Dawn J. Mitchell and Nicole Brown

1. ) First of all, students with learning differences would hate the title of this blog post because they would not want to be defined by their disability.  They would want you to see them in the same way you see your other students...students with names, known not by what they need or what their IEP demands, but who they are as people like Austin who is great at video games and loves banana sandwiches or Eliza who likes STEM challenges and Clemson Tiger football.  Our students with special needs are more than their disabilities. They have personalities and specific interests, gifts they already have to give to the world, and gifts they have yet to unpack within them.   Labels do not  promote growth, supportive instruction does, opportunities for growth does, and most of all a supportive teacher who refuses to give up on their success does.   All students, especially students with learning disabilities have unique strengths that can be enhanced and areas of weakness that can show growth.  Students with learning disabilities are not defined by them.  We recently read the powerful book, Fish in a Tree by Lynda Mullaly Hunt and were struck by this quote found on page 95.  There is so much more to our students than the labels we use to define their disability.

2.) All students, especially students with learning disabilities need and deserve high expectations, they just need support getting there. We never want to lower our expectations for a student just because they learn things differently. If you need to go to the store and your car doesn’t start, you don’t throw up your hands and say, “Oh well!” and go hungry.  You find another way to get there! You work to figure out the problem...if it needs gas, you put gas in it. In order for a student to qualify for special services, he/she has to have the cognitive ability to learn. Your “resource” students are not students with low IQs. They CAN learn and it is our job to figure HOW they can learn. Our students with learning disabilities work hard to develop compensatory strategies that help offset their disability.  For example, a student with auditory processing may have developed strong reading of visual aids and cues that can help them determine what is the next step and/or what to do if they missed some of the oral instructions and/or directions.  Instead of focusing on what the child can’t do, let’s look at what they can.  If the methods we are using to teach a child are not working, it is our job to change our methods.  A great resource for parents and educators alike to use for current information as well as strategies to consider is the Learning Disabilities Association of America website.  

3.)  All students, especially students with learning disabilities want to participate in the engaging interdisciplinary opportunities you provide outside of direction instruction.  Please be mindful of this with your schedule.  We know as public school educators the realities of a tight schedule and the changing mandates about what the law requires when students are receiving pull out services for ELA or Math.  When possible, support an inclusion model. This helps remove the stigma behind “resource” and provides students with the opportunity to learn alongside their peers in the regular ed. classroom.  Consider the possibilities suggested by the Inclusive School’s Climate Initiative for promoting in your school in this Edutopia article by Maurice J. Elias if you are interested in this model.   If inclusion is not a possibility for you, consider flipping the schedule at times so that our students who are in pull out don’t always miss the STEAM opportunities, the author’s tea parties, the project based learning opportunities, the collaborative group time, etc.  These are all valuable learning opportunities that help build 21st century learning skills such as collaboration, creativity, communication, and critical thinking.  Many times these are areas that our students with learning disabilities need opportunities to grow in as well.

4.)  All students, especially students with learning differences, will need you to think outside of the way you learn.  This may require you to go beyond all the modalities that you were taught in college.  A regular education classroom set up for whole group instruction may only be effective for a handful of students.  To find out what classrooms are like for students with learning disabilities and some ideas for effective differentiation check out this article posted on Reading Rockets by Kate Garnett Learn about your student’s specific areas of weakness. It may help you understand why the child is having difficulties.  Learn about your student’s specific strengths.   Ask yourself “If this were presented or taught in a different way, would the student understand it?” There are tons of resources out there that can tell you the best ways to teach students with specific learning disabilities. Be weary of lumping all students as “resource” and think they can all be served and taught the same way. A student with a visual processing disorder will learn differently than one with an auditory processing disorder, and certainly differently if he/she has deficiencies in both areas.

5.)    All students, especially students with learning disabilities benefit from encouragement.  They have often struggled and failed more times than anyone should have to. They do not need pity or sympathy, that can become a crutch or enable students to only see their struggles.  They need empathy and understanding for their experiences as a learner.  In her book, Brain-Friendly Strategies for the Inclusion Classroom, Judy Willis reminds us that, “As educators, we won’t know what gifts are hidden in our students until we unwrap their packages.” They need you to know they have gifts to offer.  They need you to look for them and then celebrate when you find them.  They need you to respect who they are and how they learn.  Thomas Armstrong, a writer for Education Week Teacher provides us with 7 Ways to Bring Out the Best in Special Needs Students that can help encourage and motivate our learners.

Our students with learning disabilities need you to teach that being different is okay and then act on those beliefs in ways that empower all learners.  They want you to know that when you believe in THEM, they believe in YOU.  As Lynda Mullaly Hunt says in Fish in a Tree, “Everybody is smart in different ways. But if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live its life believing it is stupid.”


Dawn J. Mitchell works in instructional services in Spartanburg (S.C.) School District Six. She specializes in literacy professional development and leads the district’s induction course to provide relevant strategies and support to first-year teachers. Mitchell also serves as the partnership coordinator and an adjunct instructor for the Spartanburg Writing Project and as an adjunct instructor at Furman University, where she supervises and mentors preservice and induction teachers through the Teacher to Teacher program. She is currently a member of the ASCD Emerging Leaders Class of 2015. Connect with Mitchell on Twitter @dawnjmitchell.

Nicole Brown works as a literacy coach at Anderson Mill Elementary School in Spartanburg (S.C.) School District Six. She has taught elementary school for 20 years and began her endeavor as a literacy coach this school year. Nicole received her undergraduate degree in elementary education from Clemson University and her master’s degree in leadership and administration from Converse College. Nicole is currently a member of SCASCD’s Emerging Leader Class of 2016.  Contact Nicole at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. and follow her on Twitter @nikkismithbrown.