Debbie Painter, Interim Director
of the H.E.L.P. Program— The transition from high school to college is often a challenge for many students, but for the student with learning difficulties the college experience can be quite intimidating. As a college support program for students with Specific Learning Disabilities and Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder, we are finding that significantly more students also exhibit anxiety and mood disorders. The college students who have experienced academic struggles their entire lives are often those who are the most emotionally fragile and socially insecure. We have become more aware that it’s not just academic interventions that we can provide. Thus, a strong support system is needed to help guide these students through their college years. These issues are managed most effectively with a comprehensive program that can also provide additional help, such as psychological services, counseling, and a social organization that will provide them with a sense of community. Thus, a more holistic approach is beneficial to meet their needs.
The students’ academic deficits can be effectively addressed with one-on-one academic tutoring, remedial instruction, testing accommodations, and encouragement. However, we would be remiss in our duties if we neglected their emotional and social health. One might assume that when students begin to realize academic success, their insecurities and apprehensions greatly lessen, but this is not always the case.
A former student who comes to mind had a diagnosis of dyslexia but was unable to manage his anxiety, which compromised all aspects of his academic success and social well-being. He wandered the campus with no friends, he had difficulties initiating conversations with classmates, and he was ostracized by his roommate. Although he wanted to “give up” and leave school, he was encouraged to take advantage of additional services, which entailed counseling and joining others for social activities. He reported that through counseling he was able to learn calming strategies that he used daily. The social organization allowed him to become part of a group with similar struggles and life experiences. Not only did he participate in social activities, but also volunteer work enhanced his self-esteem. Although dyslexia and anxiety were still part of his daily life when he graduated, he learned coping techniques and utilized available resources that helped him succeed and become a much more confident man with a promising career ahead of him.
Laura Rowden, Coordinator
of Community H.E.L.P. — Teaching students with learning disabilities is a little bit like riding a roller coaster over and over again. You start off climbing a very steep hill and you are moving very slowly. In the beginning, you frequently find that you have to convince the students that learning is possible. Also, you have to take the time to learn how the individual student learns. This initially slow pace can be quite frustrating for you and the student. But then something happens. Either the students begin to trust you and let their guard down, or they make a significant academic breakthrough. Then, the pace can increase dramatically. It as if you have reached the top of the hill and suddenly you are off at incredible speed. You race through the concepts, going around one corner and then another, but just as quickly as you began, you hit the bottom of the hill. Just when you think you are in the groove and unstoppable, you are reduced to a crawl again. Maybe it is a new concept that is difficult to grasp or teach, or maybe the student is having a difficult day or week. It doesn’t matter. You have to adjust to this newer, slower pace. The good news is if you and the student keep plugging along, you will eventually reach the top of the coaster hill and be off again. This process repeats itself, again and again.
My mantra is AS FAST AS THEY CAN, AND AS SLOW AS THEY NEED TO. So many concepts build upon one another. A weak foundation will lead to greater difficulties later on. It is better to spend the time to ensure mastery rather than rushing through the material. If a student doesn’t master a concept, I will spend as much time and explain the concept in as many different ways as necessary for the student to master the concept. I have found that when we build a strong foundation, the ensuing material is much easier and the student is able to progress farther. The flip side of the mantra is AS FAST AS THEY CAN. If I introduce a new concept and the student gets it right away, we move immediately to the next concept. We don’t waste time studying what we know. This gives us more time to work on the difficult concepts.
I have found it important to explain this philosophy to my students. A cognitive and emotionally sound approach is important when working with students with learning disabilities. I explain that we will work AS FAST AS THEY CAN AND AS SLOW AS THEY NEED TO. I explain to them that there is nothing wrong with their brains. They are just wired differently. Where most people have brains that run on railroad tracks progressing along a fairly straight track from point A to point B, the student with learning disabilities has a brain wired more like a roller coaster. I also remind them that roller coasters are a lot of fun!
H.E.L.P. Learning Specialist —Students come to the HELP Program from many different states and regions of the country. Our students have varied educational experiences before they come to Marshall, ranging from private schools that specialize in learning disabilities to public schools sometimes with little to no support. Student desire plays a big role in success at the university level. Students who recognize their learning differences and strive for academic success obviously experience success at a much greater level. One student who comes to mind had gone to both a public school and a private school that specialized in students with learning disabilities. Working with Nick allowed me to see first hand the amount of extra effort that our students must put forth in order to accomplish what the non-learning disabled students often easily accomplish with minimal effort. Nick had to plan for many extra hours each week of additional study and tutoring for each of his courses. He also used technology to support his efforts along with student learning focus groups. Nick demonstrated throughout his time at H.E.L.P. the level of commitment required from a student with learning disabilities to experience success. I was always amazed at how organized Nick was. We ask our students to focus on organization and time management during their time at H.E.L.P. Nick came to all meetings with an agenda for his week and what he needed to accomplish, and he asked for extra help when he knew he needed it. Nick was also social, being a member of a fraternity on campus and even serving as president of the chapter. Working with students with learning disabilities certainly makes one aware and appreciate the level of effort and commitment that they must put forth to earn their college degree. It is no wonder that academically successful LD and ADHD students go on to achieve great things in life.
Mike Dolin, H.E.L.P. Learning Specialist — Taming Distractibility: How one person’s distraction is ... Traditionally, and for educators also, behaviors are categorized — VIOLATE, and punishment ensues. For example, Mattie played solitaire on her electronic device while taking a test. She looked at the test for a while, and then played some solitaire, then back to the test, then back to the game. She must be stopped! David played with the paper clips on my desk while I was trying to present some insightful points he needed to know about Beowulf. He made a long chain, then took it apart, then made it again, over and over. I wanted to say, “David, stop that! Pay attention!” I actually said, “David, are you listening to me? This is important.” He said, without looking up and continuing with his manufacturing, “If I weren’t doing this with my hands, I would not be listening. When you see me playing with the paper clips, it means I am listening. I have to be doing something with my hands or I can’t listen.” As for Mattie, I soon realized solitaire was her way of maintaining concentration: when she was not actually focused on the test, her attention went to the game. Having two concentration points allowed her to maintain and control her attention, ironically by sharing it, rather than having her often elusive attention escape, with her in tow. Technically, both David and Mattie behaved outside the law, so to speak, but they really only needed to be understood — and left alone.
Robbie Ashworth, Coordinator
of Medical H.E.L.P. — My students study medicine, pharmacy, physical therapy, nursing, podiatry and dentistry. They are exceptionally intelligent, usually testing at the genius IQ range, and they generally have a recent diagnosis of ADHD and sometimes Specific Learning Disabilities when they first come to work with me. Many of them have not struggled academically until faced with the unique demands — pace and volume — of an education in the medical sciences. These initial struggles are often devastating and lead to diagnostic testing to determine what is “wrong” with them. Once diagnosed, my students slowly come to realize, as do others, that there is nothing “wrong” with them. They have excelled through high school, honored in college, and been admitted into medical school. They come to realize that they just have to do things differently —manage time more efficiently, be active and bring variety to their study sessions, and develop an unwavering belief in their abilities regardless of what others may wrongly believe about their diagnosis and their abilities. I know, just as they come to know, that such a diagnosis isn’t a limit, but just another life challenge. And this challenge can be overcome, I know, because my students go on to become doctors, pharmacists, nurses, podiatrists, and dentists despite their diagnosis.