Helping Students with Learning Difficulties

I have been a teacher in both the Victorian and Queensland state school systems and have worked in a number of high schools with different socio-economic backgrounds, teaching English, History, and Literacy. Like so many other teachers, I have also been asked to make up classes in Geography, Maths, Legal Studies, French, Art, Phys Ed and Home Economics, including sewing, and the highlight, teaching knitting to fifteen Year 10 Greek boys. Class sizes in the State system ranged from 45 at the beginning of my career to 25–30 in later years.

For the past 28 years, I have been very privileged to have been a parent and then a teacher at The School of Total Education (SOTE) in Warwick, Queensland, founded in 1977 by Vijay Yogendra, a visionary of core principles and best practice in education and life.

Teaching at the School of Total Education

At SOTE, Vijay built a harmonious learning place with emphasis on small class sizes and individual attention. An ordered and beautiful learning place with clear boundaries is worked at, but one in which creative noise and mess is also welcome. Good resources and innovative technology make for interesting and changing curriculum content.

SOTE is a school without awards and competition or the “tough love”, punitive approach so often inherent in our Australian culture. Students are encouraged to strive for their own personal best and to develop a sense of motivation and joy in their learning. The school encourages students to develop their passion for areas of particular personal interest, for example in writing, in history, science, maths or sport. In many cases this has been life-changing for the individual. Art, drama and music are also recognised as being important in helping students express themselves.

At SOTE, classrooms work at being safe, secure, happy and co-operative; students are encouraged to help and accept one another, to understand each other’s strengths and weaknesses. Not just in theory but in daily practice. Life learning, core values and universal principles are most important in producing a positive and hopeful environment for the student.

Vijay stressed most of all the training of teachers in their own character development and understanding of life — to work at being patient, tolerant, compassionate and flexible, to respond with positivity and peace rather than a combative approach.

Students Can Overcome Learning Difficulties

Being a small, independent, low fee, family-friendly school, at first glance often thought of as “different” and “alternative”, we have always had families seeking help for children who, in the mainstream system, have been diagnosed with learning and behavioural difficulties across a broad spectrum.

New students, especially those with learning difficulties, can begin with a lot of tension and poor self-confidence. The student can be uncoordinated, may be argumentative and resistant, socially awkward or even display inappropriate, anti-social behaviour.

Of course, whenever learning delays or processing problems are suspected, it is imperative to follow up with diagnostic testing to ascertain how best to help a student. However, at SOTE, some settling-in time is needed — at least a term and in the early grades perhaps even a year or more. In some cases a child may take many years to progress in their learning.

Teachers and parents need to understand the long-term effort needed by these children in turning around unhappy or difficult experiences in their learning, not just in academic areas but also in behavioural and social situations. In their previous schools, the experience of accusations of being a liar, of being sneaky and lazy are common with these students. Habits picked up very early in their schooling for coping with and avoiding painful classroom expectations can include: lying, feeling sick, suddenly feeling very tired, seeming to be spaced out or distracted, being silly and provocative, playing dumb and even presenting with what seem to be serious hearing and vision issues. These are the students’ safety net and very hard to change when faced with impatience, pressure or anger from their teacher or parent.

Generally, many students who come to SOTE with diagnosed learning difficulties settle down very quickly. When their behaviour settles, when they are happy, it is easier to see where the learning must begin. A teacher remarked about a young boy who had enrolled at SOTE only a few weeks earlier: “his whole face has changed and he is standing taller and he seems quieter”.

This has been an-going observation over many years.

Early in the school’s history, a young student came who had been diagnosed as needing to attend (what at the time was called) a “Special School”. He was uncoordinated, had very low self-esteem, very poor attention or focus in class and he was very angry and unhappy — presenting as almost incapable of learning. He boarded with another school family and, over time, cricket, photography and art became his passions. He went on to become Head of Department in Art at a regional High School.

Another student who enrolled in mid-primary, having never spoken a word, stayed at SOTE until the end of Year 10. He persevered in his literacy, which was always challenging, but found his passion and confidence in cooking. He now has a beautiful family, is very proud that his daughters are class captains, and manages and owns a number of small bakeries.

Recently, parents of an originally very unhappy and misunderstood student who had quite profound learning difficulties and who attended SOTE for a number of years in secondary rang the school to report that their child gained so much from being part of SOTE and that “she has never looked back”.

Many other students have come through the school with literacy, physical or behavioural problems. Gradually, through being shown acceptance, clear boundaries and consistent routines, they learn to take one step at a time, they learn to have fun and be part of the team, every day and in every way — in the playground, at lunch, at sport, or on the bus going home. Through this experience, their blocks to learning have gradually fallen away and learning is able to happen.

About the Author

Claire Waters began her teaching career in the Victorian state school system in the 1970s. Claire has been a teacher at The School of Total Education since 1985. She has mainly taught English, History, and Literacy.

This article was written for The School of Total Education website in 2013. (Published on web site: November 2013).