What does Learning Difference or Distinct Learner mean?
Let’s agree that learning difference is an “umbrella” term that encompasses difficulties in listening, speaking, reading, writing and mathematics. And let’s also agree that individuals with LD have unique learning profiles, meaning that they struggle in some areas of skill development and perform well (or excel) in others.
By definition, having a learning difference means that an individual’s struggle with learning is not due to limited intellectual capacity and that there are no social, emotional, environmental or sensory (physical and medical) obstacles preventing them from achieving their learning potential. Now imagine what happens when a person is exceptionally gifted in a particular area such as math, reading, instrumental music or art but shows significant and unexpected weakness in other areas of learning. And now imagine what happens when a person has extraordinary knowledge and accelerated capacity to learn across many areas of content while having pronounced areas of weakness in others, such as reading, spelling or math computation. Unfortunately, what happens most often is frustration.
Learning Differences and Giftedness…Together?
Put “Learning Difference” and “gifted” in the same sentence and be prepared for puzzled looks, even signs of disbelief.
Some parents and practitioners believe that giftedness belongs in it’s own “special” category and that students who qualify as ‘gifted and talented’ and who still struggle with learning are victims of school systems that don’t acknowledge their special gifts, keeping them shackled to an unchallenging curricula and creating barriers to learning, rather than recognizing their potential and designing ways to accelerate their learning. If we accept that “exceptional children” are those who are so sufficiently different from “typical” children that they need special educational adaptations to realize their potential, perhaps including giftedness as an educational handicapping condition is not so far off the mark!
Giftedness Is Not a Handicapping is it? Or Is It?
Almost half of the states nation-wide recognize giftedness as a category of educational need (not necessarily through special education services), and the types of services and supports available to these students is even more varied than those afforded to students who qualify for ‘typical’ special education services. Add LD to the mix and the landscape becomes even more confusing. Services for children with learning disabilities are covered under federal law (IDEA 2004), but this law does not address giftedness.
A Closer Look at ‘Twice Exceptional’ Learners
With apologies for what might appear to be generalizations about student characteristics based on labels, it may be helpful to look at some examples of how a gifted student with Learning Differences presents at home and in the classroom.
- Some common attributes
- Some common challenges
- has an excellent long-term memory, an extensive vocabulary and the ability to grasp abstract concepts
- thrives on complexity
- is highly creative, imaginative, inventive, perceptive and insightful
- is able to solve very difficult puzzles or problems
- is a keen observer
- has a poor short-term memory
- exhibits poor organizational skills
- has illegible handwriting
- has difficulty with rote memorization
- exhibits poor learning unless interested in the topic
- performs poorly on timed tests
- often struggles with homework
- somehow manages not to “fail” academic subjects
- is appreciated as a “great thinker”
- is able to cope well with standard classroom expectations, especially if he or she has a good understanding of the disability and a repertoire of compensatory strategies
- is a notorious “underachiever”
- is easily bogged down in the ‘details’ that contribute to school success
- often is not sufficiently challenged to advance in content area learning due to administrative details or insufficient planning by schools
- parents and educators often view his or her underachievement as a sign of disinterest, boredom, or just a lack of motivation
- the student may eventually believe that the problems are due to poor effort
- may try to conceal the learning problems by acting lazy, disinterested, or unmotivated
- is much better able to shine outside of school (clubs, hobbies…) than inside the classroom
- often attempts to jump straight from an “idea” to a finished “product,” bypassing important steps in between (e.g., prefers to play an instrument “by ear” rather than actually reading musical notes)
- has difficulty remembering short-term sequential information (e.g., forgets details of plays, signals, codes, or rules during sports)
- takes pride in the insights he or she brings to learning situations
- will often just “give up” or “hide” rather than asking for help or admitting to a problem
- is often quite sensitive and aware of the impact that actions can have on his or her life and the lives of others
- expresses concern about world issues and apprehension about the future
- sometimes becomes somewhat “obnoxious” in efforts to be sure others appreciate his or her intelligence
- may become anxious and/or depressed by his or her difficulties or insights into troubling issues and events
- is good at covering up and compensating for areas of weakness (e.g., can often to get through tests and assignments without drawing attention to his or her struggles)
- can experience profound frustration by the inconsistency in his or her skills and abilities
So did you find signs or characteristics that may fit your child? Of course you did. Because what makes us all the same, is that we are ALL DIFFERENT. At Gerard we bring our differences together making each of us stronger and braver, willing to try new things, and take risks. Together we find we can compensate for areas where we are weaker, and discover areas in which we flourish. Just as in life, where gifts and talents are combined, most anything can be accomplished.