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By Lauren Goegan, post-doctoral fellow, Educational Psychology, University of Alberta Gabrielle Pelletier, doctoral student, Educational Psychology, University of Alberta Lia Daniels, professor, Educational Psychology, University of Alberta

Some say that before you can truly understand someone, you need to walk a mile in their shoes. Students with learning disabilities (LD) are no exception. Learning environments are often not designed to meet their learning needs, resulting in frustration, anxiety, hopelessness, and feelings of inferiority. As two students with LD, we know these struggles firsthand—and yet we did not allow them to curtail our academic ambitions or success. As we’ve grown as academics, we have learned many valuable lessons and now pair our own stories with research and theory to offer recommendations for supporting students with LD. 

We conceptualize our personal stories and experiences in terms of two academic frameworks: Universal Design for Learning (UDL, see www.cast.org) and Self-Determination Theory (see www.selfdeterminationtheory.org). We encourage teachers and other school personnel to draw on UDL because of the increasingly diverse group of learners found in a contemporary classroom. UDL provides suggestions for how to remove barriers in the classroom so that all students can learn. The UDL guidelines are organized to support three main areas of learning, (a) the why of learning, also referred to as engagement, (b) the what of learning, said differently, the ways in which materials or information are represented to students, and (c) the how of learning, that is, how students are able to demonstrate the learning that has taken place. As we learned about the UDL suggestions it became easy to link them to our own experiences.

We also connect our experiences and recommendations to Self-Determination Theory (SDT), a leading theory of human motivation. In particular, a main piece of SDT is that there are three basic psychological needs that support an individual’s well-being. Like UDL, these needs are universal. The first need is autonomy, being able to have some control over actions or choice. The second is competence, feeling capable of success while completing a task. The third is relatedness, feeling like you have a sense of belonging or are connected to others. As we think about our own educational trajectories, there were times when teachers supported or thwarted our basic psychological needs through choice or control over learning (autonomy), the difficulty of tasks assigned (competence), and connections to others in the school, including teachers and other students (relatedness). 


Provide students with meaningful feedback 

Lauren: I remember writing a paper on the United States of America. Being a terrible speller, I wrote “Untied” throughout. I worked hard on that paper, and then it came back covered in red pen, every misspelling of “United” circled, along with all my other errors. It was devastating. I never wanted to write because I did not think I could. My perception of competence was non-existent. I couldn’t see past all the red to learn from my mistakes, and it left me feeling discouraged. Instead, feedback that emphasized effort, or focused less on what was wrong and more on providing specific strategies to support future writing, would have supported my learning and motivation. I know I make mistakes when I write, and having positive feedback for how to improve is valuable for my continued growth as a writer.

Foster a classroom community where everyone feels welcome

Gabrielle: I never created strong relationships with teachers in school. I was not a straight-A student. I was also quite distracted in my classes. Teachers usually appeared to have more positive relationships with my friends who were straight-A students. I had no sense of belonging and thus, my need for relatedness was not met. My perceived self-worth in school would have been greater had my teachers made me feel like an important contributor to the classroom despite not being one of the “best” students. This could have been done by creating an accepting and supportive classroom climate where all students are equally valued. Teachers can simply ask themselves, “Have I given each student in this class a fair opportunity to connect with me?” Teachers may also want to encourage all students to actively participate and ask questions, thereby emphasizing that their point of view is valuable. As I train in school psychology, I use my personal perspective with students who struggle and help them know their view is indeed valued. 

Provide learners with different ways to perceive and comprehend information 

Lauren: I was always appreciative when teachers incorporated multiple media sources in their classes. I often had difficulty with written language, and, at times, felt like all the learning involved text. There was always something to read, which never matched my learning needs. Having alternatives, like images, videos, physical manipulatives, or graphs, made what I was learning more accessible and supported my need for competence. Moreover, having multiple media options gives students choice and autonomy over their learning, to pick the media that best fits their learning needs and preferences. With more access to technology in the classroom these days, the ability to provide different ways to learn information is expanding. For example, lots of books are accessible in audio formats. Even through my doctoral degree I embraced the assistance of technology to help me read complex papers.

Support students with comprehension, guide their information processing and visualization 

Gabrielle: I remember having a hard time with reading comprehension because I struggled to remember what I was reading. Anytime I was given a test that included reading comprehension, it was always the worst part of my grade. Over time, I became frustrated and felt defeated before the tests would even happen. Strategies like “chunking” information into smaller components and/or allowing me to use an interactive reading program, where I was able to follow along with the text being read aloud on a computer, would have improved my perception of competence as I would have finally been able to demonstrate my knowledgeI still find myself using these skills as I work through complicated tasks.

Provide learners with different ways to express what they know

Lauren: I always found writing to be very challenging, so when I was asked to complete a report for the first time in school, I felt daunted by the task. This did not seem like a fun activity, or one I would do particularly well at. However, that all changed when the teacher said the report could be written or recorded. Having the autonomy to pick the format, I picked the one that best demonstrated my learning and understanding. It also supported my need for competence, because the recorded format did not hinder my expression of ideas. When I was limited to writing a report, what I wanted to say and what I wrote were two different things because of my writing difficulties. Having a different way to express what students know can be especially helpful during online learning, where teachers can provide various online formats for students to express their knowledge, for example, making a YouTube video or writing a blog entry. 

Help guide appropriate goal setting 

Gabrielle: I had a hard time with math in Grade 11 when the content became more complex, so much so that I got very anxious and blanked out during math tests. My teacher sat me down and asked how I was doing after they noticed I was struggling. Together we set some goals for my learning, and the teacher provided scaffolds to aid my anxiety, such as checklists for problem-solving. This experience helped foster my sense of belonging in the classroom, as I felt connected to the teacher, and they were taking a genuine interest in supporting my learning. Also, this experience increased my perceptions of autonomy, because my teacher asked me what I needed: I was part of the goal-setting conversation, instead of simply being told what to do. I use a similar strategy with students I work with and find there is always greater compliance when the goals are co-constructed. 

We encourage teachers to keep in mind the principles of UDL and SDT as they look for opportunities to support the learning of all students in their classrooms and beyond. There were many times our learning disabilities could have prevented us from continuing at school; we hope these stories remind teachers that every student can be a highly successful learner.

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