Helping Students Understand and Accept Their Learning Disabilities: The Demystification Conference
By: Mia Wernig Elfrink
How can we help students understand their own learning disabilities? How do we help them speak comfortably about them and advocate for themselves? These questions have been challenging educators for a long time. However, when students "own" their learning strengths and weaknesses, they can do a better job of learning academic skills.
A meeting in which the learning disability is discussed can be helpful. One school has decades of experience with such conferences the Churchill Center & School (Churchill), an independent school for high potential children with learning disabilities. The school provides an annual "Demystification Conference" to offer students facts about their learning disabilities, demystify the medical terms which they might have heard, and enable them to understand the challenges it can cause and the strengths it can bring.
The conference is part of a comprehensive "demystification" curriculum which helps students with learning disabilities understand how they learn. The curriculum also enables them to identify and understand their individual strengths and weaknesses, and advocate for themselves. The goal of this curriculum is to demystify or remove the mystery of the child's specific learning disability. The Demystification Conference is an important part of this curriculum. It takes place during the second or third quarter of each school year.
The conference is a discussion, not a lecture; it encourages student involvement and thus ownership. Students prepare and conduct the conference. Parents are invited to attend so they can hear how a learning disability is being addressed and discussed with their child. This ensures that the language being used to discuss the student's learning style is understandable by the student and his or her parents.
At Churchill, each student has a tutor. The tutor and the tutor's supervisor prepare together before the conference. They review the diagnostic information available and discuss the child's daily academic performance. Then they plan the focus and format of the Demystification Conference.
The Demystification Conference has different formats for different students, depending upon their age, maturity, and acceptance of their learning disability. All include some type of visual to help the students remember the information. Examples include making a "smart poster" with pictures of their strengths; drawing or using photographs of themselves in different classes using specific techniques; writing a rap song about their learning style; developing a poster that compares their learning disability to a sports team and how to "beat" the opponent; developing a Power Point presentation on the computer; or writing a summary.
Still, all Demystification Conferences follow a general pattern. Each conference begins with the emphasis that the students are smart and have many strengths their learning disability only means that they learn a different way. Their strengths include not only those in academics, but also those on social, athletic, and personal fronts. The students brainstorm these strengths with guidance from the tutor; each strength that the students state is accepted as such and added to the list.
The next part of the Demystification Conference focuses on a specific academic weakness the child is experiencing. Using concrete examples, the weakness is discussed, tying in with a processing deficit (i.e. memory, sequencing) when possible. For example, students may explain how their weak active working memory affects their reading decoding skills.
The last part of the Demystification Conference emphasizes the techniques, strategies, and methods that the student is learning to help overcome that weakness. Again, concrete examples are used along with input from the student in terms of what is helping him or her to learn. Students are encouraged to use actual work samples to explain their strategies to their parents.
For all students, regardless of age, the talk is meant to be optimistic, positive, and reassuring. For younger students, the emphasis of the talk is spent on the child's strengths. Students who are attending Churchill for a second or third year may focus on their strengths and strategies/techniques that help them to learn. Students may present information as to why a previously identified weakness is no longer a major concern. Churchill's older students may write a letter, describing their learning style to a friend, relative, coach, or new teacher.
The yearly Demystification Conferences are an integral focal point of the year. Students become excited about learning and talking about themselves in a positive manner. They are able to express their creativity as well as their self-knowledge. Parents learn how their children are being taught and why the strategies, methods, and techniques are increasing their child's success. Most importantly, students become empowered by the fact that learning differently has little to do with how capable, intelligent, and talented they are as individuals.
Mia Wernig Elfrink Assistant Director, Tutorial and Curriculum, Churchill Center & School