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Q & A with Sandra Rief: Dealing with Learning Difficulties

December, 2010
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sandra-1sWhat is ADHD? Do your children have behavioral problems at school? How do you help the student listen better and pay attention in class? What can teachers do to help with time management? What is the right amount of homework to give to children? …

Surely, these are the kind of questions lingering on the minds of many parents and teachers, including you and me. Have you found the right answers? Ask Sandra Rief, as someone suggested to me.

Sandra Rief is one of today’s leading speakers, authors and consultants on how to reach and teach children with ADHD and Learning Disabilities. An award-winning educator with over 20 years of experience teaching in public schools, Sandra is known for the practical, positive strategies and interventions she shares with educators and parents that enable students with learning, attention, and behavioral difficulties to achieve success.

LittleStar was happy to meet Sandra after her talk at Beijing BISS International School recently and asked for her advice on these common issues.

LittleStar: How do parents or teachers tell if a child has ADD/ ADHD or Dyslexia or they just have difficulties in adapting to a new learning environment or getting used to teaching methods?

Sandra: The child needs to be evaluated by qualified professionals to determine if he or she has either of these brain-based neurobiological disorders. If the child has either ADHD or Learning Disabilities (such as Dyslexia), the problems they are experiencing are not caused by difficulties adapting to a new environment or teaching methods, although those factors can certainly make it more of a challenge for the child. If the parent or teacher is concerned and suspects the child may have ADHD or Dyslexia, parents and school staff should have a meeting  to discuss their observations and concerns with each other, and proceed from there regarding evaluation if needed.

LittleStar: Only a small group of students at school may have ADHD or Dyslexia, therefore many teachers treat them differently or are tougher on them than the other students. What should be the right attitude or approach to teach these students? 

Sandra: There are typically two or more students with ADHD or Learning Disabilities in every classroom (some have been diagnosed and others have not). The right approach is to provide the same positive teaching practices that all students need: engaging, motivating instruction and curriculum, structure and organization, and positive discipline and management. However, those with ADHD and Learning Disabilities need MORE support. Teachers need to have a positive attitude and mindset that ALL students in their class can learn and succeed, and be open to putting forth the extra effort it requires and patience it takes in working with these students.

LittleStar: So, it is more important that teachers can differentiate instruction and address students’ diverse learning styles. But how is this done when some ADHD students or Dyslexia students are especially talented?

Sandra: Differentiating instruction means “one size does NOT fit all.” To reach and teach all of the diverse students with their varying learning styles in a classroom, teachers need to design instruction that recognizes that students learn differently and need a variety of approaches. Teachers who differentiate instruction provide: a variety of instructional formats – how the lessons and information are presented, how students can demonstrate their learning and comprehension of the content, and so forth. Students with ADHD and with Learning Disabilities typically do well in classes with teachers who are committed to differentiating their instruction so that all students have the optimal chance of success in learning. 

It is true that many students with ADHD or Dyslexia and other Learning Disabilities are very intelligent and often talented (e.g., musically, artistically, and athletically). Nevertheless, because of the challenges they face in learning or in managing and regulating their behavior, they struggle in school. They need teachers who will help them strengthen their areas of weakness and will nurture and tap into their interests, talents, and strengths.

LittleStar: In your talk, you mentioned work efficiency and suggested limiting teaching to 20 minutes during the lesson. Does this only work for students with ADHD or the whole class?

Sandra: That’s not what I said about limiting teaching to 20 minutes during a lesson. I’m sorry if there was a misunderstanding from what I tried to say in my presentation. I believe I was referring to how students with ADHD have difficulty focusing and accomplishing tasks – particularly lengthy ones. They often do better when such assignments are chunked down and broken into shorter segments to accomplish until completion.   It is true that teachers shouldn’t be talking for long periods of time. It is best during a lesson for all students to have a lot of opportunity to interact and be actively involved in the lesson.

LittleStar: Homework is a headache for many students. What are your suggestions for the teachers, parents and students respectively on how to make homework less stressful? 

Sandra: Schools typically have a rigorous curriculum and students do need to put forth time at home to review, practice, and extend their learning of what has been taught in the classroom. But, all homework needs to be relevant, and shouldn’t be overwhelming with a lot of tedious work. There should also be options in some homework assignments – how students can demonstrate their learning. For example, the choice of doing a project or giving an oral report instead of a written assignment is always welcome.

The amount of homework assigned by teachers, and time spent on homework should be reasonable so that children do have time for play and other non-academic activities. I think this is an issue that affects many children and families.  

LittleStar: And what is the right amount of homework to be given to students?

Sandra: That is hard to answer. Of course, it depends on the grade level of the student in general. However, for students with ADHD or Learning Disabilities, teachers need to be aware that it typically takes these children at least two to three times longer to complete homework than it generally takes their classmates to complete. In homes of children with these disabilities, homework is often a nightmare and a source of much frustration and home conflict. Therefore, teachers need to be aware and sensitive to that fact, and be willing to make some adjustments for these students such as shortening the assignments. 

LittleStar: Can you give us a few suggestions for parents and teachers on how to help the kids with dyslexia and improve their language skills?

Sandra: Children with dyslexia in the English language generally have their greatest difficulty with basic reading skills: learning letter-sound association, decoding words and spelling them. When you read very slowly and struggle to figure out each of the words on a page, it can make reading comprehension a problem as well. Children with dyslexia need more intensive training using an effective program designed for teaching these skills systematically and using multi-sensory techniques. A specialist who is trained in these methods and use of such a program is often needed. But, there are many other strategies that parents and teachers can use to help children with dyslexia. My book on dyslexia has many such strategies and techniques to help. There are also wonderful tools of technology to help struggling readers and writers compensate for their weaknesses. This includes electronic/talking books, voice recognition software, spell-checkers, and so forth.

LittleStar: How do you see the relationship between a student’s behavioral performance and their academic success? What’s your advice for teachers on preventing and managing behavioral problems in the classroom?

Sandra: When teachers frequently have to deal with behavioral problems, it hinders their ability to teach and students’ ability to learn. Teachers must be proactive and know how to avoid or minimize behavioral problems through good management strategies. This involves creating a positive learning environment with clear structure (e.g., expectations, rules, procedures, and consistent follow-through). Teachers also need to implement effective strategies for dealing with challenging behavior, such as those related to ADHD. My books share numerous practical strategies for parents and teachers on this and many other topics.

To find out more about Sandra Rief and her tips, please visit her website: www.sandrarief.com

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