exceptional learners among us- who are they and how can we help them?

Who are exceptional learners in our communities, and how can we help them? Lynell is a consultant for Anabaptist educators and offers ways to understand and care for our own exceptional learners.

I was in eighth grade when my parents introduced my younger brothers and me to ADHD. My fifth grade brother was newly diagnosed, and it was a relief to my brother and parents to have an overdue explanation for his difficulties.

This was my first deep experience with the world of exceptional learners and it made one fact startlingly clear to me: challenges at school can be completely unrelated to intelligence. Until then, I had the childish assumption that my peers who struggled in school must not be as smart as me. But I knew my brother was brilliant—we spent mealtimes discussing perpetual motion machines and conversations with cousins included debates about science, math, or language concepts that stretched our middle-school knowledge to the max. And yet, this knowledgeable, articulate brother of mine spent every waking hour of the school year doing schoolwork, pulling good grades but enduring unimaginable levels of stress to do so.

In high school, I decided to become an advocate for students like my brother. Over the subsequent decade, God led me through years of tutoring, teaching, attending Faith Builders and additional higher education, and into the incredibly rewarding field of doing exactly that: evaluating all manner of exceptional learners so I could provide guidance and answers for struggling students and their parents, teachers, and schools.

So how do you identify and enable the exceptional learners in your community? It would take a book (or more) to fully answer that question, but here are a few guidelines and ideas.

Defining Exceptional Learners

One definition for “exceptional” is “deviating from the norm” (MW.com), or in other words, different than average. Simply put, what works for most students is not working for these. One word of caution: if you have a very small class, you do not have a “norm”—there are too few students to have a good sense for what average is. I have seen this work both ways in small schools. Sometimes in these schools, it’s easy to conclude incorrectly that a student is struggling when his few peers are exceptionally above average. Other times, it’s harder to notice how deeply a student is struggling because her peers are above average. However, in a class of 15-20 students, the outlying one, two, or three exceptional students can be more evident.

Areas of Exceptionality

Academic challenges, commonly called learning disabilities, can manifest in any area. Approximately 80% of students with a learning disability have a specific type called dyslexia, which causes difficulties with phonological (sound) awareness, reading decoding, reading fluency, and/or spelling. Dyslexia frequently appears to cause difficulties with reading comprehension. However, if the same material is read aloud, these students can answer the questions as well as their peers. Therefore, it is not a comprehension difficulty. It is rooted in their difficulty of decoding: sounding out the words produced by these otherwise meaningless squiggles we call letters, and doing so accurately and rapidly enough to still have mental energy left for understanding. In virtually every case, dyslexia also causes difficulty with spelling—encoding the sounds of our spoken language back into the correct letters.

Broader language-based learning disabilities can affect both comprehension and/or expression for both oral and written forms. In comprehension difficulties, listening comprehension is no better than reading comprehension. These students may read aloud as accurately and quickly as peers, but they cannot answer questions or retell what they just read or heard. The comprehension breakdown can occur at a word level (weak vocabulary), sentence level, or paragraph-and-larger level. Another breakdown is when the students struggle to express themselves verbally and through writing. They might struggle with oral expression and have difficulty retelling even familiar Bible stories. Sometimes, these students understand reasonably well, and when given multiple choice questions or asked to point to pictures for vocabulary terms, they can do so. But given open ended questions or asked to express thoughts in paragraph form, they struggle.

Math learning disabilities often occur in one or more of three areas. Math fact fluency is knowing basic math facts accurately and quickly. Math computation is doing longer calculations, from long addition to fraction calculations through solving algebraic equations. Math concepts and applications includes solving story problems; using time, money, and measurement; understanding fraction and decimal values; grasping the concepts in trigonometry, and beyond. Sometimes math difficulties occur in multiple categories, but often, there is a primary area that is the weakest and it bleeds into the other areas of math.

Behavioral challenges include the myriad of non-academic actions necessary to be successful in the school setting. “Behavior” in this context is not a moral term indicating right and wrong. Rather, it refers to all the other actions that allow a child to demonstrate (or not) their academic knowledge. This can include the attention and organization concerns my brother encountered, or hyperactivity and impulsivity. Social and language difficulties emerge with the autism spectrum. Trauma histories create their own flood of attachment and social difficulties. Genetic predispositions to anxiety, depression, Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, eating disorders, and other challenges can impact a student’s success, particularly during the high school years.

Significant exceptionalities can occur with genetic mutations or deletions, such as Down syndrome. Medical events, like a significant traumatic brain injury, or the consequences of others’ choices, such as prenatal drug and alcohol exposure, have longterm impacts on brain development. Many other times, intellectual disabilities occur for no known reason. The implications of significant exceptionalities often reach well beyond academic learning and affect functioning in other areas of life.

Enabling Exceptional Learners

If you or someone you care about has a known (or suspected) diagnosis, learn all you can about that condition. Teachers and parents are all busy, but one of the most loving things you can do for the children in your care is to know them fully as God created them. That includes learning to know about any exceptionalities they are encountering. Some of the characteristics of the label will not apply, but other characteristics will shed significant light on the mysteries, grace for the struggles, and guidance for moving forward.

“One of the most loving things you can do for the children in your care is to know them fully as God created them.”

Find more experienced parents and teachers to learn from. What has worked for them with specific challenges? What resources did they find helpful to equip themselves? How did they go about getting a diagnosis, if needed? What programs or techniques or accommodations allowed their students to blossom into all God created them to be? The Anabaptist community is continuing to increase the available resources for exceptional students. Examples include websites like The Dock (www.thedockforlearning.org), workshops offered at a myriad of teacher seminars around the country and in-depth classes at Faith Builder’s annual Summer Term.

Look for trustworthy, research-proven methods for interventions. The scientific literature on learning disabilities has come far in the last 30 years. Dyslexia, in particular, has an incredible research base. Sally Shaywitz’s Overcoming Dyslexia provides foundational, life-transforming information. There are proven methods of help available for almost any exceptionality. But the proven methods require a lot of individualized instruction from a dedicated teacher, parent, and/or counselor, depending on the condition. Beware of the “cure all” or magic bullet. As much as we all want the fastest solution, if it sounds too good to be true, it usually is.

What Families and Schools Must Remember

No matter the challenges they present, exceptional children are not intentionally making your life difficult. Particularly in certain situations, such as the students who are forever acting without thinking or reacting out of trauma, it can seem like an “adults vs. child” situation. Nobody ever wins that conflict. As difficult as your life may seem due to these children in your home or classroom, their lives are even more challenging, typically through no choice of their own. Seek compassion through understanding.

Every child can learn. Not every child will learn the same material at the same age with the same type of instruction. But absolutely every child can take a step forward from their current location to more knowledge and stronger skills—in academics, in behavior, in social skills, in emotional development, in spiritual understanding. Our job as parents and teachers is to figure out their current skills and shepherd them in their next individualized steps. This may require different methods and/or paces of instruction, different expectations for proof of learning, different types of responses to their behaviors, or different professional resources used, such as trauma/attachment counselors, speech therapists, or medical doctors.

There is hope—for you, for your child, for your student, for this precious child’s future. Prayerfully seek support and direction from those who have walked this road. And remember, few things will have as much eternal impact as the imprint you leave on this child’s soul. Make yours an imprint of love and understanding.