A, B, C, D and F

“I, myself, was always recognized . . . as the “slow one” in the family. It was quite true, and I knew it and accepted it. Writing and spelling were always terribly difficult for me. My letters were without originality. I was . . . an extraordinarily bad speller and have remained so until this day.”
~Agatha Christie

“I was, on the whole, considerably discouraged by my school days. It was not pleasant to feel oneself so completely outclassed and left behind at the beginning of the race.”
~Sir Winston Churchill

How bad does it have to get?

At what point does a student’s difficulties with schoolwork demonstrate that they are having significant problems, and therefore need help?

Should a student have to fail classes before someone realizes or decides that there is a problem?

Why do we rely on failing – or near-failing – to signal academic difficulties? By the time a student has slid that perilously low in achievement, they have been struggling for a long while, and are getting further and further behind, thus making it even more difficult to catch up and succeed.

Furthermore, all that time spent struggling and generally not understanding why they are having problems, only creates even greater frustration. Stress doesn’t always push students to rally and succeed – too much stress rather, just serves to flatten their spirits.

Being told (directly or indirectly by all sorts of adults and peers) that they are simply “lazy” or “not trying hard enough” or “stupid” or whatever, only serves to further mangle the esteem and create greater frustration. It’s a recipe for depression, for withdrawal, and/or for acting out.

Bright students apply their natural intelligence and create coping strategies around their various difficulties. Oft times this is an unconscious process; it’s sheer adaptation to the world because they are expected to be able to do what everyone else does, and because in many ways, they have to approach tasks differently.

But coping strategies can only compensate so far. When the student is tired, or is sick, or is overwhelmed by other events in life, or is having to spread not enough compensation over too much difficulty, it breaks down. And then the student “suddenly” can’t do what they’ve always been able to do. Teachers, parents and others can’t understand why the student isn’t performing well. It’s easy to make those dread attribution errors: “You just need to focus. You just need to try harder. You just need to pay attention.”

For the student, sometimes they can’t even understand how or why it is that they can do things some days, but not others. Or why they can only sometimes do things well. It seems irrational. It’s easy for the frustrated student to make attribution errors of their own: “The teacher hates me. The work is too hard. The subject is just stupid.”

Students who are both very bright and have learning disabilities or learning difficulties or even marked learning style differences, face a terrible Catch-22. For years they will get by on sheer brains, compensating for their problems in ingenious ways. But eventually the complexity of the subject materials, the increasingly higher taxonomic levels of assessment, and the increasing study load all combine to bog down the effort. (The distractions of adolescence certainly don’t help, either!)

These “twice-exceptional” students may do well, but struggle to achieve what they could do. The learning problems, which affect both the acquisition and demonstration of knowledge, can cancel out the exceptional qualities. What everyone sees, instead of a bright student with learning problems, is just an ordinary student with erratic and scattered abilities.

Once someone finally cues into the fact that there is a problem, it’s the disparity between ability and achievement in test results where the learning problems are diagnosed. But even before that, it’s the erratic results in the grades (even in the same subject!) and the uneven scatter of abilities that should send up flags.

It’s not uncommon for students with learning disabilities to be uneven — the “easy” things may be difficult (such as taking 4+ years to learn multiplication tables) and the more advanced stuff may be easy (e.g. physics or calculus concepts). If people insist that the student “master” the preliminary steps before they can move on, the student will be bored and not reach their academic potential. Bored students can act up, either withdrawing, being class clown to get attention, or getting frustrated and angry.

Even after testing, there can be confusion all around. None of the test results may show a severe problem of any one kind. But we have to remember that problems are cumulative. On good days, various problems may merely be additive; on bad days they can be multiplicative. So a student with some ADHD organizational problems and some Auditory Processing Disorder problems and some Asperger’s socialization problems and some difficulties in reading and some periodic tics and some depression and occasional migraines … doesn’t have any “major” problems. But what that student does have is a major conglomeration of interacting problems. It’s no one thing – it’s everything!

One school person said this student didn’t need an IEP because they were “coping so well”. Drr? the last report card ran the entire gamut of the alphabet, from A through F.

Yeah, right.

How bad does it have to get?