How can you help students who have a diagnosed or undiagnosed specific learning difficulty?

Often, one of the main challenges for an individual with specific learning difficulties (SpLD) is a lack of confidence. There is no blueprint or “one size fits all” when it comes to helping, which is why taking the time to understand an individual’s struggles is so essential in achieving effective changes.

For this month’s article we spoke to Isabelle, a tutor at a vocational training college in London. Isabelle works with over 40 students, who are all working towards completing a vocational qualification in Business and Administration. Amongst her students are a number of individuals who have additional learning needs. They range in age from school leavers up to age 55. We spoke to Isabelle to find out what she thinks are the main challenges for individuals with specific learning difficulties and how she thinks they are best overcome.

What are the challenges faced by someone with a specific learning difficulty?

Dyslexic learners often struggle with written assignments that are marked on sentence structure, spelling, and punctuation. When they are allowed to give presentations, many individuals will pass with no problems, but writing exams is an entirely different ball game.

“It’s about understanding their challenges and what can support them”.

Understandably, a lack of confidence can have a huge impact on how an individual performs. “A lot of my apprentices are working in well-established organisations. You would think they would have confidence because they were offered this job, but often they don’t feel confident at all. They worry about time constraints.” A lot of dyslexic students are not formally diagnosed and because of this they are not allowed extra time in an exam situation or for written assignments.

Time constraints also affect the work of tutors — in order to do their students justice, tutors need to be able to take the time to assess their needs. “It’s about understanding their challenges and finding the right support for them. Knowing the different things available and knowing that every learner is different. It’s about creating an action plan specific to one person’s needs to help them achieve“. However, if there are a number of students needing support on one course, it can be hard to be so thorough. Often individuals with dyslexia choose more practical courses or career paths, which might play to their strengths more naturally.

Following a more practical route is also what worked for Isabelle’s own brother. She tells us what life was like for him pre-diagnosis. “He was labelled with behavioural problems when younger — he was put into lower bands at school even though he could communicate verbally really well.”

While he was studying for his GCSEs her brother couldn’t spell Isabelle’s name. He had previously been assessed but was told that he didn’t have dyslexia. Isabelle, who did her undergraduate thesis on adult dyslexia and phonological processing, used her own diagnostic tools to assess her brother. Her assessment of him led to another assessment that finally resulted in a formal diagnosis. “It helped him through school and college and he is now a Site Manager.” Receiving the diagnosis allowed him to improve and move forward; Isabelle tells us that things finally made sense to him because he now knew he had a disability.

Her experiences within her family are the reason Isabelle was motivated to go into this field in the first place. In addition to her brother, her other sibling also has specific learning difficulties — dyspraxia and Meares-Irlen Syndrome, which is a form of visual stress that can lead to difficulties with reading and other fine vision tasks.

“If they’re passionate about it — it will help them learn”.

The question is, what can tutors and teachers, who have no personal experience, do to help individuals with specific learning difficulties? Isabelle suggests they can help students focus on their strengths, which makes it easier for them to relate to a subject. “I encourage learners to approach their essays with things that engage them. If they’re passionate about it — it will help them learn”.

Isabelle goes even further by pointing out that colleges need to provide students with positive reasons for attending that college in the first place, such as success stories. She also suggests offering learners resources that are not focussed on reading but on listening.

In the workplace employers can do their part by offering a buddy system where new employees can shadow someone who has experience in their new role. The buddy can give them a detailed induction, function as their go-to person and provide them with best practice examples. They can set goals for them and monitor their progress, areas for which a manager wouldn’t always have the time.

Trying to break down the ‘I cannot do it’ mentality”

When asked what she finds most challenging about her work, Isabelle immediately says, “Trying to break down the ‘I cannot do it’ mentality”, which can be very deeply ingrained when the learner has not had the right support at school.

She also again mentions time constraints as a main challenge, constraints her students feel as well as she does. “Things can take them longer. I feel the pressure to push them to get things done in the time frame”. To overcome these barriers, Isabelle thinks about what her students can do, like choosing an exam over an assignment because they like to make use of memory tools. She also encourages them to choose modules that are in line with their strengths. Isabelle also suggests something very practical and quick — doing the power pose, a confidence technique that can have quite an impact.

Isabelle says that her own organisational skills help her to overcome time constraints. She constantly upskills her knowledge and tries to find more efficient ways of working.

At the same time, she says that what she enjoys most about her job is the light bulb moments, when an individual she has worked with finally has a break through — “Even when you just give a student a spelling strategy and help them crack a word they’ve never been able to spell“. Isabelle’s role is to give her students the confidence they need to be independent. When one of them finally submits an assignment after struggling with it for months or receives positive feedback on their work — that gives her joy.

So, what can you do when working with learners who have a specific learning difficulty? Taking the time and finding out about people’s personal needs is what counts, that and knowing what help is available. Because every learner is different, action plans always need to take their specific needs into account.

Contact us to find out how we can help you to support the individual learners in your organisation.

Written by Olivia d’Elsa-Green for Lexxic

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