Recently I had the wonderful opportunity to become acquainted with Jeffrey Benson. He is an experienced educator who just finished writing a book titled Hanging In–Strategies for Teaching the Students Who Challenge Us Most. The book is due out in January, but I am so excited to give you a sneak peak into the book before it becomes available in January, 2014! You can order your copy prior to publication from ascd.org.
I should tell you that Jeffrey has a remarkable way of writing that makes this book an appropriate read for really just about anybody. Even if you don’t work with this demographic, chances are, you know somebody with these learning difficulties. People who can especially benefit from this book are: adult students earning their teaching degrees in special education and administrators in particular, social workers, psychologists, guidance counselors, occupational therapists, school nurses, legislators who vote to fund programs, parents of students with special needs… basically everybody.
I reached out to Jeffrey to do this interview because many people have come to me asking for language learning help for students with learning difficulties. Here is what he had to say:
What types of learning difficulties do you normally work with?
I have worked with students whose primary disability–or at least what was the barrier for full inclusion–were social/emotional. That said, so often those disabilities were endlessly interplaying with dyslexia, dyscalcula, attention difficulties, executive functioning weaknesses, non-verbal learning disabilities, Aspergers, etc. etc.
Do you feel like students with learning difficulties benefit from learning two or more languages? If so, how?
If we are considering students with language based disabilities, I’ve seen no evidence that the struggle they have with their primary language is the result of any unique demands of that language; i.e. if you are not learning one language effectively, you will not learn a second language effectively. I am speaking here of students over the age of 10, when learning a second language is no longer done without concerted effort. It would be interesting to see any studies of students who grew up bi-lingual and the types of language based learning disabilities in that population. But by the time I’ve worked with students, it is past the age when one learns multiple languages through childhood immersion. We should offer them the option of learning a second language, and in consultation with parents, definitely give them an opt out. My students with non-language based learning disabilities benefited from any subject that they were drawn to master–sometimes it was a second language–but i always supported an opt out for them as well, given the level of intention one needs in order to be successful in acquiring a second language.
Many students feel frustrated that they haven’t had much/any success learning a foreign language. In your experience, are there certain techniques that work better for students with learning difficulties?
You would need to see where the individual’s breakdown was in learning their primary language–and what interventions were helpful there–and go into the second language study fully prepared to employ those interventions from the start. If you can’t understand the barriers they have in their primary language, it just seems cruel to ask them to learn a second language. I would allow any student to go for it, and use my relationship with him/her to guard against overwhelm, and to see what we can learn together about the difficulties in language learning for the student. Are there general guidelines? Sure: use visuals and objects and role plays to continually offer various “ladders into the pool”–don’t teach from one mode; repeat the very same lesson in the interest of comfort and fluency, so don’t be in a rush; be prepared to articulate very clearly every rule; don’t assume anything will be generalized until it is; be prepared to break a task into a smaller step; be prepared to listen to the student as he/she explains their sense making to hear where there is even a subtle mis-understanding; don’t get lost in the weeds–move on from a frustrating spot and circle back to it in another context rather than crucifying the kid on one rule; celebrate success
Many parents have also come to me sharing their frustration. They want to help their children as best they can, but they don’t know how. What are a few techniques that you can recommend for parents and teachers to aid their students more effectively?
Listen to the kid! So often they reach overload and no one is noticing in their own anxiety to push the kid on. Instead of pushing the kid into new territory, have fun playing with/reviewing what the student can already do–it can only help to build fluency and a sense of competence. Almost no student actually becomes bi-lingual in school, so don;t ruin what has to be for almost everyone a life-long effort to learn a second language. For all but a few inherently strong language learners, schools provide exposure, so be clear about whether you are trying to help the kid pass this very difficult course, or whether you are holding out hope that the kid is on the way to being bi-lingual. For most people, bi-lingual is not happening, and even less so for a student with a language based learning disability. Have fun with it so it stays fun. Follow the student’s lead.
Of course all learning difficulties are not alike, so treatment and techniques will differ for each person. What is your advice for parents with children who have learning difficulties?
1) Patiently be willing to do important things with them again and again and again and again. Having a disability is not a moral weakness (to paraphrase Ed Hollowell)–it’s hard to get things mastered without a lot of gentle repetition.
2) Prepare the student for the environment AND prepare the environment for the student. That means be prepared to teach them what they might not see or learn as most kids do, and take out of the environment unnecessary barriers to learning the most important stuff.
Jeffrey Benson has worked in almost every school context in his 35 years of experience in education: as a teacher in elementary, middle, and high schools; as an instructor in undergraduate and graduate programs; and as an administrator in day and residential schools. He has studied and worked side by side with national leaders in the fields of special education, learning theory, trauma and addiction, school reform, adult development, and conflict resolution. He has been a consultant to public and private schools, mentored teachers and principals in varied school settings, and has written on many school-based issues. The core of Jeffrey Benson’s work is in understanding how people learn–the starting point for everything that schools should do.
Jeffrey and his colleagues also have a website called LeadersandLearners.org where they have posted a curriculum he co-wrote on promoting dialogues in school that you should check out.
You can contact Jeffrey directly at: JeffreyBenson@LeadersAndLearners.org