Helping Students with Learning Differences Become Super Testers
October is LD, ADHD, and Dyslexia awareness month. In the last 20 years, my team and I have worked with all types of learners, and we know first-hand about the challenges that standardized tests can present for students with learning differences. Our students have shown us time and again that, with the right skills, they can tackle any challenge. This article from our archive has some of our time-tested strategies for parents and educators who want to help their students with LDs slay the testing dragon.
1. Understand the Student’s Diagnosis
If your student has had a professional evaluation, they may have received a formal diagnosis, which can be helpful for an educator, but only to an extent. It’s important to look beyond the clinical diagnosis to understand a more complete picture of the individual student. The detailed information in a student’s evaluation can often be more helpful than the diagnosis itself. Some students may have received a particular diagnosis, but their symptoms might manifest differently than for another student with the exact same diagnosis. Other students may be experts at compensation for their disability, so it’s important to understand how the student’s strengths and challenges work in combination.
It’s also helpful to understand the student’s relationship to their diagnosis. Some students accept both the diagnosis and interventions designed with that disability in mind, while others bristle against adopting any label and refuse offered accommodations.
2. Put 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.
3. Stay 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.
Educators and parents 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.
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.
4. Adopt a Strengths-Based Approach
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.
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. In short: go with what works and lean into what comes naturally for your student.
5. Give Your Student More Agency
It’s good practice for students to take a central role in shaping their test prep process, as they will need to self-advocate in many future scenarios. The more students can learn to drive the process, to get the help they need, to make necessary adjustments, the more empowered they will be when facing future academic challenges.
6. Reframe the Goal of Testing
It may help to reframe the testing experience for the student, emphasizing the value of the learning process in and of itself. There is tremendous value in being able to identify a problem or challenge, craft specific strategies to overcome obstacles, and integrate feedback to enhance learning. Overcoming this specific challenge is part of a broader objective to teach the student how to overcome the many challenges that await in a student’s academic future. Building up a student’s self-efficacy through this process can be as important, or more important, than any test score.
7. Customize the Study Schedule
For many students with LDs, it will be ideal to keep study sessions on the shorter side: an hour may be optimal. Some students may need more intensive prep, in certain cases more than once per week. While other students will need to take weeks off to allow for “brain breaks.” Build momentum carefully without overwhelming your student.
8. Get Appropriate Accommodations
Getting the right accommodations can solve 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. The Guide to Securing Testing Accommodations on our Virtual Bookshelf outlines the process in detail for the SAT and ACT.
9. Teach Problem-Solving Skills Directly
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, what’s working and why? Being able to name specific strategies, to identify the discrete steps, will help reinforce the method and encode it more deeply for future use.
10. Reframe Mistakes
Students may need instruction to help them reframe how they view mistakes. Mistakes are essential, absolutely fundamental to the learning process. They’re not even mistakes! They are the very center of learning, the chance to correct errors or misconceptions and integrate new knowledge and awareness. 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.
11. Use Frequent Check-ins to Gauge Comprehension
Tell me what you understand so far? Teach me what we just covered. What are you getting? Regular spot checks, every ten minutes or so, help develop metacognition and allow the student to better gauge and calibrate their comprehension of material. Self-testing is one of the foundations of generating feedback to inform and enhance learning. These check-ins may slow the pace of delivery of learning, but they deepen the encoding of material and allow any course-corrections that need to be made.
Helping a student with learning differences succeed at an academic task can be powerfully rewarding for the student. 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 cultivate a sense of intellectual curiosity about their particular learning process, embrace creative problem solving, and adopt a strengths-based-orientation can overcome long-held self-limiting beliefs. This, in turn, can help them academically for years and years to come.