Helping Students with Learning Differences Become Super Testers

When it comes to working with students with learning differences or disabilities, it’s important to approach each and every student with beginner’s mind.

Understanding the student’s diagnosis

Students with learning differences will come with a specific diagnosis, but don’t put excessive emphasis on the diagnosis or immediately shift into a particular gear once you are made aware of the diagnosis. A diagnosis is a frame, which can be helpful, but at times can also be a distraction. It’s important to pay close attention to the individual student to understand how this particular student ticks.

It’s helpful to understand the student’s relationship to his/her diagnosis. Some students accept the diagnosis, while others reject it and refuse the label or any offer of special treatment. Some students may be identified with a particular diagnosis, but demonstrate none of the symptoms or limitations of the disability. They may present with symptoms or deficits completely separate from any diagnosis they’ve been given. Others may be experts at compensation for their disability.

Putting things in context

When working with a student with an LD, the student’s family can provide invaluable background information to help guide the tutoring sessions. The student, however, will be the primary source of information to guide the instruction. Students can speak to their experience, articulating how their challenges affect them in and out of the classroom.

Staying Positive

One of the keys to working with students with LDs is to keep things positive at all times. Bring your most patient, empathic self, and use positive reinforcement liberally. Many students with LDs went through a long period of time feeling frustrated, inferior, or limited in some fundamental way. They are more likely to have higher levels of negative self-talk and experience both academic and test anxiety. These students will benefit from a healthy dose of affirmation, reflecting back to them their strengths, gifts, and innate value.

A tutor can create a culture of encouragement and positive reinforcement. It’s helpful to celebrate the positives and victories, however small they may be. Affirm and empower the student to help counter the many negative messages that he or she may face externally or internally. Be patient and encouraging at all times to forge the educational alliance.  

If possible, it is helpful to normalize the disability, affirming that what this student is experiencing is neither unusual nor impossible to overcome. Share success stories of other students, and even reference other highly successful people with the same disability. It may be appropriate to share your own story of having to overcome disabilities, challenges or struggles.

Adopting a Strengths-Based Approach

Students who are aware of how they optimally learn can be at an advantage in the world of academics. Even if you have deficits, having the metacognition of your own learning can be profoundly helpful in optimizing your studying and your academic performance. Once students identify their strengths, they should adjust their activities accordingly. Students who are great listeners but struggle with reading may consider listening to books or using assistive technologies. Students who need a quiet space can set up their work environment accordingly. Some students may need to play particular music to help mask other sounds and help channel their focus and attention. Some students may need to bounce a ball against a wall to help them study or focus: find a way to make space for that without bothering others. Use all necessary tools at your disposal: go with what works.

Encourage Curiosity and a Learning Mindset

Encourage students to become interested in and receptive to what works for them:

  • How do you like to learn?
  • What are you good at and what aren’t you good at?
  • What works best for you?  
  • What’s your system?

The better students understand how they optimally learn, the more they can take charge of their learning, shifting towards more efficient and effective methods of study.

Letting the student have more agency: You can allow the student to guide the tutoring process. It’s good practice for students to take a central role in this process, as they will need to self-advocate in many future scenarios. The more they can learn to drive the process, to get the help they need, to make adjustments, the more empowered they will be facing future academic challenges.

Reframing the goal: It may help to reframe the testing experience for the student, emphasizing  the value of the learning process in and of itself, the utility of learning to overcome obstacles, enhance learning, and reinforce good strategies. Building up a student’s self-efficacy can be as important or more important than any test score.

Schedule smart with LD students

In many cases, it will be ideal to keep sessions on the shorter side: an hour may be optimal for many LD students. Some students may need more intensive prep, in certain cases more than once per week, while others will need to take weeks off to allow for “brain breaks.” Build momentum carefully without overwhelming a student.


Getting the right accommodations can solve for many issues for students with LDs. One of the most common accommodations for students with LDs is extra time. Some students are able to show what they know only when they have enough time.  

High-level strategies for coaching students with LDs

It’s important to demonstrate clearly that problem solving is about employing discrete, specific strategies. Talk strategy all the time with students with LDs.

  • Encourage strategic thinking: Use explicit modeling. When tackling a problem, demonstrate the approach, the problem set up, the framing and the execution. Ask your student to think aloud, commenting on what they are noticing about your approach.
  • Reframe mistakes as key to the process: Students may need instruction to help them reframe how they view mistakes. Mistakes are essential to the learning process, and students must understand this, and never view mistakes as failures. You can purposefully make mistakes to demonstrate how you recover from them, allowing the student to learn their value.
  • Partialize tasks: Break large tasks into small, discrete steps.
  • Use frequent check-ins to gauge comprehension: These spot checks can be helpful for metacognition, to encourage the student to begin to gauge his/her level of comprehension. Having students spell out their process helps lock it into memory.
  • Be flexible and ready to pivot at any time: Be ready to abandon an approach and try something new if it’s not sticking.
  • Let the student determine the session: Tailor all aspects of instruction to match the student, modifying the lesson plans, pedagogy, speed, and techniques to meet the student’s specific needs.

Helping a student with learning differences/disabilities succeed at an academic task can be powerfully rewarding for the student, the family, and the tutor. When a student with an LD learns to make adjustments and take more ownership of their learning, this can have a transformational effect. Students who shift to a place of intellectual curiosity about their process, embrace creative problem solving, and adopt a strengths-based-orientation can really power up. These students can overcome long-held self-limiting beliefs and repair a negative academic self-appraisal. Helping these students believe in their abilities and develop a greater sense of their own competencies can help them for years and years to come.  

Applerouth is a trusted test prep and tutoring resource. We combine the science of learning with a thoughtful, student-focused approach to help our clients succeed. Call or email us today at 202-558-5644 or