The World of the Exceptional Learner


Dyslexia.  ADHD.  ASD.  Learning disabilities.  Intellectual disability.  Special education.  Therapy.  Tutoring.  Diet.  Medicine. Slow learner.  IEP.  Phonological awareness.  Reading comprehension.  Math fact fluency.  Barton.  Semple.  DIBELS.  LiPS. RTI.  Ability-achievement discrepancy.

What do all of those terms have in common?  Each one carries weight in the world of the exceptional learner.  Some carry scientific weight—20 years of brain scans to find the key to dyslexia, world-class experts debating diagnostic criteria, countless research studies confirming or denying the validity of fads and theories.  Some carry emotional weight—a mother wrestling with the idea her child might never talk, a teacher befuddled by an intelligent student who fails to read, a preteen working hard yet slowly absorbing the message, “I am a failure.”

Anabaptist schools have come a long way since their inception.  Some have done well with the exceptional learners—they have systems in place, including teachers and curriculum and financing and ways to identify needs.  Some are in the throes of development—they are scraping together their resources and researching and experimenting.  Others have not yet begun—the teacher may see a need, but does not know where to start or does not have board/parent support; or the need may be misidentified as the student’s choice, so the student slowly dies an academic death while the adults blame the child.

In our Anabaptist schools, we use many terms for this world of the exceptional learner.  “Tutoring” generally refers to 1-on-1 instruction, often done by a “tutor,” an individual who is not the classroom teacher.  This instruction may involve a special curriculum (e.g. Semple Math), or it may involve individualized teaching using classroom curriculum, possibly with below-grade-level materials (i.e., 3rd grade Sunrise Math with a 4th grade student).  “Special education,” or “special ed” for short, is used by some schools.  This has the advantage of aligning with public school terminology, but in some settings, the term is avoided due to connotations.  “Resource room” or “learning support” are additional terms that some schools chose.  During the 2015-2016 term, I helped establish a “resource room” at a school where the resource room personnel were called “teachers,” just like the grade-level teachers.

And what about the students?  “The exceptional learner” is extremely broad—it includes the student with dyslexia, with ADHD, with an intellectual disability, and, at the other end of the spectrum, with gifted abilities.  Some individuals shy away from “learning disability” and prefer “learning differences.”  Others shy away from labels altogether, while still others shy away from the entire idea that exceptional learners exist!

Exceptional learners do exist.  No two students are identical, and while many learn similarly, there are always exceptions.  Denying that says more about the scope of your experiences than the reality of the world.

I believe labels are beneficial.  Since exceptional learning patterns exist, using labels based on generalizations about these exceptional characteristics allows us to define, to discuss, to research, to understand the exceptionalities.  Labels are never limits, nor do they capture the whole person.  Labels must be used carefully, but they can actually be a relief.  They provide an explanation for the incredible challenges a student may be facing, and they provide hope for a way forward.  We as humans naturally label and categorize the world around us and within us; we automatically provide adjectives for each other and ourselves—friendly, quiet, story teller, lazy, greedy, respectable, smart…dumb.  Children do the same.  A child who is struggling will label himself, and his classmates will provide labels, too.  We live in a world of cutting-edge educational research and information about learning, where labels can become a gateway for understanding and growth and overcoming barriers.  In this series of blog posts, we will define some of the key terms that you need to understand to harness the power of the best educational practices for our exceptional learners.

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