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This article by Dr. Jennifer Fane, Director of Education at LDS, is as published in BC Parent magazine’s Education Issue 2022. (Direct link: https://issuu.com/bcparent/docs/bcp_fall-edu-issue-2022-compressed/24)
School can be an exciting and joyous experience for students and families, with the building of relationships with classmates and working with school staff, and academic, social, and personal growth. However, for many, it can also come with uncertainty and challenges as academic and social demands for children and youth continually increase as students move from grade to grade.
The signs that a child may need extra support at school can often be subtle and many families are surprised to first learn that their child is struggling during early parent/guardian-teacher interviews. Conversely, sometimes despite reports from schools that their child is doing ‘okay’, parents/guardians may have a ‘gut feeling’ that progress is not being made. As a parent/guardian of a school-aged child or youth, the first step and most powerful tool you can equip yourself with is understanding your child’s learning needs and the ways to work in collaboration with the school and avenues to ensure that your child has the support they need to succeed.
Understanding Learning Disabilities and Learning Differently
A learning disability is a neurodevelopmental (hardwired) disorder that impacts an individual’s ability to acquire, organise, retain, understand, or use verbal and non-verbal information. A learning disability is unique in that it affects individuals of average to above average intelligence. It’s an unexplained inability to learn or develop skills or knowledge within a typical educational setting—imagine an otherwise bright and engaged child in grade 2 who is unable to read sight words or retain letter sounds, or a child who can read and verbally tell a story but struggles greatly with writing words on paper. Learning disabilities mean that a child needs a different level of support, instruction, materials, or accommodations to learn and retain information that others seem to just ‘grasp’ through typical classroom learning.
It can sometimes take months or even years to identify a learning disability because the child is otherwise very capable. This can mean the opportunities for early intervention and support are lost, negatively impacting a child’s confidence and self-esteem, but there are some early warning signs for learning disabilities.
Fortunately, with the right support, students with learning disabilities can absolutely succeed and develop both the academic and executive functioning skills they need, building confidence in themselves and how they learn. The challenge for parents/guardians is how to advocate for a child’s learning needs and work with teachers, the school, and sometimes other educational service providers to put all the right supports into place.
Experiencing the BC Education System as a Student with a Learning Difference
The BC public school system is inclusive, so it seeks to integrate all learners into mainstream school environments. Meaningful inclusion, where all learners have the supports and opportunities they need, is a challenge that all schooling systems face, especially when the BC Ministry of Education and Child Care is reporting growing numbers of students with special education needs—there were 82,786 students with special needs in the province’s public and independent schools in the 2021/22 school year, 4,484 more than the previous year.
The upward trend is a result of better knowledge and more proactive assessment of struggling students, and that is a positive thing. However, this doesn’t necessarily translate into better support. Most school districts have years-long waitlists to receive psycho-educational assessments through the school system, and the cost of private assessments is highly prohibitive for most families. Yet without this assessment and diagnosis, a child is not entitled to the Individual Educational Plan (IEP) which identifies accommodations for learning and the required additional support at school. Also noteworthy: No extra funding comes directly to a school for a specific child. Rather, these limited funds are distributed at the district level to be administered to the schools, which then try to adequately allocate them to support all their students. Funding often ends up going to the most high-needs students while those with learning disabilities with no significant behavioural challenges tend to receive less support.
For families, accessing diagnostic tools, sourcing the individualised supports needed once the diagnosis has been received, and effectively advocating for their child are incredibly daunting tasks. However, there are ways to do all this effectively.
Working Collaboratively with your Child’s School
It is very challenging for a teacher to assess and monitor student progress across all learning areas in a diverse classroom environment. A learning challenge in a specific area for a student that is otherwise ‘doing okay’ at school can be easily missed. Because of this, when parents/guardians and teachers work together to identify concerns, share information, and identify solutions, students are best served. As with any relationship, open and collaborative communication is always best. Below are some steps that will help you to open a constructive dialogue about your child’s learning with their teacher(s).
Document your concerns: Start with writing down what you are noticing about your child’s learning. What is your child struggling with? What challenges are you encountering at home? What comments or concerns have previous teachers expressed?
Know what the school system is required to provide for all students, namely:
Additionally, with a Ministry Designation and/or IEP, your child is legally entitled to accommodations for learning and additional learning support.
Prepare to communicate your concerns to your child’s teacher and school: Start by identifying your key concern and use specific examples. Reference what the school is required to provide to guide your notes and schedule a meeting time with your child’s teacher.
When meeting with your child’s teacher: Take notes and ask clarifying questions that start with how, what, why, where or when. It generally helps to generate the most precise answers. Then, develop an action plan for next steps, such as future meeting times, ongoing observation, further support, etc.
What to do if you feel your concerns haven’t been adequately addressed: If you feel this way after the meeting or in the months that follow, or your child is not receiving appropriate support, connect with the school principal.
Accessing Additional Learning Support
Unfortunately, the resources available through school are not adequate to provide the instruction and support that many students with a learning disability need, even though the document Special Education Services Manual: A Manual of Policies, Procedures and Guidelines issued by the BC Ministry of Education and Child Care states that research shows that students with learning disabilities should receive (1) intense direct instruction; (2) instruction in learning and compensatory strategies; and (3) adaptation of instructional practices and assessment strategies. Many families, therefore, choose to access additional and direct individualized academic instruction outside of school, be it after-school tutoring or specialised instruction by individual tutors or through an education provider. Doing so can make an incredible impact on a student’s ability to address academic skill gaps and build confidence in their ability as a learner.
If you are thinking about specialized instruction or tutoring for your child, here are some key things to consider:
These questions will help you to assess if the service provider will be able to meet your child’s unique needs and help them build the confidence and academic skills required to thrive throughout their lifetime. If you are a low-income family and face financial barriers to accessing specialized instruction or private tutoring, you can apply for funds through charitable organizations. Some specialized learning disabilities organizations also offer sliding fee scales for families based on their own charitable fundraising.
Dr. Jennifer Fane is the Director of Education at LDS. She holds an interdisciplinary Ph.D. in education, public health, and social policy from Flinders University (Australia) and a Bachelor of Education degree from SFU. A BC Certified Teacher and published author, Dr. Fane is a passionate advocate for responsive and transformative education that prioritizes the learner and their needs and goals. Follow her on Twitter @jjfane.
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