Having a family member with an LD has made our family grow and have optimism and let go of out-dated stories or limiting beliefs of what is and is not possible. You come to a place where your child’s disability is accepted and his differences celebrated with the understanding that his (and your) journey are not straight lines, and that he can and will be successful in so many ways. You let go of comparing him to other kids and take a good, hard look at all the wonderful things he has to offer and his accomplishments that make him the special person that he is. You know that you are his best advocate and have the clearest insight into his abilities.
What are Matt’s strengths?
MOTHER: Matt’s greatest strengths are that he is a kind and friendly child; he has great social skills, and is very polite. He also has strong computer skills and works hard on organizing himself when prompted. Matt has good verbal comprehension and fluid reasoning. I also believe he is establishing a personal voice in his writing and is more focused on using concrete words and images to convey his attitude or feelings towards a topic.
MATT: I believe my greatest strength is my writing ability; I really like to write things and sometimes I cannot get my words out talking. While I’m writing, the words just flow out of my mind. Talking sometimes is not very successful for me. In school I feel like I really succeed in classes that are hands-on or have a lot of writing. In my construction and auto class I am very successful with working with my hands. In English class, I succeed very well too because I like writing and I am very good at it, as proven in my marks.
TEACHER: When Matt did participate in class his ideas were thought provoking and mature. Matt had the incredible ability to dissect a book and to make inferences as well as to connect to the ideas and emotions on a level that I never thought possible. Matt was working at grade level in both math and language and was able to advocate for himself with what he needed, allowing him to experience great success. From when I first began teaching Matt, all of his needs have either become strengths or he has worked so hard that they no longer hold him back.
What are Matt’s needs?
MATT: I need to have a lot of independent work and I need to be away from distractions. On tests and worksheets I sometimes need some extra time. I need explanations from teachers. There are quite a few difficulties I am faced with at school and of those difficulties, my stutter makes it very hard to do anything oral in school, such as speaking out answers, reading from the textbook or reading aloud. Another difficulty I have is distractions in class; I need sometimes to be put by myself to do independent work. I need teachers to understand and adapt to my needs and they need to work with me and go over things thoroughly.
MOTHER: I believe Matt needs assistance with organizing his work; his executive functioning skills are weak. He has trouble with open-ended questions and has a hard time coping with distractions. I also believe he needs additional help with abstraction and sequencing. Matt’s biggest challenge is his stutter and fluency of speech. When he doesn’t understand a lesson in school, he needs teachers to review information several times, because he won’t or can’t always ask for help or clarification of the lesson. At this time it would be better for him not to have to give an oral presentation or be called upon in class.
TEACHER: When I first met Matt, I saw a boy who was quite unsure of himself; he had a very pronounced stutter that contributed to his lack of confidence in his abilities socially and academically. One of Matt’s greatest needs was, and still is, his anxiety around presenting in front of a group. Matt’s stutter would become more pronounced and he struggled to display his knowledge of his topic because his focus was to just get through the presentation. Matt worked very hard at this with the help of his teachers and we took steps towards presenting in front of larger audiences. Matt would present one-on-one with teachers, then in small groups of people with whom he felt safe, then a larger group until he was able to present in front of his homeroom class.
How has Matt experienced success at school?
MATT: One strategy I have learned to help me succeed in school is to do a lot of independent work. I need to ask questions and talk with the teachers to tell them about my difficulties. I’ve learned some ways and triggers to my stutter but not many. I’ve had to do as little talking in school as possible to help me. It helps me a lot more to write out all of my work and answers rather than answer stuff orally. My teachers have helped me by allowing me to be put in less stressful situations for speaking orally: my teachers don’t make me talk aloud in front of the class and it helps me a lot. Some of my teachers really show that they care about me and want me to be successful and live up to my full potential. The support I have really makes a difference and they are always giving me new ways to help me succeed and deal with my learning disability to let me be successful in school.
TEACHER: When given new concepts in math, it was important to break it down and allow Matt the opportunity to practice the new skill. Once Matt had the confidence, he was then able to take this new skill and apply it when working on word problems. Matt is an incredible human being. I have watched this shy, unsure boy try to navigate through life and then when given the confidence and a safe place where he could be free to take risks, transform into the leader that we all knew was in there. Matt advocated for others who were being bullied, taking a stand because no one did that for him. At the Together We are Better bullying conference, I watched Matt face his biggest fear and share his experiences with being bullied because of his stutter. He was selected as one of five students in all of York Region to sit on the panel and share his story. The pride that I felt that day will never be forgotten. Matt has recognized that being a student with a learning disability is not his ticket to an easy life. He understands and accepts that he has to work even harder to make sure he succeeds and is given all of the opportunities that he wants in life. I have watched a student who hated all aspects of writing become an eloquent writer who now loves written expression. This is something Matt relies on when his stutter becomes challenging and he now sees it as one of his greatest strengths. Right before my eyes, I have watched a boy become a man and the fact that I continue to have a role in Matt’s journey two years later fills me with deep satisfaction. I tell him often how proud I am of him and how he will be great, whatever he may choose to do in life. I look forward to watching Matt find success and happiness in life, he certainly deserves it!
What should educators know?
MOTHER: That every child learns differently to some extent. A child with weak executive functioning skills needs a lot of prompting, reminding and written instructions for assignments. A child with a stutter needs extra time for communicating along with thought processing. Having a learning disability doesn’t mean a child is lazy or not smart. Teachers should take the “Advance , Retreat, Advance” approach when asking students direct questions. Sometimes students truthfully don’t know an answer or sometimes they need more time to process the answer. It is helpful to ask the question then retreat and then make a statement for a further attempt at a response.
MATT: Something really important that teachers need to understand is that students with learning disabilities don’t all learn the same way. Students with learning disabilities need to figure out what will help them personally in the classroom to succeed. Teachers need to adapt to the needs of these students and be able to understand and work with them in their own way. Students with learning disabilities can’t be treated like every other student; they don’t learn like everyone else, they need to have their needs met and teachers treating them like everyone else could just make things even worse than they already are. Teachers should expect a lot from students with learning disabilities because we are smart! They should push students to be the best they can be; don’t let them fail at anything.
TEACHER: The most important thing for a teacher to know, when taking on the privilege and honour of teaching students with learning disabilities, is having the belief in each child that they can do it.
Every student can experience success with your support and guidance and with setting the expectations high. Every child with a learning disability needs someone to believe in them and push them every day to achieve that little bit more. Eventually you will break down those walls and they, too, will realize just how smart they are. It is important to also teach your students how to advocate for themselves in life, to help them to find their voice and show them that what they have to say is worth listening to. Providing students with learning disabilities with this tool will allow them to continue to experience great success throughout their lives. Another important lesson that I have learned throughout my years of teaching students with learning disabilities is that every child is unique and what they may require may be different from another child. It is important to teach each child to their strengths and to help them find ways to leverage these strengths in other areas of their lives. Knowing each of our students and accepting them for who they are, while pushing them to achieve, is the most important job that we have as an educator.