13 Teaching Students with Learning Differences with a Cognitive Lens

Darby Bowers

We all know that each student is different and that everyone has been taught that they have a preference on which learning style works best for them. Learning styles assessments are often used as a tool to help children understand how they best learn whether it is visually, auditory or kinesthetic. It is important not to get stuck in that label though and Educational Psychologists advise against using these frameworks all together. Learning styles are popular frameworks that intend to help children in general, but they create false categorizations. However, some students really do differ in how they learn. These students have learning disabilities which by definition means that they have been diagnosed with true learning challenges (E. Kleinknecht, personal communication, July 2020). This does not mean the students with learning disabilities will not be successful in school.  It is our job, as school educators, to try to accommodate each individual’s needs, but still teach the required material. As the school counselor, I sit from a different position and with that I have some helpful skills or techniques so you, as the teachers can help our students with ADHD and dyslexia. In order to better understand our students we have to know how cognition works in a “normal” brain and then discuss the differences our students with learning disabilities face. When we understand cognition we can adjust our teaching strategies, so students learn more and truly understand what is being taught.

Before I suggest strategies about how to change your teaching habits, I first want to discuss brain functions and then compare those “normal” brains to the brain structure of students who are diagnosed with ADHD and dyslexia. Doctors are able to compare brian scans and there are physical changes in brains for people who are diagnosed with ADHD and/or dyslexia. Some people are not aware that these disorders have to be officially diagnosed. This can affect their learning if the student does not know what works best for them. It is your job as the teacher to make sure that learning the content is beneficial and enjoyable. If the students struggle with the material too much then they probably will not  be open to trying different techniques.  Another thing that is important to know more than our how our brain functions, is how memory is stored. If teachers can understand how students absorb and store information then it may be easier to support students.

In the past, we were taught that our brain receives information from our senses and surroundings and then that information is stored in an organized fashion in the correct brain locations (E. Kleinknecht, personal communication, July 2020). That process is inaccurate and every few years there is more research and we discover our brains are way more complex than we thought. Throughout the different cortices in our brain there are neurons that are connected and the more we activate those neurons the easier it is to retrieve information (Kleinknecht, 2018). Our brain is formed with the frontal cortex, the parietal cortex, the occipital cortex and the temporal cortex. The frontal lobe is responsible for action control and self-regulation. This is where people keep focus and control behavior (E. Kleinknecht, personal communication, July 2020). The parietal lobe is also a part of action control. However it helps with physical body feeling and keeping balance (E. Kleinknecht, personal communication, July 2020). The occipital lobe is for mainly vision while the temporal lobe is for auditory and language development (E. Kleinknecht, personal communication, July 2020).

The hippocampus  is underneath the temporal lobe and is used for storing and creating memories. Every time we experience something in our environment there is a chance that our brain stores it in our memory (E. Kleinknecht, personal communication, July 2020) . Everytime we store something, we first have to encode that information. Encoding can be done several ways.  Some of the ways this is done is by connecting it to information you already know or things you have remembered from the past  ((Van & Meeter, 2020). We could also encode something because how distinct that memory became (Van & Meeter, 2020). After the encoding process comes consolidation, which is where our neurons work and fire activity in our brain to organize that new information and create the memory (Van & Meeter, 2020). Once we have a break period to consolidate that memory, it is ready for retrieval. That break period is usually when we sleep.  Retrieval is like a reconstruction memory since it uses the same neuron sequence to originally create the memory (Van & Meeter, 2020).

Now that we have a better understanding of how a “normal” brain works and the basic concepts of memory, we need to discuss the brain structures for students with ADHD and dyslexia. For students with ADHD, especially children, they have smaller brains in both volume and size (Sinfield, 2019). This leads into a slower rate of neuron connections, so it is very difficult for students to plan, organize, pay attention and have appropriate emotional reactions (Sinfield, 2019). Knowing this information is very important for educators, so we can help the student learn easier. For students who are diagnosed with dyslexia, they also experience neurological changes however the issues are more specific to the areas on the left parietotemporal lobe (Hudson et al., 2013). This whole area is for comprehension, sounding out letters, and being able to quickly read (Hudson et al., 2013). For students that have dyslexia they may have issues pairing different sound structures that create different words or phrases due to the fact that  there is less gray matter. (Hudson et al., 2013). Even though there is less gray matter, there is also less white matter which makes it difficult for students to efficiently read at a fast rate (Hudson et al., 2013).

It is important to understand these differences in the brain processes, so you can better help the students in the classrooms. Even though we are a high school that specializes in teaching students with  ADHD or dyslexia, it is necessary to know how every brain works.  Knowing the basics about how we learn, we can now dive deeper into different ways to incorporate this information into your classrooms. Students with learning disabilities can be just as successful in a classroom, all they may need is more additional academic support or extra time to learn the material, or more time for test taking.

It is best if you teach one topic several different ways so every student can succeed in school (E. Kleinknecht, personal communication, July 2020). By teaching multiple ways, the students are able to use different cortex’s that I just discussed. I would encourage you as teachers to use the embodied learning concept in your classrooms. If the students write, move, and listen about one concept then the neurons in the brain become stronger and students become to memorize the material (Kleinknecht, 2018). Like previously mentioned, when we learn or memorize material the same neurons fire when we retrieve information and those cell assemblies strengthen (Van & Meeter, 2020). So how does this new information affect the way we teach? One way is when we are creative by drawing or doing hands-on projects.

For example, having interactive science experiments can help those students that desire hands-on projects, while students who like watching or looking at images can physically see the changes of an experiment. By having a lecture, reading assignments  and a physical component to each concept or activity each student will have some interest in the material and every student will experience this embodied learning. Teaching this way can help students no matter their challenges or how they believe they best learn. This is because they grasp the information in different ways and will probably be more motivated since they are probably going to connect with at least one of the different activities (E. Kleinknecht, personal communication, July 2020). So, if you are trying to teach children about physics, and especially gravity, have the students bounce a ball, or make a course for a marble to go through different obstacles. Just this one simple activity can help students in multiple ways. First, the students are not sitting at their desks trying to pay attention to the lecture, second and most importantly they are seeing these physics concepts at work with their own eyes. When we imagine a high school setting we tend to think that students are supposed to be only sitting at a desk taking notes, but if you truly want your students to learn and memorize the information, then physically doing activities will encompass the embodied learning framework (E. Kleinknecht, personal communication, July 2020).

This embodied style of learning can be used in all classrooms. As a school counselor, I am not usually in the classrooms, but I have some ideas that could benefit your teaching methods. For math, drawing doodles or creating an art project could help students be creative and have fun while learning the dreaded algebra. The requirement is that if you decide to do something similar to this idea, these creative projects have to connect and explain some part of the math lesson. Students could sketch out the word problem or  cut out pieces of paper to help solve for “x”. For example, if there was a math problem such as: 4x+5 = 3, the students could cut out 4 pieces, 5 pieces and 3 pieces and physically work out the equation with their hands instead of writing their work first. Another requirement is that once the student worked out the equation by hand they would then be required to write down and show their work on the homework assignment. Art projects could be beneficial for learning about geometry. The students could draw an abstract drawing with different shapes and then color in the shapes. While they are drawing the shapes the students could be doing a somewhat traditional assignment that relates to their art project. The art projects would also need to be about something specific they are learning about in geometry. These projects  should be enhancing their learning, and be used for a visual aspect for explaining.  These science and math lessons, as I just described,  can benefit from an art component, which then uses the creative side and these tools can adjust the student’s beliefs about the subjects (Grushka et al., 2018). By being creative, the students may have an easier time connecting material with prior lessons (Grushka et al., 2018).

Since math and science  classes work with numbers and physical concepts, how can an English or history class use other more creative techniques, besides lectures, videos, or reading assignments?  One thought that really stands out for an English class is when the students are reading a book or a Shakespeare play. Since it is very difficult for any student to understand Shakespeare, it may be best to act out critical scenes in the classroom. Acting out scenes after the students read the assigned chapter gives them a chance to physically act the words. By acting out and reading the same scene, more neurons are used, which means that it will be easier in the future to recall the information (Kleinknecht, 2018). The same technique can be used in a history class, but instead of acting out a time in history, creating posters for concepts can help our students. Incorporating pictures, graphics, and words creates more in depth learning (Grushka et al., 2018).

There is another point I want to make before I discuss how to better help students with ADHD or dyslexia. Labels can be good for survival, but they can hurt ourselves because we develop a narrower view (Kleinknecht, 2012). Usually by the time students enter high school, they have had a lot of negative experiences and some positive experiences in the classroom. Students most likely  have already taken a test which tells them what type of learner they are as a student. It is important not to get stuck in labels and instead try to incorporate all of these different strategies. As teachers, you can show the students that even though they were called a visual learner, they will probably benefit from doing things by hand. Another thing that students with ADHD or dyslexia experiences is that most people label them negatively. As a school counselor,  I know how impactful this can be for our students who struggle with learning since it can affect how they view themselves. In order to create a safe environment, our high school says learning differences instead of learning disabilities. Students do not need to worry about mistakes when they are learning  or “taking too long” to understand the material. We are finally giving students a chance to break out of their label so they can just be regular students.

The final topic I want to discuss is how to help students not necessarily in the classroom, but how to help them so the classroom experience is positive. Students who have ADHD experience problems staying focused, so it is important to allow students to stand up or walk around when they are antsy. The frontal cortex has less neuron connections (Sinfield, 2019), by making our students write in their planners, we are helping them try to stay organized which is usually a struggle. For students who have dyslexia, they should have already learned the basics of  reading words out loud and silently. It is important that they practice reading out loud to a class, so they can recognize words or letters and help make connections stronger for more fluent readers. One way to help students recognize words and improve their reading skills is to assign audiobooks, so they can listen and follow along on the page.  Adding music or other techniques can enhance their learning experience in a positive way which may make it easier for them to try to improve and master their reading skills (E. Kleinknecht, personal communication, July 2020). If the students listen to the audiobooks, they should be able to hear how words are pronounced and then make the connection by looking at the word to see how that reflects the spelling.

Since you are teachers, you have probably heard of some of these techniques before, but it is always important to come back to the basics of learning. Teaching multiple ways can increase learning and make it more enjoyable. One last thing I want to say is that when I was discussing how to make the classroom experience positive, everyone should have the same opportunities to stand up in class, read outloud and all students should have to use a planner. These tips and tricks should not be for just students with learning differences. They can benefit everyone. Having a positive classroom environment can help students with their motivation and shape their identity.

References 

Grushka, K.,  Hope, A., Clement,N., Lawry, M., & Devine, A. (2018) New Visuality in Art/Science: A Pedagogy of Connection for Cognitive Growth and Creativity,Peabody Journal of Education, 93:3, 320-331, DOI: 10.1080/0161956X.2018.1449927

Hudson, R., High, L., & Otabiba, S. (2013, December 12). Dyslexia and the Brain: What Does Current Research Tell Us? Retrieved July 20, 2020, from https://www.readingrockets.org/article/dyslexia-and-brain-what-does-current-research-tell-us

Kleinknecht, E. (2014, January 18). Embracing Embodiment. Cognitioneducation.https://cognitioneducation.me/2014/01/18/embracing-embodiment/.

Kleinknecht, E. (2012, February 24). Labels on the Brain. Cognitioneducation.

https://cognitioneducation.me/2012/02/24/labels-on-the-brain/

Sinfield, J. (2019, November 24). How the ADHD Brain Biologically Differs From the Non-ADHD Brain. https://www.verywellmind.com/the-adhd-brain-4129396

Van Kesteren, M.T.R., Meeter, M. How to optimize knowledge construction in the brain. npj Sci. Learn. 5, 5 (2020). https://doi.org/10.1038/s41539-020-0064-y