Story at a glance

  • Learning and attention disabilities affect approximately 1 in 5 people in the U.S.
  • In the past, students received limited support in these areas.
  • Making personalized accommodations for students can make a big difference in their success.
  • Teachers are increasingly trying to address social and emotional concerns of students, to help them find confidence and ultimately success.

When David Flink founded Eye to Eye — a national organization that advocates for and conducts programming with students with learning differences and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) — in 1998, he thought that in order to help his students, he needed to fix them. 

“The idea of how to support someone who learns differently, like me, was for the most part tutoring and fixing,” says Flink. “The idea that somehow within me, I was broken.”

Having been diagnosed with dyslexia and ADHD in his youth, Flink’s rational derived from his own experience in the education system — and his feelings of brokenness stemmed from being misunderstood. 

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Learning and attention disabilities can range from executive function issues to trouble with reading or math and affect approximately 1 in 5 people in the United States, according to the National Center for Learning Disabilities. Yet 78 percent of parents believe children with learning differences “just need to try harder,” and more than 50 percent of teachers do not feel confident to implement the necessary accommodations for these students, like individualized learning programs (IEP) and 504 plans, according to Eye to Eye’s 2019 report.

At times outcasted and unable to ask for the adjustments he needed, Flink would lash out and cause trouble. He attended five different schools throughout his education, at each of which he was asked to leave.

An IEP is a written, individualized plan that can give a public school elementary or high school student with a disability accommodations and certain legal protections. A student needs to be evaluated by a psychologist before they can qualify for an IEP. A 504 Plan connects the student with support within their learning environment. Unlike the IEP, a 504 is not usually individualized and does not require a full evaluation.

“When parents say kids need to try harder what they need to understand is that they need to try smarter,” Flink says. “The problem [isn’t] that people are broken learners, the problem is the way in which we are helping these different learners get their learning.”

For example, a student diagnosed with dyslexia may find it difficult to read a textbook with their eyes, but, if given the accommodation of an audiobook, is able to read and comprehend the material on the same level as a classmate who is not diagnosed with dyslexia. 

For a student with ADHD, an accommodation could be putting them in a separate room to take a test or giving them a bosu ball, a type of bouncy seat, instead of a chair if they need to move around in order to focus. 

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Building confidence

But even with these accommodations in place, confidence can be hard to muster.

“These kids are sometimes very visibly made to look and feel different,” Flink says. “Social emotional learning strengthens their resilience and grit to know that ‘different’ doesn’t mean ‘bad.’”

Eye to Eye teaches members social and emotional learning skills like self-advocacy to equip them for academic success. Rather than try to change the way the student learns or processes information, social emotional learning helps connect them to educational tools that fit their personal learning style. It does this by boosting their confidence and encouraging them to ask for what they need.

Social emotional learning empowers students to “number one, know how their brain works, number two, be able to articulate that, and number three, have the self-esteem to do number two,” Flink says.

Some ways Eye to Eye provides social emotional learning are through after-school art rooms run by college and high school mentors at participating middle schools. In these art rooms, middle schoolers create art projects based on prompts.

Erin Holleran-Stasik, a 504 coordinator and seventh and eighth grade teacher at Freire Charter Middle School in Philadelphia oversees the Eye to Eye mentoring program between her middle schoolers and college students from Temple University.

“The kids love it,” Holleran-Stasik says. “They really, really look forward to it. I don't know if it's because they love doing the activities, or just that they know so-and-so is coming for them; they're waiting for that specific person, that relationship they've already built.”

Often, these crafts serve as conversation starters to talk about what accommodations the students would like to feel more confident in the classroom. In one craft, students create a cardboard “utility belt” and attach it with supplies like a “spellchecker,” if they would like help spelling words, or a “bully-be-gone,” if they feel like they are being bullied for their differences. Students can then talk with their mentors about these problems and hear how the mentor dealt with the same or similar issues when they were in middle school.

Freire is an inclusion-based school, meaning that they have a large percentage of students with learning disabilities in the student body and that their ultimate goal is to have all students, with and without learning differences, succeed in the general education classroom. Teachers at the school do this by preplanning lessons or using co-teaching models. In a co-teaching model, a general education teacher and a special education teacher work together to educate the same class. Holleran-Stasik is a co-teacher for both seventh and eighth grade classrooms. 

“Having two teachers in the classroom makes a world of a difference,” Holleran-Stasik says. “It's like night and day. I notice more students with learning disabilities participating, raising their hand, asking questions.”

Community connections

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Holleran-Stasik previously taught special education at St. Malachy Catholic School. Because it is privately run, the school is not required to substantially modify programs to assist students with disabilities. This limited the amount of support Holleran-Stasik could offer a student and played a role in her decision to leave the school, she says.

“It's hard,” Holleran-Stasik says of her previous job. “It's really, really hard, especially when students aren't given what they need. It's sad and it becomes very stressful for them. And therefore, it becomes very stressful for teachers as well.”

Eye to Eye is setting a goal to reach 25 percent of all middle schoolers in America with identified learning differences by 2024. But at the present, Flink considers their biggest success to be the strength and enthusiasm of the ever-growing community.

“Not only do the kids figure out a way to succeed, despite the odds, but [they] also feel empowered to know that their story matters so much they can give to the generation, following and following,” Flink says.  

Published on Jan 06, 2020