In our one-size-fits-all school system it is generally assumed that all kids learn in the same ways. Students are told what, where, when, and how to learn. This assembly line approach to educating our kids creates dependency, discouragement, and, in some cases, hopelessness. In actual fact, not all kids learn in the same ways. If we want them to be optimal learners it is crucial that we introduce them early to their learning needs, strengths, and talents and teach them how to advocate for them.
For example, if a student has trouble remembering what people say and needs to have written directions, s/he is going to feel frustrated and anxious when teachers don’t write instructions on the board. In fact, that student is going to have more difficulty performing successfully than students who don’t need written instructions. This is a serious problem, and some kind of intervention needs to be made on behalf of the student. But, how will anyone know there is a problem, and who is going to be the advocate?
Parents and teachers can give kids a gift that keeps on giving for their entire lives. It will take them through challenges in school, on the job, or in their careers, as well as positively affect their relationships. It is the gift of advocating for themselves. Self-advocacy skills assure young people that they matter and they can have a say in important decisions that affect them. Not surprisingly teaching self-advocacy skills goes a long way to: relieve pressures of dependency, increase feelings of competency, and boost student confidence.
To advocate for themselves students need:
1. An understanding of their learning needs
2. Skills to speak respectfully when they ask for what they need
3. Strategies for handling their needs if adults don’t listen
STUDENTS NEED TO KNOW HOW THEY LEARN BEST
There are two primary ways to find out how your kids learn best:
• Listen to how you describe your kids to others
• Take a learning style profile
Parents often recognize and prize their kids/ unique characteristics, and what they casually say about your kids is often a clue about how they learn best. Oh, he’s a real talker. She just can’t sit still. She’s in her own world. He spends hours with his books. In very simple terms, talkers often learn best by talking, kids who can’t sit still need to move, those who get caught up in their imaginations need to do creative projects, and kids who love books need books. These are only four of many possible traits that make up a child’s learning style.
Learning Style Profile
Parents are good at recognizing their kids’ obvious learning style traits. A learning style profile, however, that goes beyond finding out whether a child is auditory, visual, or tactile can provide a treasure trove of valuable information. In addition to processing modalities, a comprehensive learning style profile can tell you your child’s learning disposition, talents, interests, best learning environment, and how to use them to improve studying and learning. For preschoolers and pre-readers, there are profiles that parents and / or teachers fill out based on their observations of a child. For kids with a third-grade reading ability or above there are profiles they can fill out themselves.
In any case, information from parents, teachers, and profiles, when shared with students, forms a foundation for students to take responsibility for their own learning. Students can learn specifics about what will make their learning more successful, for example: take picture notes rather than notes in outline form, do repetitive movement to memorize math facts, draw pictures of math problems, illustrate spelling words to memorize them, listen to books on tape, get the written instructions, etc. And, kids can use the ways they learn best at home to do their homework and to study for tests.
HOW TO ADVOCATE RESPECTFULLY
Knowing learning needs is one step for a student in becoming a self-advocate. Kids also need to learn ways to communicate so teachers and parents are willing to listen. There are two basics to speaking up respectfully: ask for time to talk and make requests rather than demands.
Ask for Time to Talk
A child walking up to a parent or teacher and blurting out what s/he needs is not going to work. To increase the likelihood that an adult will listen, it’s important to make an appointment. This simple action shows respect for the parent or teacher. It might sound something like this: I have something I would like to talk about with you, what would be the best time? Or, Do you have time to talk after school today?
Make Requests Rather Than Demands
When a student is ready to speak up about what s/he would like to have happen, it is important to ask for it not demand it. Rather than I think you should write instructions on the board for me, it would be more respectful to say, Would you be willing to write instructions on the board? Would it be possible for me to draw my math problems?
This probably sounds foreign. We just aren’t used to kids having the self-awareness to know what they need, let alone the confidence to ask for it. However, if they have taken a learning style profile and teachers or parents have stressed the importance of this kind of self-knowledge, kids can know how they learn best, and they can learn how to speak up for themselves.
HOW TO HANDLE LEARNING NEEDS WHEN ADULTS DON’T LISTEN
There is no guarantee that someone will listen when a young person speaks up. A mom I know home schooled her four children for many years and made sure that all of them were well versed in how they learned best. Circumstances changed for the family and the children returned to public school. One day in class one of the children said to the teacher, It helps me learn better if I can have instructions written out. The teacher said, I don’t care how you learn best, I just told you what to do and you just weren’t listening.
Understanding parents can soften the feelings disappointment, frustration, and discouragement at times like these by listening and empathizing. They can also strategize with kids ways to handle their own learning needs. In the case of getting written instructions, maybe a classmate would write down the instructions.
Most of all parents and teachers need to encourage kids not to give up on their learning needs, to continue to look ways to learn and study that work for them, and to advocate for themselves when and where they can.