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Exploring Learning Differences and Available Approaches to Special Education

Sep 08, 2016 03:51PM ● By Cate Reynolds

Special Needs, Special Programs


By Kat Spitzer

Finding the right educational path for your child is not always an easy decision. Every parent questions at some point if their child is getting what they need from their school, whether to go to public or private school, and whether to home school or traverse a more traditional path. There seems to be a constant conversation about teaching methods, learning styles, and educational requirements among parents and educators. If your child has been determined to have a cognitive learning difference, those decisions can sometimes seem more complicated.

Students with a diagnosis of Dyslexia, Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), Asperger’s, Dysgraphia, Dyscalculia, Auditory Processing Disorder, Apraxia, and others, need special attention, outside of a traditional course of study, in order to succeed and get the most out of their education. A number of schools in the area have formed to address the needs of some of these students and create an environment where they can build confidence and flourish both academically and socially. Not all schools can handle all needs, however.

Private institutions, for example, are smaller compared to their public counterparts and attract students from multiple towns, counties, and even nearby states. They run in price from $25,000–$29,000 per year, but all the schools offer financial aid options. Admission into the schools is based on the needs of the students and the school’s ability and resources to meet those needs. Cognitive and psycho-educational testing can be done through the public school system and can also be done by an independent diagnostician or psychologist. Schools will analyze these results and meet with the students individually to determine if their learning differences can be served.

The Summit School in Edgewater serves students with average or above-average cognitive skills in grades 1-8, who demonstrate weaknesses in reading, writing, math, language processing, working memory, and/or organization. “When students comes to us, they are often reading or writing below grade level. At Summit, students are placed in small groups according to skill level. They receive instruction that meets them at their current skill level and moves them towards grade-level performance,” says Dr. Joan Mele-McCarthy, Executive Director. “Often, the students who come to us have, in more traditional environments, lost confidence as a learner and have become bystanders in their education. We give them a place to be active participants in learning and gain confidence.” With a STEM infused program filled with iPads and other technology, the students participate in quite a bit of collaborative work in a neurologically-safe environment. 

At The Summit School, students are not graded at all until the middle of the fifth grade. Up until that point, it is more about feedback for the students. “Homework is very deliberate, and designed for students to do it independently,” Dr. Mele-McCarthy says. “What happens in class on Tuesday, depends on what happens Monday and how the homework went. If the students don’t get it, then the teacher reteaches it a different way to increase understanding. It builds confidence for students to be able to do the work themselves. And it significantly reduces family stress at home over homework.” The teachers work with parents to help them understand their children’s learning styles. The parents have often described the benefits of this communication as “getting their life back” and “so much less stress.”

Wye River Upper School in Centreville works with bright students in grades 9–12 who have ADHD, ADD, Dyslexia, or anxiety which impacts their learning. “The school provides a well-rounded high school experience with acceptance and emotional support,” says Katie Theeke, Director of Admissions and Communications. A number of the students enter Wye River having struggled socially in larger, more traditional settings. They may not have had the confidence to speak up as much in class. In a school like Wye River, with a total student body of 45 and class sizes of seven or eight students, the students receive tailored, individualized attention. They feel more apt to speak out in class, and more accepted overall. “We specialize in more project-based, experiential learning that prepares students for real life circumstances,” Theeke says. That preparation pays off with 100 percent of the students getting accepted to two or four-year schools after graduation.

Wye River combines the specialized learning environment with unique programs and extracurricular activities to build on students’ success stories. Sports programs are held in the morning, before school, as scientific evidence shows that the benefits of enhanced focus, attention, and mood can last for hours after a workout. This can improve the whole day. Students also have a 21st Century class in the middle of the day that is student led, and based on a subject they choose to learn about. They make a pitch for the topic, then use tools such as blogging, writing documents, and a process of self-evaluation to complete the project. Some of these projects have included forming a student radio station, and a course in computer animation. “We are working with students who were shutting down, unhappy, and disconnected,” Theeke says. “With the smaller setting and increased support, these students are more comfortable taking risks, asking questions, and advocating for themselves. Instead of focusing on what’s wrong, they can now focus on using their strengths.”

The Radcliffe Creek School in nearby Chestertown works with students in grades K–8 with Dyslexia, ADHD, Asperger’s, Dysgraphia, Dyscalculia, Auditory Processing Disorder, or Apraxia. With a 3:1 student to staff ratio, the school can truly tailor each child’s schedule to meet his or her needs. “We customize their day,” says Molly Judge, Founding Director. “We aim for mastery of subjects before we move on, so we are flexible with the progress the students make. We can change the lesson to meet with where they are at that moment.” In a more traditional setting, it is often more difficult to alter that pace and practice a lesson enough before having to move on to the next lesson. The education at Radcliffe Creek is more art integrated and active. Students spend time both inside and outside to do hands-on projects. Occupational, speech, and language therapists are always on hand to help teachers with student needs and all teachers at the school are trained on the same research-based methodology to be able to work with the students’ learning differences. The goal is to prepare the students to be able to more easily transition to a more traditional learning environment in high school and beyond.

The benefits of such a tailored education are numerous. “The students gain an understanding of how they learn, which empowers them in taking control of their educations through their own style of learning. It builds independence and students leave the school with so much confidence,” Judge says. “They may believe they are no good at something, but here they learn the skills to participate and end up with having pride, opportunity, camaraderie, and ownership.” Most of the students also participate in after school activities, which include sports teams, drama, music, and chess club. Judge also notes that, “The student population is very tolerant and flexible. They connect with others who learn differently. We are a little school with big results, with phenomenal people who feel good about themselves.”

Public schools also have many programs in place that work alongside the traditional learning programs to help students with learning differences, and are, of course, free of charge to parents. Testing is done through the school and qualifying students can take part in an Individualized Education Program (IEP). General education teachers work with a team of special education teachers to make sure that students with learning differences have a more individualized approach toward meeting the state learning standards each year. Schools have special education teachers, speech-language pathologists, physical and occupational therapists, school psychologists, assistive technology teams, behavior specialists, literary specialists, and more services available to help meet students’ needs.

In the general academic setting, special education teachers can help the classroom teacher by making special modifications to the curriculum and assessments as necessary. The special education teacher can do individualized or small group instructions in the classroom, or pull the child aside for a specific skill instruction. They can use special techniques and skills that are outside of the regular curriculum if it will help the student to learn the information more clearly. The public schools can also offer support in small groups or on an individual basis to work on social, emotional, and behavioral skills when necessary.

“I have a daughter that went through an IEP in her early years of education,” says Amy Hurley, an Annapolis parent. “The staff worked directly with us as a family to address the special learning needs of our daughter. Communication was wonderful and the specialized attention she received helped her transition more easily into the general classroom.” To help with social skills, parents can sign up their kids for special social skill groups from a number of private companies in the area with trained therapists leading the sessions.

The options are plentiful if your child has learning differences. The first step is to determine the specific need and then find the best fit for your family.