The first time I explained a student’s learning disability to her, she cried and laughed at the same time. “You mean I’m not stupid?” she asked. I briefly explained that she learned better through seeing things and that she would sometimes have trouble with learning by only listening because she had an auditory processing disorder.
“So, I just need to find ways to see the information more often, right?”
“Yes, and ask for help or a repeat if you need it,” I offered.
Less than two months later, she was passing all of her classes and no longer displayed disruptive behaviors. Disability empowerment discussions like this are not always comfortable or clear, but they are some of the most important moments we can share with our students.
Starting the Conversation
Students with a specific learning disability diagnosis have difficulty with at least one psychological process used to understand, speak, or write language.
While students with learning disabilities often have average or above average learning abilities, their scores on academic achievement assessments may not reflect their abilities. Disability empowerment discussions can help students understand that the challenge is in the processing and not in their abilities. These conversations provide students with both validation for their struggles and inspiration to persevere with their challenges.
Analogies work well to provide a memorable narrative framework for explaining a novel or complicated subject. I use the familiar analogy of driving a car because my students who are seventh and eighth graders have at least witnessed a car in motion.
Presenting the Challenge
“Let’s pretend we’re driving and we see that the road ahead has really tough traffic,” I told my students. With a video of traffic on the screen, I pretended to drive with my hands on an invisible wheel. I hit the brakes and acted agitated.
“Well, that’s it. I hit traffic. I must be the worst driver ever.” The students looked at me, confused.
“No? Oh, well, hitting traffic must mean that my car is horrible then, right?” Now they were laughing a little.
“Oh, it’s not me as a driver or my car? Then it just isn’t meant to be. I should turn around and go home. I should just stop trying to drive.”
I let the students enjoy the ridiculousness of it all before I presented the analogy: The driver and the car certainly didn’t cause the traffic, and the traffic isn’t a reason to give up. I asked them what I should do when I encountered traffic. Students suggested waiting it out or finding a way around the traffic.
“So, you’re saying that if I hit traffic or a blocked road, I can find a way around it? Will it take more time? Sure!” I said. “But I’ll get to my destination.”
Making the Analogy
I explained that learning disabilities are like traffic in the brain. When you hit the road that is your processing disorder, it might feel slow and frustrating, like traffic. But it’s not the driver’s—or the student’s—fault. I translated the situation to their challenges.
“You’re not bad or stupid or any of the mean things you say about yourself. It’s just traffic. You’ll find another way. It’s not your car’s fault, and the same is true about your brain,” I said. “Your brain is not broken, and it didn’t do anything wrong. It’s just having some traffic. And it’s certainly not a reason to stop on your journey.”
Using the driving analogy, I explained how they might approach a difficulty in class or on a test. “Oh darn, I hit traffic. Looks like I’ll have to find a way around it.” The way around it could be a strategy or an accommodation the student uses.
At the close of the lesson, students were begging to find out which of the roads in their brains had traffic. Before I even reviewed this with them, they had made predictions; most of the time, they were right.
Students sighed with relief that they were indeed trying their best and that there were ways to get around the challenges they faced. The validation of the analogy helped them to understand ways to work with their diagnosis rather than become frustrated by it.
The Benefits of Understanding
Talking with students about their learning disabilities has several benefits. For students, acceptance of their struggles develops their growth mindsets: They are more open to trying strategies and persevering through challenges. Their willingness to make these changes means fewer disruptions and more academic success.
For example, one student who needed to sit privately for testing was finally willing to ask for this accommodation when she realized her challenge was in regulating her attention. These reminders also help teachers keep track of the students’ accommodations.
The traffic analogy improved my students’ classroom experiences. As one student shared, “I used to think I was stupid. My brain would literally forget things right after I heard them. But it was just traffic in my brain on the short-term memory road. I can find ways around it.”