Introduction to Diverse Learners: Part 1 of 5

by Becky Bollinger

Classrooms are greenhouses, students are plants, and teachers are gardeners. This analogy introduces a five-part video series by Becky Bollinger on diverse learners and learning disabilities. In this introductory video, Becky outlines the purpose of the series, establishes some foundational terms and concepts related to learning disabilities, and discusses the drawbacks and benefits of diagnostic labels. As teachers study their students in light of established research, they become better equipped to meet individual student needs with knowledge and empathy.

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Classrooms as Greenhouses

I found it helpful to think about our classrooms like a greenhouse. If you imagine a greenhouse full of plants and full of all different types of growing things, each of them needs different things to help them to thrive. So some plants need much more water than others. Some need more sunshine than others. And some plants—their beauty is shown with greenery, and other plants are quick to flower and show their beauty in that way. And so each of our students, I feel like, it’s helpful to think about them as being plants, kind of. So they’re the plants. Our classroom is the green house, and as the teacher, we are the gardener.

And our task, our job as a teacher, is to help them or to create a classroom environment where each of the students is able to thrive in spite of their differences. Our job is the teacher: some of us will need to water here and prune here. We’ll need to encourage here and challenge them forward—to call them to something higher. So each student is needing different things.


Embrace Differences

Our classrooms are diverse places, full of diverse people in them, and our students have a wide ranging interest, and ability levels, and backgrounds, and cultures, and we need to―I really believe that we need to―embrace them, embrace their differences and what we can learn from each of them. The concepts of community and empathy and caring for each other in spite of our differences is something that I feel we should be cultivating in the context of our classrooms.


Student of our Students

I believe as a teacher, we need to be student of our students and be studying, how do they learn? How does this student… how can I best help them to grow and to thrive? How do we begin studying our students and figuring out how to best teach them? Starts with having a foundational understanding of the learning differences or learning disabilities that students can be facing. And so that’s the goal of this video series, is to give you some foundational understanding of the various differences that students can be experiencing or people that we come in contact with in life as well.


Types of Diverse Learners

I have here a chart or a graph, and this is a graph that’s showing the percentage of students that are receiving services in 2017 and 2018 in the public school system. And if you look at this graph, you will see that this Specific Learning Disabilities category is the largest with 4.6% percent of students in public schools receiving services with these kinds of needs. Then there’s Speech and Language Impairment, Other Health Impairment, Autism, and the list goes on. In the other category are things like a visual impairment or deafness or an orthopedic impairment like cerebral palsy.

In this series, we’re going to take a look at three specific categories of disabilities that we might experience more often in our Anabaptist schools. The first one is dyslexia, which would fall under the Specific Learning Disabilities category. Then we will look at autism, which falls under its own category there in the yellow. And the third one would be ADHD, which falls under the other health impairment category.

Of course, in addition to these disabilities, there’s many other causes or factors, things that can be impacting a child’s success or performance at school. And some of those things could include like trauma, or attachment disorders, or different behavioral or emotional… the different level of emotional or mental health, or things like having a limited English language proficiency. All of these things can be playing into a student’s… how they’re doing in school.


Teachers as Problem Solvers

And so as teachers, we really have to be problem solvers and think about, well, what are all the factors here? What are all the different things that could be going on? And sometimes our first take or our first impression is not correct. And so we need to dig into that and look into and see what could be going on, and how could I be a help to them?


Things to Understand

In general I think there are some things that we should understand about disabilities. First, they can really range from… Like so say that someone has dyslexia. It could range from mild to moderate to severe to profound. You could have a mild case of dyslexia or a severe case that is very difficult to overcome or to work with. And so there is that range there.

Also, I think it’s important to understand that, in order for an individual to be diagnosed with one of these disabilities, to be significantly impacting their functioning in life or their performance in the classroom. That’s always compared with typical development. So a child… a first grader is going to be more moving more readily, and that’s expected of them when we think about something like ADHD. It’s always compared with what’s typical for the child or the individual at their current age. Sometimes we joke about having disabilities like we’re feeling restless. After we stop for a while, we kind of joke around like I have ADHD or something. And I, I really caution us against that. I think that that discredits the fact that these disabilities are real. These disabilities are very impactful for many individuals. And so we… Yeah. Let’s be careful about how we talk about them.

Also, I encourage us to think about our role as educators in that we are professionals, and we want to be doing our job and talking about these kinds of needs in a professional manner.


People First Language

And one way that I think is important to keep in mind when talking about disabilities is using something called “person first terminology.” And that just means that, say that someone has Down syndrome, we wouldn’t say “the Down syndrome child.” We would say “the child with Down syndrome.” Or the same way we wouldn’t have an “ADHD child” or a “dyslexic child.” We would have “a child with dyslexia” or “a child with ADHD.” It’s just a small thing, but I think it can show respect. It can show that they’re a child first, and the problem that they’re encountering is not defining who they are.


Labels as a Tool

Also, I hear a lot… there’s a lot of talk about labels, and how do we think about those? And there’s a lot of pushback on labels. We don’t want to label this person with this, with this problem. And we have to be careful with labels. We really do. They don’t limit an individual or capture the whole person. That doesn’t define who they are. And labels also, we don’t want to use them as an excuse, as something that now I don’t have to be putting forth my best effort, or I don’t need to… like this behavior is OK because I have this problem. Like it’s not an excuse.

And so I do want us, though, to think about labels as being a tool. When someone has been diagnosed with a specific disability, it opens up the door for resources. And as educators, it helps us all to have a sense like… It helps us to define what’s going on, to know maybe where to look for resources, where to… It gives us direction for how to help our students whenever we kind of have a better understanding of what specifically is going on for them.

Labels also, I feel like, can be a relief for some when it kind of can explain why school has been so hard for me. It’s not that there’s something that I’m doing wrong. Yeah, it can be an incredible explanation of the challenges, and it can also give a way forward.



So as an educator, you won’t need to be teaching long to encounter many of these disabilities in your classroom. And so I just encourage us to lead with empathy, to continue growing and learning and as educators. Do your research, look into things, and let’s be advocates for our students, and help them, so that they can thrive, just like the plants that we’ve talked about earlier.

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CONTRIBUTOR: Becky Bollinger


Introduction to Diverse Learners
Publication Date: May 6, 2021


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