K-12 Teaching and Learning From the UNC School of Education

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About this series

Special education: Telling facts from fiction

As a teacher, hearing that students in your classroom have a diagnosed learning disability or other special need can be overwhelming and even intimidating. Preparing lesson plans for twenty students already seemed difficult enough. Now you are expected to provide specialized instruction with no real training or guidance from special education staff!

It’s perfectly natural to feel concern or frustration. And you’re not alone — many teachers have been in your shoes at some point in their careers. This blog is here to help.

Each article in this series considers a commonly held belief about special education, providing special instruction to students with special needs, and the behavior problems you might encounter in an inclusive classroom. Many students with learning disabilities also have underlying behavioral or processing disorders, and researchers have struggled to design ways to reliably identify those problems and to treat them. Here, though, we’ll concentrate on classroom practices. The authors look at each issue, ask what the research says, and offer teacher-tested strategies for teaching students with learning and behavior problems.

This series is based on LEARN NC’s blog of the same title, which ran during 2009–10.

Learn more

Related pages

  • Understanding twice-exceptional students: This article discusses the twice-exceptional student, defined as a student with both gifts and a learning disability. The author lists three categories of twice-exceptional students, addresses the challenges involved in identifying these students' exceptionalities, shares strategies for teaching twice-exceptional students, and emphasizes the importance of supporting the students' social skills.
  • Using knowledge of student cognition to differentiate instruction: This article explains the concept of working memory, identifies different kinds of learning problems, and discusses ways to differentiate instruction for students with learning difficulties and disabilities who have attention and working memory problems. Includes twenty research-based, user-friendly teaching strategies that are proven effective for teaching all students.
  • Minority representation in special education classrooms: Are minority students over-represented in special education classrooms? The evidence suggests that they are. This article examines questions about minority representation in special education and suggests some strategies to address the issue.

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The myth

Parents and educators are well informed about learning disabilities.

The facts

While Americans are better educated about learning disabilities and special education than they were five years ago, there are still serious misconceptions about the capabilities of children with disabilities. A study commissioned by the Emily Hall Tremaine Foundation asked questions of 1,000 adults, 700 parents, and 700 teachers about their perceptions of learning disabilities. Children with specific learning disabilities make up about forty percent of students who are served under the Individuals with Disabilities Act, and are thus an important population to be understood so their needs may be better met.

The Tremaine Foundation conducts their survey every five years, and the latest results are heartening in several areas. Based on the federal definition of “learning disability” (neurological disorder that impairs a person’s ability to read, write, spell, or do math, but is not tied to overall cognitive ability), thirty-eight percent of respondents say that they have heard or read a lot about these disabilities, up seven percent from the last point. Also, seventy-nine percent believe that all children learn in different ways, and ninety-two percent agree that children with learning disabilities process words and information differently (as opposed to incorrectly or worse) than other children. The most optimistic statistic is that eighty percent of Americans believe that “people with learning disabilities are just as smart as you and me.” This is a great improvement over the last survey and highlights a better chance for students with learning disabilities to receive a comparable education to those without.

However, when asked about the specifics of learning disabilities, the results are not as optimistic. While seventy-six percent of people could identify dyslexia as a learning disability, eighty percent link all learning disabilities with mental retardation, which is not a learning disability at all. Similarly, sixty-nine percent of people polled identified ADHD as a learning disability rather than an emotional and behavior disorder. In fact, learning disabilities are specific brain functions that inhibit learning but have nothing to do with intelligence level (as opposed to mental retardation, which specifically affects IQ). Dyslexia, a disability that affects the ability to read the written word, is the most well-known. Other common learning disabilities are dyscalculia (difficulty in grasping math concepts), auditory and visual processing disorders, and nonverbal learning disabilities, which cause problems with visual-spatial and organizational processing. While ADHD is often associated with learning disabilities, it is not one in itself. Yet this tendency to group learning disabilities with behavioral disorders and mental retardation may cause educators to try to use the same interventions with all of these students.

The statistics that are most disconcerting are those related to the causes of learning disabilities. Fifty-one percent, including teachers, believe that learning disabilities are sometimes the result of laziness. This is down six percent from five years ago, but it is still a common belief. Additionally, fifty-five percent of parents and the general public, along with forty-three percent of teachers, agree that learning disabilities are caused by the environment in which children are raised, despite the overwhelming medical and scientific research evidence to the contrary.

The bottom line

With the reauthorization of ESEA looming large, defining learning disabilities has become more important. Children with learning disabilities do not need a “dumbed-down” curriculum or the types of interventions connected with mental retardation, ADHD, or autism.

More immediately, this poll highlights the necessity of educating parents and teachers more comprehensively in the causes and needs of learning disabilities. Teachers who believe that learning disabilities are caused in the home may be more likely to pass the buck to parents, and parents may take on an unnecessary feeling of guilt if they believe the same. Educators must understand that learning disabilities are driven by a number of factors and thus work with families to design the best possible learning plans for their children.