Redefining ‘Learning Difficulties’
Carol B., Kansas
I had a first grade student in her first shared lesson. This was her first SM music lesson, but she has had previous Suzuki lessons. She just covered her ears and refused to participate after the first instruction. I visited with her mother after the lesson, who is heartbroken that it looks like her daughter has a learning disability. She shows the signs of dyslexia, in addition to some other processing problems. I told the Mom that we would work with her by herself for a while, and I really believe that this method will be helpful to her. Then we’ll work on getting into a Shared Lesson.
How would you have handled this, or how have you dealt with similar situations?
Neil Moore, California
I want to present a conceptual shift in languaging. The words ‘Learning Difficulty’ have become very trendy, and are often more so a branding that is created by the parent, and used as a vehicle that allows them to relinquish some degree of responsibility for rearing their child, rather than being an actual ‘Learning Difficulty’ as such. Please understand I’m not talking about students who have what I will call Brain Injuries, as these, whilst also routinely referred to as Learning Difficulties, are an entirely different story. I would much rather see these genuine problems categorized as ‘Methodological Difficulties’, because usually they can be circumvented by subtle or significant shifts in the way that the method is unfolded.
School teachers rarely understand nor recognize these as Methodological Difficulties, as this does require the teacher to assume 100% responsibility for developing or implementing a creative shift in approach. Usually, teachers quite simply don’t know how to create such a shift, they don’t know what to do in such situations, but also it is commonly a problem because the disillusioned teacher thinks of it as being ’too hard’, or ‘too much work’, or ‘not enough time’, or ‘don’t know how’ and unfortunately they often don’t want to explore and discover how. Easy to see how convenient it is to shift the problem, with one simple stroke, squarely onto the shoulders of the student by saying – “he has a Learning Difficulty’.
Deafness, CAPD, genuine Autism and many other brain injuries fall into the very real problem arena, and require subtle, careful handling. But for the most part, the child who the parent or the lazy physician has routinely labeled as having a Learning Difficulty, has done the child a gross disservice, and if not handled promptly and appropriately, the label will be internalized by the child, designed into their behavior and ultimately be cemented into their character and used as a means of avoiding responsibility for the remainder of their lives.
Although I have literally had dozens and dozens of situations where parents and/or the family physician have diagnosed a child as having a ‘Learning Disability’, I am yet to meet a child who actually does (and again, please understand I am not talking about those students with genuine brain injuries). In reality, these labeled children who have been loosely (and inaccurately) categorized as having Learning Difficulties, without question, have consistently proven themselves to be the most successful students I have ever taught. If I were given a chance to teach 100 ‘normal’ kids, or 100 with ‘Learning Difficulties’, I would take the latter EVERY time. They are the easiest to teach and the brightest. However, the greatest obstacle to having these students emerge as brilliantly as they are capable of being, is having a teacher who buys into the illusion that the child does in fact have such a disability.
In my opinion, Carol’s student covering her ears and not participating, is classic Claiming Territory behavior, and for you (the teacher) to shape the learning or teaching environment to accommodate the child, has just had the teacher relinquish a rather massive amount of Territory, and unfortunately, right at the very beginning of the relationship.
Although I would need to have been there to be sure of what the best steps to take were, in all likelihood, I would have proceeded with the entire lesson, and allowed the girl to keep her ears covered, I would have let her stay that way until she got sick of it, and realized that it was going to get her nowhere. Naturally, I would also be asking her what on earth is she covering her ears for, and I would expect her to answer (knowing full well that she would not do so immediately). Thereafter, I would have her sit by the piano, include her in the lessons, ignore her behavior, and let her know that I’ll be happy to include her in the lesson when she is finished with the game.
Afterwards, I would explain to the mother, privately, that this is Claiming Territory behavior, and I would help the mother understand the mechanics of this, then I would ask the mother to allow me handle it entirely my way, and subsequently, no matter how far behind the girl fell, she would be brought to lessons, where she could sit with her hands over her ears until the cows come home as far as I’m concerned, but I would just let her get so bored and tired of doing it, that she would give it up. You have to know that she will give it up – don’t worry, she will. Every lesson, I would ask her if she has decided to join us yet, or does she still want to waste her time and play the game. Not for a moment would I buy into the label.
How to distinguish a behavioral issue and the Claiming Territory mechanism, as compared with recognizing a genuine injury is obviously crucial here. But by all accounts, at the beginning, when I speak to the mother and question her, and discover that at home she acts and functions like any normal kid – then it’s a done deal as far as I’m concerned. Don’t ask about what she’s like at school, as she will in all likelihood be doing a version of the same thing there. It’s the behavior in her home territory that is the key – how she acts, functions and behaves at home. She probably has control of the environment there too, and has mom wrapped around her finger. A smart, cunning, normal human being who’s just doing what human beings do – Claim Territory.
There’s way too much more to say about this, but critical to distinguish injury from behavior. More often than not, it’s behavior, and as such, don’t be fooled.
Cathy H., California
I have a lot of experience working with special needs students and completely agree with Neil’s comments on this subject. The “lazy physician, lazy teacher, lazy parent” syndrome is one that has irritated me for a long, long time and one I have had to deal with myself.
It is important to remember that special needs students can claim territory just as well as any other child. In Carol’s case, there could be a hearing sensitivity issue here, the student could have CAPD but we do not know because the parent has yet to have the child tested by a specialist. On the other hand, the child could have no disabilities whatsoever and just be testing the teacher to see how much she can get away with. Many children are “attention starved” and learn this behavior at home. Why? The use of negative behavior is the ONLY way they can get attention from their parents. The parent overlooks the attention issue and looks for a disability to blame it on because they are too proud to admit to or cannot see their own fault. It’s the easy way out. Sad but true.
I pretty much treat my special needs students the same as anyone else, including reprimanding them for smart mouthing their parents during class. It is important to remember that true special needs children are often spoiled because their parents carry guilt over their disability. On the other hand, many normal children are just as spoiled because their parents feel guilty because do not spend enough quality time with their children. If you do not set an example, and allow the student to get away their actions, you are doing the child and yourself a great disservice. If you set an example, you will create a bond and your student and parent will respect you for it.