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Opinion & Essays - Aug, 2000 Issue #72 

The Impact of Learning Differences on Emotional Growth Schools
By Sanford Shapiro
Sandpoint, Idaho

[Sanford Shapiro has had a varied career in education. Previously a teacher for fourteen years, Sanford has worked as a teacher-trainer, an Academic Director of a private school for dyslexics, an IECA educational consultant, and most recently served as the Academic Director for Boulder Creek Academy, a CEDU school. Sanford is currently considering new opportunities and welcomes any ideas, proposals, questions, or comments.]

Estimates put the percentage of US prisoners with learning disabilities at over 60%. What is the percentage of such students in emotional growth and therapeutic schools? 

In order to meet the needs of increasingly knowledgeable families and the growing complexity of students, emotional growth boarding schools have to significantly expand their understanding of students with learning differences/disabilities. The unique ways these students process information should directly affect the delivery (teaching methods) of emotional growth curriculum. An educational consultant can certainly assist in empowering both the schools and the families they serve in advocating for such students. 

Just as regular schools across the nation are increasing their understanding of learning differences and learning styles, schools for behaviorally struggling children and adolescents need to do the same. Though some emotional growth boarding schools have raised the bar concerning academic standards, they have not, as a general rule, understood nor implemented the best educational practices concerning students with learning differences/disabilities. 

Going Beyond Educational Myth 

There remain staff and organizational/school behaviors that have resulted from two overlapping educational myths. Schools, which primarily serve students with learning disabilities, have historically believed that if learning disabilities and classroom skill deficits are remediated, self-esteem issues will go away. On the other side of the coin, emotional growth boarding schools have held fast to the idea that success in classrooms comes from discovering emotional blockages and uncovering hidden issues. From my work in both types of schools, I have found that both perspectives, when they exclude the other, miss the true mark. The results from these sometimes-unconscious beliefs can be damaging to the child and the school. 

Students succeed or struggle for a variety of reasons. Cognitive or learning styles, teaching approaches, learning disabilities, family issues, biological factors, and individual variations in their response to these factors, all contribute to how students learn. Emotional growth schools can literally and dramatically catapult their effectiveness in changing the lives of their students by better meeting their educational needs. Schools can meet these needs as a result of an increased understanding of successful teaching/learning strategies for reading, language- based, and nonverbal learning disabilities, and attention deficit disorder. 

The Tip of The Iceberg 

Though there are emerging trends that are encouraging, they are just the tip of the iceberg. Schools are beginning to look at IQ levels, asking “Is he or she bright enough for our program?” However, there needs to be training to understand how IQ scores are derived, which ones give information about processing, which ones tell us about reasoning skills, and which ones really give us clues not only about how well, but also about how the student learns. Though schools will look at overall reading levels, we must differentiate between the speed, accuracy and the comprehension with which students read. Further, schools need to understand other learning issues such as word retrieval. Students with learning disabilities often have weaknesses when generating specific vocabulary on demand. They know the words, but struggle with access and retrieval. This can have a huge impact on group counseling sessions. I have seen such students misinterpreted as unwilling, or dishonest. Imagine a confrontive group session where such a student, who has issues and feelings to be expressed, struggles with word retrieval. We know from studies about the brain that when students perceive that they’re under threat in the classroom, their access to thinking skills diminishes. In published scientific literature, this phenomenon is known as “downshifting.” The job of the schools are to help alleviate not compound the problems. 

The impact of language-based learning disabilities on emotional growth curriculum can be huge. How this curriculum is delivered, and what we expect from our students with such learning differences needs to be re-examined and brought up to speed. The use of metaphors, central to some emotional growth concepts, will present unique challenges to students who are not in a traditional way “language smart,” to borrow a phrase from Thomas Armstrong. Students who struggle with certain aspects of expressive and/or receptive language, but who are otherwise bright and capable, are left to feel worse about themselves rather than better, as they grasp without proper tools, for the language of emotional expression. 

There is a growing body of literature on nonverbal learning disabilities (NVLD) that could be more effectively utilized by schools that work with emotionally struggling children. The unique ways students with nonverbal learning disorders understand the world and express their needs have to be understood and then honored. The appropriate school placement of these students has to be based upon clear understanding of their needs. In a nutshell, students with nonverbal learning disorders struggle to understand the nonverbal language of emotions. Though they may be adept at spelling or reading words, and conversing one on one with adults, these students have a hard time reading facial cues, body language, and subtle nuances of spoken language. Difficulties with peer relationships, stemming from such confusion and “misreads,” are a hallmark of these NVLD children. From weaknesses in visual spatial processing, these are the students who get too close to your face or body, and have trouble conveying what they think or how they feel, through appropriately modulating the volume and intonation of their voice. Consequently they often are unaware of their deficits in social settings, are the target of teasing, and need unique approaches to social and emotional development. 

A Unifying theme 

A true appreciation for the wonderful diversity of learning styles needs to be the underlying theme for this discussion of learning differences. Though I use the terms interchangeably, “learning differences” as opposed to “learning disabilities,” reflects the notion that specific learning weaknesses occur in a constellation and continuum of abilities as well. Throughout my studies, work with students, and training of teachers, one truth is clear: strategies that are useful for students with learning differences are useful for all students. Approaches to teaching these students have applications for all learners. From current, cutting edge research, we see that providing visual models and graphic organizers benefits students of all styles, not just those with “auditory processing weaknesses.” Learning how to properly utilize the roles of emotion, music and physical activity leaps from the field of attention deficit disorder into the literature of accelerated learning and multiple intelligence theory. As we bring more resources to students with learning differences, the entire school community will benefit. 

Copyright © 2000, Woodbury Reports, Inc. (This article may be reproduced without prior approval if the copyright notice and proper publication and author attribution accompanies the copy.)

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