Identifying and Supporting Learning Differences Common In Our Communities

Joint GUFS-Haldane PTA Committee Offers Shared Guidance and Unity

By Alison Rooney

Learning differences: a two-word term which cannot accurately describe the diverse range of ways children go about acquiring knowledge and thriving in a classroom setting. Parents, watching their children struggle as atypical learners within a traditional educational context, can feel isolated. Knowing that this was a shared, common experience, a small group of parents from Garrison School (GUFS) and Haldane joined together to form the Learning Differences Committee (LDC).

Initially the group was founded to offer workshops that spoke to a specific population of people: those whose children had 504 plans (Section 504 is an anti-discrimination, civil rights statute requiring the needs of students with disabilities to be met as adequately as the needs of the non-disabled are met) or IEPs (Individualized Education Programs) and people who wanted more information specifically about special education.

GUFS eighth graders make a presentation on ADHD at last year's LDC-sponsored Differences Day event.  Photo courtesy of GUFS

GUFS eighth graders make a presentation on ADHD at last year’s LDC-sponsored Differences Day event.  Photo courtesy of GUFS

After the group’s inception, members found that interest in differentiated learning, and “whole child” social and emotional learning was widespread, and not limited to those whose children were under an IEP. It now includes parents whose concerns cover a wide array of learning and emotional issues.

The LDC operates as a combined sub-committee under the auspices of each school’s PTA. Its mission is to provide a forum built around “identifying and supporting learning issues that are common in our communities. The community creates opportunities to gather and discuss current research and best practices … and to fostering strong partnerships between parents and educators to support respectful and program-enhancing dialogues within the schools and communities.”

The committee, formed about a year and a half ago, has sponsored presentations and workshops on pertinent topics, having learned that people want to learn from experienced, concerned professionals who present findings derived from research-based knowledge.

The LDC has also brought enhancements to already-existing programs within the schools. It has also spawned a well-attended monthly support group, wholly confidential, open to anyone, where people can talk about their specific children. Currently there are more than 70 members and Facebook followers; a recent workshop attracted almost all of them.

The impetus for the LDC came, as it often does, from the personal experience of its founders. One of them, GUFS parent Melinda Higbee described her situation: “I felt like when I went through the diagnosis and evaluation process with my son I was an educated person but I felt alone, recreating the wheel. At that time, he was in a preschool that we loved, but they were clueless as to how to help. We were fortunate in coming across people who helped with the diagnosis and evaluation and held my hand. I didn’t want others to go through this. Each parent’s journey is personal, but it doesn’t mean they should do it alone or feel marginalized. This experience I have been given needs to be paid forward. Anytime you get people together you come up with great ideas and become fortified to fight the fight. I want to educate schools and the community at large, but my first goal is to help individuals.”

Along with talks and workshops on topics ranging from Special Education: What Parents Need To Know, Homework and the Whole Child, and Understanding Your Child’s IEP, the committee worked with Haldane Elementary/Middle School Principal Brent Harrington, who conducted a Response to Intervention (RtI) workshop, describing the steps taken to help students who struggle academically; how these students are evaluated; and deciphering the stream of acronyms which seem to proliferate in this area of educational services. Finally, Dr. Paul Yellin, associate professor of pediatrics at New York University’s School of Medicine, spoke about Executive Functions, ADHD and Their Impact on Learning.

These presentations have taken place at both schools and at local libraries. Most programs are open to parents from both schools as well as the community. This year the LDC hopes to have a speaker come and talk about what school was like for him/her growing up with ADHD/LD, putting it in the context of how they have been able to be successful, and making ‘difference’ feel desirable without belittling the difficulties of overcoming obstacles in their academic and personal lives.

They hope to develop a film in conjunction with Haldane sixth grade English teacher, Kim McCollum, about learning differences, in which the children will write about the ways that they learn, i.e. visual, experiential, auditory, and read what they write for the camera. For children who don’t write easily, a different method of expression will be offered.

In addition, the LDC has instituted new activities at two already-existing annual events, Differences Day at GUFS (with a focus on autism this year) and the Health Fair at Haldane. Activities will be designed to illuminate ways for children to connect to others in whom differences can’t be visibly seen.

In determining what to present, the LDC hopes to address the needs of an extremely varied constituency. This also applies to the support group, which meets on the first Monday of each month, year round, in a private, ‘neutral’ space.

“Few parents have a child with the same thing,” says Higbee. “Very few are even in the same category — it’s wildly diverse, but the common threads of dealing with it are what we talk about.” Maeve Eng-Wong, another founding member of the LDC says “People recognize that it’s a wellspring of strength: it provides inclusion, connection and power. There are people who say they wouldn’t initially come to the group because of a feeling of shame. The main benefit is to make them realize that they are not alone, to have them say ‘I feel better and more able to face my day.’ The support group has evolved to a place which is respectful, confidential – a place where they can speak from the heart even if initially they weren’t sure. We want it to be a discussion, to be a place where people are heard rather than shutting down or becoming defensive.”

The LDC, whose other founding members include Kerri Ferri and Kory Riesterer, is watchful over the schools’ special education budgeting, advocating for those with learning differences. “We realize it’s our responsibility to be at the budget meetings, looking at the line item cuts. If nobody is there speaking out, it’s an easy thing to cut,” notes Higbee.

Eng-Wong concurs: “When you cut an aide in half, it not only affects the child, but the whole classroom, the regular teacher and the other students. Every time you make a cut you need to consider whose needs are not going to be met.” They are also keeping an informed eye on the new “skills classroom” begun in both GUFS and Haldane, with Higbee noting, “What we hope is that these classrooms will work well and that everyone will benefit.”

One thing common to most parents of children with learning differences is “the exhaustion of advocacy,” says Eng-Wong, who notes wryly that they all need a tee-shirt which says ‘THAT parent.’  The ultimate aim of the LDC is to share, whether it be advice, uplifting stories, or bad days; to give the people in it a sense of community. “We want everyone to feel comfortable enough to put that email out there and know that someone will answer back,” she says. Higbee is looking forward to the images of special education changing. “One thinks of tiny rooms, kids who are avoided; that is changing. We want to celebrate how they learn differently.”

The next meeting of the parent support group will take place at 7 p.m. on Oct. 7, at 35B Garrison’s Landing. For more information email [email protected] or [email protected] or visit their Facebook page.

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