Next Steps

Six graduates determinedly looking forward.

High school graduates with learning disabilities who are contemplating the next chapter in their academic careers should start learning about and preparing for that transition as early as possible. Programs like the CUSP Program can help.

There is in many ways a “disconnect” between high school and university which can make the transition to post-secondary that much harder. The secondary and post-secondary education systems are two very different systems that have evolved in very different ways, which means that students are often surprised by and unprepared for many aspects of the brave new world they finds themselves in after they leave high school. Beyond that, students with disabilities will discover differences in how their disability needs to be documented, how their accommodations are accessed, and in the expectation that they will take on a more active role in their own accommodation.

A number of previous LDAWE blog posts have discussed some of the obvious differences between these two education systems, and their impact on the transition process. Tammy Wilcox offered a parent’s perspective on this process in her article “Transitioning to University or College”. And in “Smooth Moves: Transitioning to University” and “Transition: Smooth Moves, Part 2”, I talk about some of these differences, and offer a bit of advice about preparing for them.

The reality is that educators and advisors in each of these systems are well aware of this apparent “disconnect”, and working hard to close this gap so that transitioning from high school to university or college can be a little more seamless (and a little less daunting) for our students. An example of this can be seen in the CUSP (College and University Success Preparation) Program, which is offered annually at the University of Windsor.

CUSP was created in collaboration with the Greater Essex County District School Board (GECDSB) (with help from our friends at St. Clair College and from the Learning Disabilities Association), to make sure that high school students who have a learning disability and/or ADHD get information they need well in advance in order to make informed choices about the academic path that’s right for them, whether that’s university or college. Students and their parents spend the morning with us learning about some of the differences between high school and college/university, as well as about the variety of services that are potentially available, how to access those services, and how to access funding for assessments and technology. They also have the opportunity to hear first-hand from a panel of students with LD/ADHD who have managed to transition smoothly from high school and are “getting it done” at a post-secondary level with great success.

High school students in Grade 11 or 12 who have a learning disability and/or ADHD and would like to start gathering information that can empower them to have a smoother transition to college or university can learn more on the CUSP webpage. Students affiliated with the GECDSB can also learn more from their Learning Support Teachers. Students from private or separate school board high schools are also welcome to join us, and are requested to contact us directly for registration. The link for that can be found on the CUSP webpage.

It has been said that the future belongs to those who prepare for it today.   So students, think about the kind of future you’d like to create for yourself, and start planning for it now. If you think there might be a place in that future for university or college, then consider joining us for the CUSP Program as an initial step in gathering the information you need to start creating the future you want.

Mindfulness

In my last few blogs I have talked about tips to help parents help their child (children) with anxiety problems. What I have learned is that if a system, or way of doing things (as the parent) has been established it is difficult to implement all of the things that have been suggested unless you are cognitively aware of the things your child is doing, and consistent in establishing routines and setting consequences in advance.

The other side of things is; what can a child with anxiety do to help himself or herself? Of everything I have heard from different speakers, or read on line or in books, the paramount way to help yourself is developing ‘mindfulness and learning self-awareness.’ In simplified language – helping you control your thoughts and finding ways to cope with internal distractions.

What is mindfulness?mindfulness

In her book, ‘Don’t Let Your Emotions Run Your Life For Teens’ Sheri Van Dijk says it is about paying close attention to what you’re doing in the present moment, noticing when your attention wanders, and bringing it back to what you’re doing. It is also about accepting, or not judging, whatever you happen to notice in the present moment, whether it’s thoughts you’re having, emotions that are coming up, things that are distracting you, or whatever.

Life is full of distractions, and what mindfulness does is try to help you deal with the distractions. It cannot help in all situations because sometimes the distractions are not things we can control. What it tries to do is allow an individual to control distractions when they are internal. I am sure everyone can remember a time they had to re-read something they have just read because, simply put, our mind was elsewhere. I know I love the fact that I can pause and or rewind live TV because I just missed something. Maybe it is because somebody was talking to me, or you were doing something else while watching TV, but maybe it is because my mind was wandering.

Why is mindfulness important for the person with anxiety?  It is important because often times when their mind is wandering, it is about things that make them anxious (an upcoming test, homework, something at home, a friend who is upset with you….). Mindfulness, if done correctly, can help this person to be able to concentrate more or solely on what they are currently doing and in turn, allow them to remove the stressors (anxiety) they are feeling.

In other words, if you are not thinking about the present, you must be thinking about the past or the future, and probably not about happy things – more often than not, (especially for anxious person) you are thinking about what did or might go wrong, or things that generate painful emotions – sadness, anger, shame…, this triggers the anxiety and causes more internal distractions.

Mindfulness is about living in the present so you are not living in the future or the past. It is realizing that things are okay just the way they are, right now in the moment even if the moment is not great or full of happy emotions. The thing is, even if you have to deal with what is actually going on in the present, it is better to do that, than dealing with the emotions being brought up by thoughts of the future or the past as well as the present.

There is so much more I can say, as mindfulness is a huge thing, I will touch on how to become mindful in my next blog.mindful

More Anxiety Tips…

In my last blog I talked about anxiety in children and offered some tips to help your child deal with anxieties. I want to stress again how difficult it is to follow the steps. The thing you have to remember is these are tips offering long term solutions and life strategies, not immediate response tips. In the moment they are the hard things to do. What you want, and it’s the job of any parent, is an adult who can function in society in any situation they may face, be it social, job related or by chance.

To continue on the list I started last time, I am going to offer some more tips, but first let’s revisit some of the suggestions from last time:

self awareness

  • Reduce excessive stress
  • Create a routine
  • Give consequences
  • Be supportive
  • Encourage their independence
  • Build their self-confidence

Set realistic expectations. It is important to have expectations, but remember that an anxious child may get frustrated if goals or expectations do not seem attainable. Break larger tasks into smaller steps and offer encouragement so your child feels a sense of accomplishment. Let them take steps forward, but let them do it at their own pace.

Control your reactions. Although it is important to be understanding and caring, do not overreact or let anxiety trick you into thinking that something is too hard or impossible for your child. Keep things in perspective. Yes, it might be challenging, but it can be done! On the other side of the pendulum, sometimes it is hard to understand our child’s anxiety or why something is so difficult for him or her. When we don’t acknowledge that our child is having a hard time with anxiety, the child may try to hide it (and suffer alone) or the symptoms may become more pronounced, (the pouting, arguing or misbehaving) in order to get the attention he or she needs.

Be Self-aware. It can be very difficult dealing with an anxious child. As important as it is to control your reactions for your child’s sake you also must manage your own reactions, for your own good. Do some things for yourself (enjoy a night out, read a book when the kids go to bed, go for a walk, or whatever helps you keep a positive perspective). Remember the basics: eat well, get enough sleep, and exercise! You can’t be helpful to your child if you don’t take care of yourself. You also need to be careful not to pass fears on to your children. Try to present a neutral reaction to situations and let you child know it’s safe to explore things.

Try Something New

Take Risks. This is true for everyone, but doubly important for an anxious child, so that they can build self-confidence and develop the necessary skills for dealing with people and their environment. Encourage your child to try new things such as ordering the pizza, or asking the store clerk a question. The other thing to remember is that children learn from example, so you can model brave behaviour by trying new things yourself.

Avoid Avoidance! Anxious children tend to want to avoid things that cause them anxiety. Even though avoiding things may reduce stress in the present, it allows fears to grow and makes things more difficult in the future. Avoid letting your child avoid things. Instead, encourage him or her to try things and take small steps towards facing fears!

Once again I do not offer this information as an exhaustive list, but as someone on a learning curve myself. Stay true to what you believe and know is right for the big picture, and not to simplify or ease the present situation. 

Predicting Success (and why hope matters)

Photo of tiny green seedling breaking through hard dry earth.

”Today’s students can put dope in their veins or hope in their brains.  If they can conceive it and believe it, they can achieve it.  They must know it is not their aptitude but their attitude that will determine their altitude”.                           Jesse Jackson

“Attitude is more important than the past, than education, than money, than circumstances, than what people do or say. It is more important than appearance, giftedness, or skill.”   And as it turns out, when radio preacher Charles R. Swindoll said this, he may well have been talking about students with learning disabilities.  A study published in Learning Disabilities & Practice suggests that there is a set of personal attitudes and behaviours which are more powerful predictors of success in persons with LD than traditional measures such as IQ, gender, ethnicity, or socio-economic status.

So what are these things that  successful students with learning disabilities are able to do that others seem to struggle with?  There are six qualities that set them apart:

  1. Self-Awareness
  2. Perseverance
  3. Proactivity
  4. Emotional Stability
  5. Goal-Setting
  6. Use of appropriate supports

Successful students with LD have a well–defined sense of self that goes far beyond their learning disability.  They tend to view their LD as simply one facet of who they truly are.  They develop an inner drive to never give up, but they also know how to change gears when something is not working in their lives.  They learn how to anticipate difficulty, and to take action which moves them toward a positive outcome.  They develop the skills they need to set realistic goals, and to reach them…step by step.   They find ways of recognizing and managing stressors in their lives, and can plan ahead for challenging situations.

The beauty of this is that these are all things that can be learned/developed from a very young age, with the right kind of guidance from parents and teachers.  Yes, it may come more naturally for some than for others, but at the end of the day (and this is true for all of us), it’s how we think and how we act that determines who we are and that shapes our destiny.  So when we’re looking at strategies, interventions and supports for students with learning disabilities, let’s not forget that helping to positively shape their behaviours and attitudes, and giving them hope, may be one of the most powerful interventions there is.

“Patterns of Change and Predictors of Success in Individuals With Learning Disabilities: Results from a Twenty-Year Longitudinal Study”      ( Learning Disabilities Research and Practice, 14 (1).35-49 )

Living with Dyslexia – Part One

There is so much to say when you are raising children with the gift of Dyslexia. There is truly something unique, creative and almost mystical about individuals born with this “learning disability.”

donny

I have been blessed with two beautiful boys, both of which have Dyslexia. However, Donny has faced the most challenges due to the degree with which Dyslexia has affected his life. Donny is my youngest boy and is going to be seventeen in a couple of weeks. I am very proud of him and the distance he has come, especially considering the challenges that he faces.

Donny had such difficulty learning how to read and write, yet was so bright in all other areas that it was very apparent there was an issue. I was amazed that someone so creative, bright and motivated to explore life could have such difficulty learning. He was diagnosed with Dyslexia and Dysgraphia by the school psychologist by grade four. This was mostly due to teachers that helped work to make him successful and partially from learning that advocating for your child is essential in order to help provide them with what is necessary for success in not only school, but life as well.

Part of the key is not only advocating for your child, but teaching your son or daughter how to advocate for themselves. I have always been one to hit the books when faced with an issue. Once learning my son had these challenges, I became engrossed in literature, blogs, webcasts, courses and any other piece of information that would help me to learn more about how my son’s brain functioned.

The most important part of the journey has been what my son learned. I have always kept him informed and updated on the exact challenges he was facing. We would talk about the problems he had and discussed how he could work to solve them. Donny was aware of his IEP and what it meant for his learning and has realized that he must learn to advocate for himself as he gets older. Donny does not let his learning disability get in the way or see it as a burden. He realizes that there are limitations to what he can do without some assistance, but with that knowledge he knows that he is an intelligent young man that can accomplish great things.

fish

I’ve touched only briefly on actually living with Dyslexia (and Dysgraphia) in this blog for a reason. I wanted to stress the success that Donny has experienced because he knows about his learning disability, the strategies he must use to overcome the challenges, and what steps he has to take to ensure that he has his needs met respectfully. I want to stress this because I remember the hopelessness I felt before we knew what was giving Donny a hard time. Once he was diagnosed, I again felt helpless because I wanted him to become an independent and successful individual and didn’t know the extent of his challenges. His Dyslexia is severe, yet he has persevered. I want to send that message.

The experiences Donny has acquired, due to his openness to share,  have empowered him. He now serves as the student representative for the Learning Disabilities Association- Windsor Essex and speaks openly about his challenges. Donny and I were just featured on the CBC radio program The Bridge, talking a bit about life so far. Please take a listen.

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Click on logo to hear broadcast

 

The night is always darkest…

High school and AD(H)D is like oil and water; you can mix them as rigorously as possible, yet they will always continue to separate.  The trick is to understand they don’t mix as well as other substances.  Teachers, parents, IEPs, and IPRCs are the breads and flours we need to complete this mix.  It takes the right combination of each to get a solid mixture.

When my mom got the call from Mr. Cousineau, she knew that I was finally going to receive the help I needed.  We met with Mr. Cousineau at the end of the school year, probably with a week or so of school left.  It was my grade 12 year, and next year I would be challenging myself with the OAC courses as I prepped myself for university.  Everyone wanted me to transition successfully to university–everyone except me; I just didn’t care.

We sat down with Mr. Cousineau, a tall, beefy, foot-ball-coaching type of guy.  He was calm, and reserved.  My mom sat down, ready to tear into him as a representative of the failed system that left me for educational-death.  Mr. Cousineau made a quick move as he introduced him self:

“Thanks for coming, I’m Mr. Cousineau (I’m sure he used his first name; I just don’t remember it,) and I’m just distraught and so sorry.”

And just in that introduction my mom was stunned to silence.  Now, if you knew anything of my mom, silence does not come cheap for her.  She was raised in a family of four kids, she was used to getting her way, and she was one of two girls in our household of seven.  She yelled, a lot.  This time, she just sat down and as robotic as any other meeting and she said:

“My name is Lynne Wachna, this is my son, Matthew.”

Mr. Cousineau quickly took control of the meeting.  He apologized over and over and explained how turnover in the special education department has led to a bit of unorganization.  He acknowledged that I did not receive the help I needed and took full responsibility, even as a new teacher.  He explained how there was nothing to be done about the past but learn from it to prepare for the future.  Next year he was going to make it his duty to see to it that I get the help I needed.  My mom was at the break of tears.  Everything she needed to hear, he said it.  Finally, a rope was thrown out to our sinking ship.

…Then my OAC year started.  Nothing but heart break for my mother.  Mr. Cousineau was transferred out to another school.  I’m sure it had something to do with budgets (I hope it did.)  Of all points in my schooling career, this I will always identify as having the second largest impact.  With no assistance, and a heavy course load, I quickly fell behind.  Ashamed to show my face in class, I skipped classes on a regular basis.  I started to hang out with the other students that skipped classes, getting involved with drugs and alcohol during school hours.  It was a mess.  It was my OAC year.  I had many highlights that year:

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  • A “0” in English
  • An average of 35% in all of my classes
  • Over 100 total absences
  • OFSAA Swimming Finalist (finished 6th and 13th)

Ya, I know, the last one doesn’t seem to fit.  I see the last part as proof that I wasn’t a loss cause.  There is a lot to share about my OFSAA experience and my medication, but that will be in my blog about my treatment.

I ended that year applying for university and college.  I met with my councilor at school to figure out what programs to apply to.  I wanted to be  a radio DJ, and he had no clue what program I should take.  He had me apply to anything that was drama.  One of those programs was the Drama in Education program at the University of Windsor.  This program had a full day interview requirement for its 2000 applicants (they would end up only picking 20.)  I made it to the interview and was actually selected.  They sent me a letter telling me that all I had to do was pass my OAC year with a 65% average.  I knew I was far from it.  I finished OAC with a 35% and no clue what I was going to do with my life.

My parents continued to push me that summer to upgrade at summer school and to register for a second try at OAC; a sixth year.  The first thing we did was meet with the vice principal, Manny.  My mom and I sat in his office, and the meeting started with a tone.  Manny sat down and told me I couldn’t come back.  He showed me my marks and absences and said I was over 18 and they didn’t want me back.  My mom lost it.  She somehow managed to release the anger inside without having to raise her voice; I had never been so scared.  She cited the years and years of lost education with no resources and no help.  She cited my files and their recommendations from doctors and psychologists.  Manny was stunned.  He swallowed his pride, and offered me a contract.  One missed class and I was out.  That year I skipped about 10 classes for school functions with Manny’s blessing.

I received the help I needed from a great LST teacher.  I received extra time on exams.  Teachers actually worked with me, rather than against me.  It felt so different, and I got caught up in it.  I started to develop into an organized student.  I worked on things like routines, organizational plans, and study plans.  It was great.  I finished that year with an 85% average and my first year tuition paid off in bursaries and scholarships.

Years later, I ended up in teachers’ college.  In my education, a fellow teacher candidate asked me if I would make a presentation about teaching students with AD(H)D.  I shared my story and was asked a burning question.  “Can you tell us some more positive stories, we feel like you have been bashing teachers the whole time and we kind of feel bad.”

To this I replied:  “Well, we’ve come a long way since.  When I was young, good stories were far and few.  My story should show that we are moving in the right direction in special education.”

Strategies for Success: Making this school year a positive one for your students with ADHD

It’s hard to believe that another summer has gone by and that it’s time for school once again.  I’ve always loved the beginning of a new school year.  It’s a refreshing new start and an opportunity to begin with a clean slate.   Image In a few short weeks, the ABC123 Tutoring Program at the LDAWE will recommence for the new school year.  For me, it’s always an exciting time as I prepare new language and math activities in anticipation of the students I will be working with and also freshen up some of my existing material.   Soon, I will be seeing my students that I have gotten to know very well over the last three years and I will be meeting new students that are joining the program for the first time.   My students are all diverse, with their own unique talents and their own set of challenges.  It’s a busy time especially in the beginning as I begin to map out the program in ways that will help each individual best.  One of the challenges I face is not the materials I prepare or the individual assessments I make.   The most difficult part of my job is managing the classroom with so many students, many of who have Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD). “Attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) is a common neurobiological disorder that can be noticed in the preschool or early grades of school. ADHD affects between 5-12% of the population or about 1 or 2 students in every classroom.”

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Individuals with ADHD will have at least one symptom that includes: Hyperactivity, Impulsivity and Inattentiveness.  (Read more about ADHD signs and symptoms at the LDAO website: http://www.ldao.ca/introduction-to-ldsadhd/introduction-to-ldsadhd/what-is-adhd/)  It can be a very busy and loud classroom environment and can be an enormous challenge for even the most seasoned teacher.

I believe that teachers can make the difference for students with ADHD and can contribute to a student’s success in school.  How a student feels about himself/herself is important and feeling confident and positive about their capabilities can help them achieve greater success in school.  I’ve had the opportunity to try various techniques and classroom management strategies that I’ve read about or learned in other teacher’s classrooms.  Over the last three years I have narrowed those ideas down to a few key strategies that work well with my students and help create a positive learning environment for everyone:

  • Create classroom rules with students and display them where everyone can see them.  Students are great at coming up with rules and will take ownership of the rules when they participate.   They are aware of what is acceptable and unacceptable in a classroom environment.  Get them involved to get them on board with the rules.
  • Refer to the rules when a student is not displaying appropriate behavior.  I take it a step further and help the student understand what it is they should be doing instead.

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  • Provide clear instructions.  Breaking down instructions into smaller parts can help keep students stay focused and on task.  Giving too much and saying too much can be overwhelming for any student including a student with ADHD.
  • Provide frequent breaks.   Let’s face it; working hard on school tasks can be too much sometimes, especially for students who struggle.  Giving frequent breaks can let them blow off some steam or just relax until they are ready to get back to their work.
  • Provide fidget toys or objects.  I have a small bin of squeeze toys and balls for my most fidgety students.  Having something in their hand helps eliminate some of that energy they have and helps them focus on what they are doing.  My rule is that as long as it’s not distracting to others they can use these objects freely.
  • Use positive reinforcement.  I never want to embarrass my students or punish them for their behavior when I know they have trouble controlling their impulsivity and hyperactivity.  I set some goals for each student to work on and reinforce the desired behavior with praise, small prizes or free time.
  • Never single out a student.  I try not to single out my students or call attention to their ADHD.  If I need to speak to them about a behavior I do it discreetly or privately.  I also used secret signals with students to let them know when they are off task or when they need to refocus.  The last thing a student who already feels alienated from their peers needs is to be humiliated in class in front of their peers.
  • Come prepared with lots of patience and kindness. Go with the mindset that students with ADHD can have a hard time learning because of impairment to their executive functions.  As teachers we need to be patient and help them navigate through this.  It’s not their fault; they are not lazy or stupid.  Be kind.  Put yourself in your student’s shoes.  What if this was you? What if this was your child?  As a mother it helps me look at my students as “my kids” and to treat them the way I’d want my child’s teacher to treat him.

I love the time I spend with my students even if it is a challenge at times.   I frequently remind myself that even though I have worked with many students with ADHD they are all unique. Image Strategies that work with one child may not work with another.  As a teacher I know I need to be flexible and to treat each student as an individual.  I also know that at times I may not have the answer, and I may need to reflect on that.  I do try to have fun and not sweat the small stuff; it makes for a more relaxed environment where students are not afraid to be themselves and are more open to learning in a classroom community.

What strategies have you used in your classroom with your students?