violinFailing, it turns out, is a good way to understand learning. This fall I took a dozen practice tests for the GRE hoping to apply to graduate programs. But after repeatedly bombing the most basic questions, even after review, I realized that I couldn’t make up for 11 years of bad or missing math in the space of five weeks. Motivated yes, but I was surprised to discover I am slow, thick, and draw blanks under stress.

What causes me to fade away in the face of new math concepts (or old ones I have forgotten)? I have plenty of potential culprits: a highly distracting household, not enough sleep, and of course lack of adequate time. It could also be a diminishing brought on by age, or due to an over-production of hormones from repeated childbirth. Whatever the reasons, I know freshly, first hand, what it feels like to think I have digested a concept only to feel queasy with emptiness when asked to prove it. I know what it’s like to have someone explain something again and again, slowly and reasonably, and finally still not understanding, I give up asking.

I am an adult at the beginning of middle age. Given the right lessons and enough time to study, I know I would make it. But without this “presumed competence” I am left to feel stupid and stuck.

There is a big difference between feeling challenged and feeling like a failure. How does a teacher find the sweet spot where the most advanced students feel what it’s like to fail and the greatest strugglers get to rise to the challenge no one thought they could reach?  I’m beginning to think this could happen even if these students are allowed to remain in the same room.

My eighteen month old can pretend to read, spin till she’s dizzy, and follow simple directions that take her around the house (good fun on a lazy Sunday). For a baby, we think she is remarkable. But she calls my husband “Momma” and otherwise still relies on grunting to communicate. Is this a problem? No. As a wee one, she is given the wide berth of infant development. In babies we are charting progress that can’t be rushed any more than wintertime or a head cold. We presume her ability, pointing forward with our expectations at whatever pace her body sets. How different would this baby look if we presumed the opposite?

My sixth grader can play a few minuets on the violin, knit a sock, build a balsa wood model airplane. But simple math equations can still stump him. Is this a problem? Most certainly yes.

The range of acceptable development slams down from a wide breezeway in infancy to a mere sliver once the kids start school. And if your child falls outside the norm, this is usually where the trouble begins. And even with the best intentions, when trouble begins, expectations often end.

The systems that have been built over generations to teach the basics work only most of the time. When problems show up, like my son’s math challenge, the teacher will try to adjust, but if it’s too extreme, the student is removed to be taught elsewhere. If the special teacher is great and the methods are well tuned to the child, removal could be a good solution. But in so many cases the strategies for handling these learning differences don’t bring the students closer to grade level. At times, for my son, “the resource room”  has felt like a holding cell of learning.

I do not blame the teachers . We are lucky to have an exceptional teacher who advocates for my son like a parent. The problem is a broader one: how most mainstream and special ed teachers are taught to look at and respond to learning differences. “We are in the midst of a swelling torrent of knowledge about learning,” according to cognitive neuroscientist, Torkel Klingberg. But the application of this knowledge into teaching methods lags far behind the research. Many of the teachers I have talked to – resource and mainstream – are also frustrated by this disconnect.

Insanely, identifying your child as having a disability is the only way to insure accountability and create an infrastructure of support in public schools in California. The concept is a progressive one: measure the child against a rubric of his own abilities, not against the larger group. Shield him from competition and failure while building skills at a foundational level. But what if this progressive methodology were turned around and applied in the whole classroom instead of reserved for the special, failing few?  Is there a way to change the fundamental dynamic so that a broader range of learners can flourish in the same setting?

In a suburb of Chicago, a school  district transformed their physical education program by changing expectations and dispersing the rat race. Every child received their own heart rate monitor which they used to chart their progress and set their individual goals. They increased the amount of recess from 30 minutes a week to 45 minutes a day. The results were dramatic in both physical fitness and academic performance.

The Individualized Education Plan was established after the American Disabilities Reformation Act of 1973 was passed. Under this law, children with identified disabilities were given the right to an equal education. Schools are required to develop a plan to address the specific needs of a student and record progress toward educational goals. This was hugely important legislation, finally making education possible for blind, deaf, physically or mentally impaired children who otherwise would have been shunted to institutions or silenced by lack of access. We have ramps, handicap accessible bathrooms, professional aides in classrooms all because of this act and the specific definitions of disability.

But in the case of learning disabilities, the definitions can be somewhat nebulous. I work with a small group of students from my son’s class, all bright, articulate, engaged kids from loving, healthy families. Though I only see them once a week on a volunteer basis, I can tell they are absorbing the material I am giving them. They are clearly kids who learn in a different way and at a different pace from the rest of their class. But the label of disability for all of these kids, including my son, seems misplaced. Yet they all have IEP’s with math and other learning problems. They are kids for whom the teaching strategies so far have not worked. But because they don’t fit in with the other twenty-seven kids, they have been removed.*

A close friend in high school dropped out the day she turned 16. That was a few months after she was first identified with dyslexia. She had joked and charmed her way through ten years of school never learning to read with fluency. If her dyslexia had been identified in 2nd grade, how different would her educational outcome have been? Andrew Solomon, talking about his dyslexia, credits his mother’s incredible feat of intensive homegrown therapy for allowing him to overcome his disability enough to become a successful writer. Identifying an issue is important. But only if a valid plan is in place for helping resolve the deficit. Andrew Solomon’s mother had goal in mind and a plan in place for getting her son what he needed.  Unfortunately, his unique intervention story is impossible to institutionalize.

The conundrum of disability is how one’s identity becomes inextricably linked to a fault, forever resigned to a status as “other.” For many deaf people, the lack of hearing ability is seen as an identifying characteristic to be celebrated, not a problem to be mourned or solved. But if the deaf activists get their way and no longer are considered disabled, just different, they lose the protection of the ADA. In this case, to discard the definition of disability is to lose the chance of help.

A huge hole I glimpsed a few years into my son’s IEP was the lack of “resources” in the resource department. When my son was identified as having serious issues with math, I asked for a teacher or therapist with math related learning expertise. They had none. I asked what program he would be put on to rise to grade level, and I was told they had no program in mind. In the IEP process a great deal of effort is put into writing up goals and assessing kids, but proven strategies for actually meeting those goals don’t necessarily exist.

One way around this problem is to radically expand the definition of normal. For the first hundred years of public education, kids were taught in multi-age classrooms. I wonder if this kind of mix could allow for the natural variance in abilities to be better accommodated than the typical age construct in which we currently live and learn. Obviously this kind of radical change is unrealistic, but somehow we must look straight at the question of where ability ends and disability begins.

I have noticed that the more I “presume competence,” the more likely my son is to rise to the task. There will be disappointment too. But what is comforting about someone living down to your lowest expectation? Disability is a pernicious assessment of a person. Not because it is false, but because it is, in a word, disabling. In order to make real progress with struggling kids, the paradigm has to be turned inside out.

One reason my son still plays violin after most of his class quit is due to the fact that I played it for nine years when I was a child. I am no musician, but I am just proficient enough to guide him through his pieces, give him bits of theory, and mostly tell him when he is horribly flat or holding the instrument like a barbell. This may seem like minor stuff, but it has made the difference in his ability to keep going. He wants to do it because it’s hard. He’s able to do it because there is help in reach. This is a kid who couldn’t play the recorder with his class, who couldn’t keep up with bean bag rhythm games. He had occupational therapy, physical therapy, speech therapy for auditory processing. How could he possibly play this unforgiving instrument requiring fine and gross motor coordination and precise auditory feedback? It’s not about natural ability. Two year-olds can play the violin. It’s about desire, expectations, instruction, and commitment. At first, the class would carry him along when they played. Now they have mostly given up and he is left standing, playing better every week, needing my help rarely. Every time he picks up the instrument and someone says a positive thing about his ability, he is driven to do more, practice harder, make beautiful music. He is doing something a lot of people can do better, but most people can’t do at all. What matters more is that he used to be unable to play and now he can. This is success, like the heart rate monitors that pushed kids to push against their own limits for their own goals.

I want to see my son and his peers in the math group join the larger class again, not because their test score are suddenly higher, but because the class is forced to embrace a broader spectrum of learners. I’m not suggesting we go back to the days when disabilities and learning differences were ignored and children who could have gone on to great success went without services, often failing out of school. We should still identify learning challenges for what they are. But then we must offer strategic, proven interventions while letting the child continue to participate in her learning community as much as possible.  And the learning goals need to be fiercely held to with the commitment and confidence of Andrew Solomon’s mother.

*I just learned that one of the students in this group had a terrible time in the regular math class last year and her confidence has gone way up after being removed. Clearly, removal can be positive. But still pull-outs need to be goal oriented, which they are on paper, but not in practice.

Recommended reading (books that inspired this post)

Far From the Tree  Solomon, Andrew. Far from the Tree: Parents, Children and the Search for Identity. New York: Scribner, 2012. Print.

The Learning Brain  Klingberg, Torkel. The Learning Brain: Memory and Brain Development in Children. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013. Print.

Proust and the Squid   Wolf, Maryanne, and Catherine J. Stoodley. Proust and the Squid: The Story and Science of the Reading Brain. New York, NY: HarperCollins, 2007. Print.


3 thoughts on “(dis)ABILITY

  1. Jenny Pessereau

    “Radically expanding the definition of normal” -that sounds like wisdom to live by. Isn’t it crazy to think that “normal” is defined by age range, grades, SAT scores, math grades, birth order? Any one of those categories accounts for a sliver of who we “are.”. When we strive for a “new normal” – like your son does by playing violin even after his peers have stopped – we expand and by so doing express more of ourselves Determination, perseverence, tenacity, and hope. These qualities won’t add up his checkbook when he’s 25 but they sure “count.”

  2. Cecile Lampton

    Thank you for this vivid and personal observation on learning disability and the inevitable attendant sense of ‘otherness.’ Two people close to me were diagnosed with dyslexia long after their early struggles to learn to read and do math left them with a somewhat complex mix of self-doubt and anxiety about making mistakes in certain situations seemingly entirely unrelated to their early school learning experiences. ‘You’re not trying hard enough,’ a frequent comment from teachers before learning disabilities were researched and identified, was a mystifying, meaningless and confusing concept for a young child who was trying as hard as he could. It was inevitably internalized as ‘there must be something wrong with me.’ Now, with all the recognition and resources we have available to our educators, I’ve come to see the problem more as one of ‘teaching disabilities’ in the sense of the continued, albeit kinder, gentler and more informed, resistance of so many teachers to a broadened concept of what normal is, the various and very individual paths (and timetables) to learning children may take, and a willingness to include learning challenged children in the larger group in order not to teach them that there is something different, other, or inherently wrong with them. Using the mainstreaming model many school districts have used for physically disabled children of having aides or volunteers within the classroom setting to provide what a separate ‘resource center’ is supposed to would go a long way to help students from internalizing a sense of stigma that can have lifelong consequences. As adults, don’t we often value our friends for their markedly different abilities and the ways they choose to express themselves? It seems sad that we still tend to judge children according to how much they adhere to a norm mostly defined by test scores and conformity of learning process.


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