How to Support Students with Invisible Disabilities
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Talking about invisible disabilities- Episode 018
The holidays have come and gone. Eggnog flowed, the gifts were wrapped and we probably watched our holiday favorites. So why not chat about one of my favorites – “A Christmas Carol”? As always, we’ll loop back to education – because today we’re talking about invisible disabilities.
As we get ready for the holiday time, we all have our favorite traditions, our favorite stories and songs, and movies. Sometimes, your favorite tradition is to do nothing at all, and that’s okay.
Whatever you celebrate, however you choose to celebrate, you’ve probably heard of the story of “A Christmas Carol.” You may immediately think of the Dickens novel, but, as for me, I love the Disney version!
You’re probably familiar with the character of Tiny Tim, with his frail little body and his crutch. At the end – he just throws down his crutch. He walks and he’s happy and he lives and everyone lives happily ever after!
Let’s Chat about Tiny Tim
I want to talk about Tiny Tim, and let’s see what would happen if he was a modern day Tiny Tim. He’s weak, hungry. He has his crutches, and you can see that he’s struggling, right?
Let’s say he goes to high school and he’s in a PE class. The teacher comes to him and says “Today we’re going to run the mile!”
Tiny Tim says “Okay, I’m not going to be the best, but I’m going to try!” He says that because of school counselors who have instilled grit and hope and awesome parents who know he can do it, and he knows he can do it.
Well, he starts doing his thing, and everyone else starts doing their thing – and then the PE teacher says “Tiny Tim can’t keep up with the rest of you, so we’re all going to do Burpees until he finishes.”
What do you think would happen if that happened today?
Mom would probably call Channel 9 news, Good Morning America would pick it up, celebrities would tweet about it. The PE teacher would probably be fired, or placed on administrative leave. I mean, you’re looking at Tiny Tim, who is a sweet kid everyone loves, this person is picking on him when he’s trying so hard!
Why do we get so upset about Tiny Tim? What about the students with invisible disabilities? Invisible disabilities that might come to mind are things that often affect our physical health: Lyme disease, Lupus, Chronic Fatigue Syndrome.
All of those can cause painful, horribly uncomfortable physical symptoms – but you don’t see them, so people suffer in silence.
But, what about learning difficulties? Like the following, for example:
· Processing disorders
What about learning disorders that seem so simple to overlook that a child is struggling with them?
Say you have a child with dyslexia. A teacher asses every day for students to do bell work, to write 2-3 sentences or copy something from the board. Something that, for someone who doesn’t have dyslexia, would be very simple – but, for someone who has a learning disability – it might take longer, be more frustrating.
You may be asking them to do something that, when you ask, becomes glaringly obvious to them that they’re faced with this struggle. As a parent/teacher/boss, sometimes you forget- because you can’t see it.
And for a student with Dyslexia who is gifted? Twice exceptional students are all around us. They can be gifted and have ADHD, be gifted and have autism. Say you have a gifted student with straight A’s, and you require this bell work, and they don’t turn it in. Is it because they’re lazy? Is it because they have A’s in all their other classes? Or, do you not see the nightly struggle or the internal struggle they go through every day?
Just because a student is gifted doesn’t mean they don’t struggle – but that’s a topic for a whole different podcast.
How does Bell Work Help Struggling Students?
Let’s take this same student and say this bell work – copying things from the board – they started in first grade, when they had no diagnosis of their learning difficulty. When they struggled to complete the work, they were singled out for not completing the work – they were frustrated because little Lucy next to them was in a higher reading group, or, they came home and had a single sheet of homework, but they fought with parents daily because it was so painful for them to do that single page.
Let’s fast forward:
Now that child is in 7th grade. They’re acting out and they get a referral, or worse, they get suspended. Perhaps we’re so quick to react to the behavior that we forget that there might be a long history related to an invisible disability?
I can use my own story here.
I have ADHD, and I love to jump around and reference shiny squirrels- someone commented on a blog post recently – “Dear lord. Please correct your typos!”
With my ADHD, my brain goes faster than I can type. I do proofread. But, if you have ADHD, you get bored very easily, which makes it even harder to catch errors.
Here I am, in a profession where I’m helping students – at least I hope I am. I should appear professional – and part of that is not having errors in my writing. The more I thought about that, it was so embarrassing.
Now, I cringe, berate myself. That person had no idea. They certainly don’t know I have a learning disability. Every time I write, I get twitchy and think amybe I shouldn’t put this out – and I’m talking just sentences here!
Imagine all the kiddos at school who might be receiving messages that are crushing who they are, not letting them live up to their potential.
I know not everyone comes from a place of ill intent – I believe most people are inherently good. I might be the last naive optimist.
The point is – with an invisible disability, people don’t see it. They make comments and don’t see the impact. I want us to take the time and pause, and think about that.
I’ve been on the receiving end. I’m a mom of two awesome little cookies who have their own learning difficulties, and I forget.
I’m not throwing out a scolding. I don’t share this to beat you up. Instead, I’m reminding myself to be gentle with my own children.
How do we Support Students with an Invisible Disability
All that anyone wants to see is that we’re learning, we’re striving to correct our deficiencies. I wish we had a magic wand, but that’s not in existence. We’re human. We have busy lives. Teachers have a million students.
But, there are ways to start:
Look at the people in your life. Do you know someone with an invisible disability? Do you have a friend with Dyscalculia? Do you have a student who has a 504 that says they have a processing disorder? We hear those words, but do we know what they really mean?
Take 5-10 minutes, once or twice a week and try to wrap your head around what these things really are and how they present. I’m not even talking about strategies. Educate yourself.
Hopefully you’re surrounded by people who understand where you’re coming from.
Ask the people in your life who have learning disabilities how you can be an ally. Ask how you can help. Learn their story. Learn their experience. Learn how you can best help them thrive.
I help my children with their homework. I work with students all the time, but even with my own learning disability, there are still moments of frustration. When that happens, it’s best to stop and ask what they need. Let them be the experts.
Think about why we rally around Tiny Tim – how can we rally around students with learning difficulties too?
Also, think about this: if you continue to ignore learning difficulties, what happens when the shadow remains unaltered?
What can we do today that might make a difference?
Supporting students with learning differences like ADHD, Dyslexia, Dyscalculia, and processing disorders
Homework and class requirements for students with learning differences
Expectations of students with learning differences
Marni Pasch| Host of School Counselor Gone Rogue| Academic Coach | Team Pasch Academic Coaching
I work with students in grades 6th and higher, who struggle with academic confidence and motivation. I help them survive school with less stress by helping them create concrete goals, tackle procrastination and learn creative study techniques. I empower students to take charge of their education and reach their goals. I do this through individual or group coaching so students achieve success in life, school, career readiness and their social endeavors.