A Time for Change… Student-Led Individual Education Plans

Guest Blog Post by: Bev Clarke, Executive Director of LDAWE

Self-AdvocacyHaving reviewed many Individual Education Plans (IEPs) that indicate the student should develop better self-advocacy skills, I am always curious to know how the student will learn to be an effective self-advocate.   Whose responsibility is it to explain the student’s learning disability; the legislation that outlines his/her rights; the services / supports / accommodations available; relevant language; and ultimately the policies and procedures to be followed, when engaging in self-advocacy? Is the psychologist that diagnoses, the parent, the teacher, the school administrator, or outside agency such as the Learning Disabilities Association responsible for teaching the student to be an effective self-advocate?

How do we measure whether the student is becoming a better self-advocate?  Is it when the student requests the accommodations and support outlined in the IEP that was prepared for student by an educator, in consultation with a parent?  Is it when the student is able to work independently in the classroom?  Is it when the student is able to get what they need in classroom without demonstrating or causing frustration? Or… is it when they are able to effectively contribute and direct their own IEP?  The Ontario Government’s Individual Education Plan (IEP) A Resource Guide (2004) indicates that principals are required to ensure that those students over 16 years of age must be consulted in the development of their IEP.  The Guide further indicates, “that any student for whom an IEP is being developed should be consulted to the degree possible.”  So, when and how does this begin?

I am the "I" in IEPI have had many conversations with parents, educators, other professionals, who suggest that the child may be too young to understand his/her learning disability; however, when speaking to very young children, they are clearly able to identify their strengths, and more specifically their differences, and while I wouldn’t expect a primary student to be able to say “I have central auditory processing disorder, which makes it difficult for me to prioritize noise in the classroom, so it would be very helpful to me to have access to an FM system,”  I would expect a primary student to be able to say, “I can’t pay attention when there is too much noise.”  They may not know all the educational and disability lingo and possible solutions to addressing their learning needs, but they recognize their differences very early.  Self-advocacy instruction and support should begin early.

The United Nations adopted the motto Nothing About Us, Without Us for International Day of Disabled Persons in 2004.  Observance of the Day was intended “to focus on the active involvement of persons with disabilities in the planning of strategies and policies that affect their lives.” The motto relies on the principle of participation and has been associated with the global movement for individuals with disabilities to achieve full participation and equalization.  I would argue that direct instruction and support is required for many students with learning disabilities to have full participation in the development of their IEPs and to develop the skills and acquire the knowledge to become effective self-advocates.

Student Led IEPThe IEP is arguably the most important document developed regarding the student with exceptionalities at school. The IEP meeting provides an opportunity to discuss critical issues and make decisions regarding specific accommodations and support services.  Creating the IEP without the student or with only token involvement teaches the student that his or voice is not important (Hawbaker, 2007); it is important for students with learning disabilities to not only be the receiver, but the author of their accommodations (McCarthy, 2007) and observing the student’s ability to meaningfully contribute to the IEP provides the school team with a way to measure the effectiveness of the self-advocacy instruction.  The goal is for students with learning disabilities to move from others leading their learning to students leading their own learning, with IEP meetings providing an opportunity to practice their decision making skills and gradually increasing autonomy to promote increased self-responsibility (Connor, 2012).

Students cannot be expected to know appropriate meeting protocol, systems, policies and procedures, and all the lingo the surrounds issues associated with education, disability, and legislation without instruction; however, they can be taught this information, with support and instruction from parents, educators, professionals, and local agencies. Developing effective self-advocacy skills as an elementary and secondary school student prepares the student to successfully advocate for themselves in a post-secondary environment, in the workplace, and in the community.


Connor, D. (2012). Helping students with disabilities transition to college – 21 tips for students with LD and/or ADHD. Teaching Exceptional Children. 44, 5, 16-25.

Hawbaker, B. (2007) Student-led IEP meetings: Planning and implementation strategies – A case story. Teaching Exceptional Children Plus. 3, 5.

McCarthy, D. (2007). Teaching self-advocacy to students with disabilities. About Campus. 12, 5, 10-16. doi:10.1002/abc.225.

Orton-Gillingham and Dyslexia

cropped-new_website_header_11This blog has covered many aspects of dyslexia so far. I have discussed what it is like to live with dyslexia, different ways to cope with organizational aspects of having a learning disability, the importance of empowering your child with dyslexia and many other different angles. But what about timely intervention?

If your child has been formally diagnosed with a reading disorder, or dyslexia (a term not often used in psychological reports), you may have done some research. Most likely you have found that, among the many ways to assist children in tackling their challenges in reading, the Orton-Gillingham method is one of the most effective, research-based programs to remediate for reading disorders. Often, psychological reports may recommend Orton-Gillingham programs or private tutors in order to help children with dyslexia develop effective strategies in their reading and writing.

I have had the recent privilege of becoming the Centre Director for Windsor’s Scottish Rite Learning Centre at the Masonic Temple. The Centre is funded by The Scottish Rite Charitable Foundation of Canada Learning Centres for Children and their mission statement is as follows:

“to provide quality, state of the art, free remedial tutoring to children with difficulties in reading, writing, and scholastic skills formally identified as dyslexia.”

The Scottish Rite Charitable Foundation uses the definition of dyslexia from the International Dyslexia Association. Their definition is as follows:

“Dyslexia is a neurologically-based, often familial, disorder which interferes with the acquisition of language. Varying in degree of severity, it is manifested by difficulties in receptive and expressive language, including the system of processing sounds in language (phonology) in reading, writing, spelling, handwriting and sometimes in arithmetic. Emotional disturbances and behavioural difficulties are often secondary results. Dyslexia is not a result of lack of motivation, sensory impairment, inadequate instructional or environmental opportunities, or other limiting conditions, but may occur together with these conditions. Although dyslexia is lifelong, individuals with dyslexia frequently respond successfully to timely and appropriate remediation.”

At the Learning Centre, we receive many referrals for children whose parents wish for them to attend, and with good reason! The Orton-Gillingham tutoring we provide has been proven to be very successful in the remediation of dyslexia.

It is so true that many components of the Orton-Gilllingham program would assist any child whose struggles with reading! However, the Scottish Rite Charitable Foundation Learning Centre has specifications in order for a child to qualify for the free tutoring program.dyslexia-conclusion

I would like to share some more information about the specifics of the Learning Centre.

Is there any cost for the tutoring at the Scottish Rite Learning Centre?

No. The program is absolutely free for children that meet the qualifications.

Who does qualify for tutoring?

Children that are formally identified as having a reading disorder, or dyslexia are candidates for the Learning Centre. This means the child has had a psychological assessment (administered by a psychologist either privately or by a School Board) that formally diagnoses them with a learning disability in reading. However, this is not the only criteria. Children must also fit the profile of being ‘dyslexic’ in order to benefit from the program. Children with dyslexia demonstrate intelligence within the average range and have only specific difficulties in reading. Students dealing with other challenges (i.e. multiple disabilities, intellectual disabilities, etc.) would not necessarily get the benefit of our program. All applications are looked at on an individual basis to determine eligibility and all students at our Centre are on a trial basis, as not all students are as receptive to the program.

What if my child has not had a psychological report, but has difficulty reading?

The Learning Centre requires formal diagnosis through a psychological report in order to be considered for the program. Psychological assessments can be obtained privately. They tend to be expensive but sometimes ar covered by benefit/health plans. If a student struggles at school, they may obtain an assessment through the school board, especially if they are significantly behind their grade level.

Although the tutoring would be beneficial in teaching many children how to read, the Learning Centre has a long waiting list of students that are formally diagnosed and meet the requirements of the program. There are many tutors that provide our services privately for a fee.


How long is the program? What is the time commitment?

The length of time that it takes to provide tutoring depends on the child. However, the average length of time to complete the entire program is approximately two to two and half years.

Tutoring is twice weekly, for an hour each session. As this is an intensive and very expensive program to run, it is expected that the child is there for every session. Other commitments (e.g. sports, music lessons, etc.) are expected to be secondary to your child learning how to read and write. Therefore, frequent cancellations due to these reasons (and others) would likely cause a student to be suspended from tutoring sessions. Commitment is essential to The Learning Centre.


What are the tutors’ qualifications?

The Scottish Rite Charitable Foundation provides certification for our tutors. Tutors apply to the program with proof of post-secondary education, a resume, and must provide police clearance. A Bachelor of Education is preferable, but not necessary for training. Tutors must also have a good command of the English language in order to qualify. Training for Orton-Gillingham certification requires 45 hours of instruction, many required readings (with subsequent reports/reflections on the readings), quizzes and a final exam. Additionally, each tutor must do a 100-hour practicum tutoring students in this methodology, with at least 8 of these hours being observed by the tutor trainer to determine effectiveness.

Training can be obtained through the Learning Centre free of charge to those qualified and interested in the time commitment. It is a requirement that the practicum is done at the Centre with our children.

What is the time commitment for Tutor Certification?

Full certification takes approximately two to two and a half years to obtain. Each tutor begins tutoring one student for an hour, twice weekly. When they are ready, tutors take on a second student bringing the time commitment up to two hours, twice weekly. We highly value our tutors and the commitment they put in to tutor our students.

Do tutors get paid?

No. The tutors that work at the Learning Centre volunteer their time. The practicum allows them to gain the necessary experience to obtain certification through the Scottish Rite Charitable Foundation. However, certified tutors may take on students privately, but do not work through the Learning Centre.

How can I learn more about getting tutor certification through the Scottish Rite Charitable Foundation?

To get further details about the qualifications and commitment of being a certified Orton-Gillingham tutor, or to obtain more information on tutoring your child. Please contact:

windsorbear - colourTammy Groulx (formerly Wilcox)

The Windsor Scottish Rite Learning Centre

986 Ouellette Ave.

Windsor, ON



Mindful Living for Kids

UWindsor Blog Post by: Carlin J. Miller, Ph.D

Goldie HawnMindfulness is a hot topic in the media. Football players do it. Hollywood types do it. Kids in Vancouver Public Schools are even doing it. Yet, many people really don’t know what mindfulness training entails. Mindfulness training is about learning to meditate, which means paying attention to thoughts and feelings and behaviours as they happen without getting caught up in them. The goal is to not ruminate over the past or plan for the distant future, because both block our ability to experience what is happening right now. Most of the time, mindfulness is an “anchored practice,” which means you learn to focus on a specific aspect of your experience, such as your breath or the sounds you hear around you. There is no intention to block other thoughts or to change thinking. It really is about noticing.

Mindfulness training might sound very mystical but it isn’t really. It came from a Buddhist practice and was transformed into a secular activity in 1970s by a researcher in Massachusetts who wanted to help people with chronic pain to live more full lives. Since then, Mindfulness-based Stress Reduction and the many related interventions designed for special populations have been taught to hundreds of thousands of people. There are even forms of it for women during childbirth, people undergoing cancer treatment, and survivors of trauma and other potentially overwhelming experiences. Programs also been developed for children in classrooms, parents, and teachers.

Mindfulness in SchoolsOver the last year, my research team and I have been teaching parents and teachers of children with ADHD to meditate in a program called Mindful Living. We hoped that as these adults, who spend time with somewhat more challenging than typical children, learned to be present in their daily lives they would be less stressed and more effective in their interactions. We also hoped they would experience greater life satisfaction and more joy. Although we have only worked with 20 people thus far (too few to present any real statistics), our participants enjoyed the 8-week intervention and many continued to meditate following their completion of the program. It also appears that they are less stressed, more mindful, and have a better understanding of ADHD. We are now working with one of the local school boards to expand this training to more teachers this spring and next fall.

Because so many of our participants suggested these strategies would be helpful for the children and adolescents with ADHD in their lives, we developed a program called Mindful Living for Kids. Our first round of 6-sessions starts on May 13th and the sessions are 1 hour in length. We will have a group for children in grades 3-5 and another for preteens in grades 6-8. Unlike meditation training with adults, this program will be very hands-on with crafts, activities, and movement-based meditation, rather than emphasizing sitting quietly. If you would be interested in hearing more information or having your child participate, please call Dr. Carlin Miller at the University of Windsor (519-253-3000, x.2226).

About the Author:

Carlin Miller is a faculty member at the University of Windsor in the Department of Psychology. As a clinical psychologist with extended training in developmental neuropsychology and school psychology, she has spent the last 20 years trying to improve the quality of life for people with ADHD and learning disabilities. Prior to her doctoral work, she was a public school teacher. She found her passion for advocacy and research through her experience of growing up in a family with multiple people diagnosed with both disorders. In addition to her long resume with many publications and presentations, Dr. Miller has also been meditating for the last decade and brings to her research on meditation the positive experience of trying to live in the present. In addition to her work with the local chapter of the Learning Disabilities Association, she is also a provincial appointee to the Board of Directors of the Windsor-Essex Health Unit. When not at work, she is a mom, a wife, an avid gardener, and someone trying to be the person her puppy believes her to be. 

I Can’t Hear What You’re Not Saying (Cracking the Non-Verbal Code)

Hand putting puzzle piece into place.

Making and maintaining solid social connections can be puzzling for kids who don’t understand non-verbal communication.

We communicate with one another in code. Somehow we’ve agreed that certain sounds and symbols in just the right sequence are going to represent specific things and ideas, and through the miracle of language we can share with each other what is in our minds.

But there’s much more to communication than just language. It has been estimated that anywhere from 60 to 90% of our daily communication is non-verbal. Think about that for a second; less than half of our communication comes from the words we use, while the rest comes from how those words are delivered. Now, imagine that you were never able to learn the secret code of non-verbal communication. Imagine that you are unable to receive any of the visual and non-verbal messages that are transmitted in a conversation, relying only on the words delivered in a robotic monotone with no inflection or emotion. Not only would you be missing most of the meaning behind attempts to communicate with you, but you would be severely limited in your attempts to express yourself to others. And if you can imagine that at all, then you have some sense of what social interactions might like for someone with a non-verbal learning disability (or any other condition that involves impaired non-verbal and social communication). You have imagined what it might be like to be Sheldon Cooper.

Black and white image of Dr. Shelson Cooper form the televsion show The Big Bang Theory.

Dr. Sheldon Cooper’s obvious social awkwardness is due in large part his inability to understand non-verbal communication.

Fans of The Big Bang Theory will know that it’s probably a lot of work to be friends with the Asperger-ish Sheldon Cooper. He has extremely poor social skills, tends not to understand jokes or sarcasm, is very concrete in his communication, and is constantly misinterpreting the social behaviours that are happening around him. He seems not to be very good at the non-verbal communication that lubricates our social interactions and conversations. And although this can make for a funny and entertaining half-hour of television, the challenge of living with this kind of impairment in the real world is daunting to consider.

In another blog article (“The Loneliest Kid on the Bus”) we talked about kids with social skills deficits, and how that often involves difficulty with non-verbal communication. But what is non-verbal communication, exactly, and what are we actually doing (often without realizing it) to communicate with each other non-verbally?  Well, it’s much more than just ‘body language’, and it involves things like:

  • our facial expressions (which can express emotion without our needing to say a word)
  • our eye contact (the length and intensity of which can express interest, boredom, hostility, affection, and which can be important for maintaining conversational flow)
  • our body movements and posture (the ways in which we walk, stand, sit, move, tilt our heads all say something about our mood and intentions)
  • our gestures (conversational hand gestures when we speak, symbolic gestures like a fist-bump or thumbs-up, and fidgeting or manipulating objects all convey information to our conversational partner)
  • our use of touch (a pat on the back, a touch of the arm, a strong/weak handshake, all contribute valuable information to a conversation)
  • our appropriate use of physical space (understanding the difference between public space, social space, personal space, and intimate space)
  • how we use our voice (including our use of volume, tone, inflection, timing, pace, pauses, and even our use of non-speech sounds to convey meaning)
  • our choice of words and phrases, and our understanding of the social context for using language
  • meta-communication (the use of any of the above to send a message about our message. For example, we might soften a sarcastic comment by smiling or winking)

So it’s not difficult to see how someone who constantly misunderstands or misinterprets this kind of information, and who may be missing more than half of the content that is being communicated, will be seen as having poor social skills. This might manifest in behaviours that can include:

  • a tendency to think and communicate literally and concretely (and therefore, a related tendency to misunderstand jokes, metaphors, idioms, sarcasm)
  • physical and social awkwardness
  • a tendency to miss or misunderstand social cues
  • a seeming ‘obliviousness’ to people’s reactions or feelings
  • a misunderstanding of appropriate social space (standing too close to people, making them uncomfortable)
  • a seeming inability to see the big picture, often getting lost in the details
  • poor conversational skills, changing the subject abruptly, or not using appropriate turn-taking in conversation
  • difficulty making friends

We all sit somewhere on the spectrum of non-verbal abilities, ranging from people with exceptional skills at understanding and using it in their interactions, to people who are completely unable to recognize or interpret this critical aspect of communication. There are a number of reasons why this might be. For someone on the autism spectrum, or with social/pragmatic communication disorder, or with a non-verbal learning disability, it may be that their brains are just not hardwired to learn these skills as readily as the rest of us. For someone with other kinds of learning disabilities or with ADHD, it may be that they are not able to consistently apply the non-verbal skills they may have learned, or that they lack the awareness and self-control to apply good social judgement. Whatever the case, there are strategies that can be learned and scripts that can be taught to help kids improve their skill set in this area.

It’s been suggested that the most important part of communication is hearing what isn’t said, and the research bears this out. Our words carry only part of the message, and understanding the non-verbal messages that support and augment language can go a long way toward enhancing our social/communication skills, and ultimately our relationships.

Representation of the sender-receiver model of communication.

Click on this image to learn more about non-verbal communication

The Learning Disabilities Association of Windsor-Essex County (LDAWE) offers programs designed to build effective communication techniques for everyday situations (including sessions on social communication and understanding body language).  They also offer recreation and support groups where people can practice the skills they are learning in comfortable ‘real-world’ settings.  Contact the LDAWE for more information.

Tech Kids

This weekend 48 teams participated in the largest robot competition in Canada: the Windsor-Essex Great Lakes Regional.  Teams came from across Ontario, Michigan, New York and California to compete at the University of Windsor.  My spouse took my son to partake in the events Saturday morning and he came home with an amazing amount of energy.  He was so excited that he decided to build the robot he received last year for his birthday.  He has been working on it all weekend to my amazement.


Watching my son’s enthusiasm got me to thinking about other kids and how to get them excited about technology.  As a former engineer and now a teacher that works with students with learning disabilities and ADHD, I wondered how students with disabilities can participate in Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM) activities with success.

Based on the research, individuals with disabilities are underrepresented in STEM careers despite advances in adaptive technology. According to the National Science Foundation, individuals with disabilities are employed in only 5–6% of the U.S. STEM jobs. 1

Too many students are told that STEM is too hard or that they aren’t smart enough. STEM can be difficult, but with appropriate support and mentoring, students with learning disabilities can be successful.  Some studies show that the use of “advance organizers” such as study guides, charts, and graphic displays is helpful to reinforce vital concepts for students with learning disabilities.  Another strategy that is rooted in UDL is to provide an introduction of vocabulary and key terms at the beginning of each lesson.  The use of prompts, organizational cues, bridging phrases (i.e. “an important point to remember”), and real-life examples helps to show important concepts.

Many students with learning difficulties have below average reading skills.  The layout of science textbooks makes it more difficult for these students to read and understand the text which they are reading.  Teachers can help by identifying important items in the text and clarify anything that may be confusing.  Teachers can also consider providing chapter notes. Providing visual aids and class transcriptions can help as can a variety of pedagogical instructional strategies based on UDL.


Teachers should provide clear instructions both verbally and written for students with learning disabilities.  Complex assignments and experiments are better to broken down into smaller tasks with intermediate due dates.

Finally, students need to be encouraged that they can pursue their interests and study STEM successfully.  Providing mentoring and programs that assist students with learning disabilities follow these interests has shown to be just as important as providing accommodations in the classroom.   Students gain confidence in their skills and are more willing to take risks and try different things.

robot kids

Working with students with learning disabilities I am able to see first-hand how passionate many students are about Science and Technology.   They are inquisitive and knowledgeable and very much passionate about learning.  Difficulties with reading and organization can inhibit their learning.  It’s time for us as parents and educators to shift the paradigm and start encouraging kids to pursue their interests no matter how “hard” it is perceived.  As educators, we need to evaluate our pedagogical styles to ensure that we are as inclusive as possible and are reaching every child.  We need to help our students follow their interests and take risks.  We need to help them stay on course and not quit when things become too difficult.  What strategies do you use in your classroom to teach STEM to your students with learning disabilities?

  1. Students with Disabilities Can Participate and Succeed in STEM Education Anya Evmenova, Melinda Jones Ault, and Margaret E. Bausch, 2013.

ADHD and Handwriting

UWindsor Blog Post by: Thomas A. Duda, M.A.

The diagnosis of Attention Deficit-Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) often conjures to mind an image of a child who doesn’t pay attention during school, is very talkative, acts without thinking, and appears to be constantly on the move as if powered by a motor. In addition to these cardinal features of ADHD, those with ADHD also tend to present with other differences compared to those without ADHD, including problems with motor control. In particular, the handwriting of those with ADHD is often described as illegible and less organized than those without ADHD. However, looking at what’s written down on paper isn’t the only way to think about handwriting. For example, other kinds of research has identified differences in the handwriting of those with ADHD at the actual movement level. Said another way, there are differences not only in what handwriting looks like, but also in the movements during handwriting. As one example, scientists in Australia found that how forcefully children with ADHD wrote was related to symptoms of hyperactivity and impulsivity. There are several different ways to conduct these kinds of studies, but scientists have most frequently used digitizing tablets (think “iPad”) to study handwriting motor movements.

Child with ADHDResearchers at the University of Windsor have been studying handwriting movements in children and adults with ADHD since about 2011. During this time, several interesting discoveries have been made. For example, parents and educators talk about children with ADHD as having a problem “doing what they know” rather than “knowing what to do.” They also show a lot of variability in performance such that the only thing that is consistent is their inconsistency! They may do really well on one assignment, but on the next one, although similar, do very poorly. They may complete chores satisfactorily sometimes, whereas on other occasions, these chores are completed haphazardly. This variability isn’t limited to these kinds of activities. Compared with adults without ADHD, Windsor researchers found that the handwriting movements of adults with ADHD were significantly more variable on average. Interestingly, this was only the case when learning a new symbol and it didn’t matter if they were on or off their medication for the treatment of ADHD. It was also shown that these adults with ADHD didn’t become as fluent in reproducing the new symbol as quickly as the adults without ADHD. This could mean that it takes more practice for adults with ADHD to become fluent when learning how to write.

Handwriting TabletThe next question might be, why is this important? Good question! First, these findings show that certain characteristics of ADHD (i.e., differences in handwriting motor movements) are not limited to childhood and continue into adulthood. In addition, the observation that adults with ADHD may take more time to become fluent at a motor task could have implications for accommodations. What’s more is that within the greater scope of psychology, researchers are trying to come up with new ways to identify and diagnose different kinds of psychological and neurodevelopmental disorders. Needed are more objective measures of functioning and this type of research can help with developing new methods to do this! Researchers at the University of Windsor are currently investigating if differences in variability and learning how to write that were observed in adults can also be found in children with ADHD, how different “thinking” abilities might be related to developing fluent handwriting in those with and without ADHD, and whether or not an objective measure of handwriting fluency development can successfully identify those who have ADHD.

Thomas A. Duda, M.A.
PhD Candidate
University of Windsor