Wednesday, August 24, 2011

The Girl Who Played With An Imaginary Rope

There once was a girl who played with an imaginary rope. Her first grade teachers thought it odd and did not know what to do. The girl had been singled out the year before, in kindergarten, when she was sent first for testing. The tests involved pictures and mazes. The girl would always remember the feeling of being singled out, the look in her teacher's eyes and the meaningful way the teacher said SHE must go first, the feeling that she had done something wrong because there was something wrong with her. The reason she now played with an imaginary rope was actually quite simple. She was practicing jump rope, but no one knew her secret, that she was determined to play as well as everyone else, that she needed to be as good as they were. The teachers could not understand why the girl had to work harder than everyone else or why she seemed so frustrated. The girl felt "stupid" and became focused on fixing all the things she was bad at. She never realized she might be "good at" anything until one day she wrote a poem and won a contest. Then, a few years later, in seventh grade, she came in second place in the class spelling bee. An administrator encouraged her to write. It was then that she realized she might not be "all dumb" after all.

Dr. Ernst VanBergeijk picks up on the first ring. He is the Associate Dean and Executive Director at NYIT and he has conducted extensive research on learning disabilities. He also heads NYIT's Vocational Independence Program (VIP), which enables students with significant learning disabilities to maximize their potential for independence. I want to find out what happened in the 1970s and 1980s, I explain to Dr. V., were children more rampantly termed "Learning Disabled" during that time period? Was there a need to identify - to label - students who were slower learners? Were there many that were misunderstood and misdiagnosed?

Later that evening, my friends meet me for sushi and they want to know why I'm fixated on the 70s and 80s. My mind goes to my medical records, to the neurological tests that were given to determined why I had "attention lapses," especially when faced with complicated subject matter. I also recall a discussion I had with my seventh grade math tutor "Lots of kids were mislabeled and misdiagnosed as learning disabled in the 70s and 80s," she had said, "You can't be sure you really have a 'learning disability.' But I was the girl who played with the imaginary rope.

Dr. VanBergeijk is one of several experts I will speak with as I trudge down a twisty and thorny "memory lane." In examining the history of labeling students, I am examining my own. I was born only one year before Public Law 94-142 was passed and with any law, it takes a while for adherents and those implementing the law to perfect it. I think of myself as having been part of the Guinea Pig Generation. PL 94-142, also known as the Education for All Handicapped Children Act (later renamed IDEA, Individuals with Disabilities Education Act), was established to aid states in protecting the rights and meeting the needs of children with disabilities. This law gave rise to "special education" and children previously deemed "unteachable" could no longer be denied a free education. While this was a major step for those in need of special ed, the question became: which students qualified for it? In order to place a child in a special education class, there needed to be a diagnosis. As VanBergeijk explains it, you can't just put students in special classes without special reasoning. So, I ask him if this led to an influx of kids being "diagnosed" in the late 70s and 80s, kids who would be in regular classrooms today with support from a resource room or tutors to supplement "regular" classroom instruction.

I share a bit of my story. I took "regular" classes in a Jewish day school and was placed in lower tracks. I received some resource room aid and tutoring, having been diagnosed at 5 with an "attention focusing problem." (Today, we call this ADD minus the H). I would later become accustomed to hyper-focusing,perfecting admirable study skills and I would go on to receive stellar grades in high school and college. However, I would never forget the more formative years of my education. I tell Dr. V. how I started really feeling "smart" as opposed to "dumb" in 4th grade, but I always had to work extra hard, studying over weekends and late at night. It seemed back then that I was pigeonholed despite my progress and "stuck" in the lowest track until I went to a new school, a high school miles away. There, I suddenly found myself in the more advanced classes. In elementary school, my math grades had pulled me down so much that none of the teachers recognized my progress in other areas. While I enjoyed creative writing, my sixth grade Language Arts teacher crushed a few dreams for me when she split us up into writing groups, having peers review each other's writing. Because I was not among the popular set, I didn't fare well in that group. The teacher told me to toughen my skin and learn to handle critiques without explanations from my popular peers (i.e. "Your story sucked.").

VanBergeijk says he can not stress enough how educators need to "teach to the strength" of the student. Teachers need to empower students with confidence rather than creating an environment of "learned helplessness" by placing the majority of the emphasis on "weaknesses" and "fixing problems." When I speak to numerous individuals who had elementary school experiences like my own, we remember how teachers honed in on our weakness rather than on our strengths, how they looked the other way when we expressed frustration or observed us wryly on the recess playgrounds. We all have a few things in common: We became fixated on fixing what was "wrong" with us. The majority of us discovered our hidden talents in our teens - or 20s! We all had "aha" moments. Aha, I can write. Aha, I can manage a company that trains people for the workplace and gives them tools to succeed. Aha, I'm interested in law and politics and really have a penchant for it.

"You never forget what happened," says Donna Flagg, a book author (Surviving Dreaded Conversations) and Founder of the Krysalis Group, a job training firm that also specializes in empowering LD workers. Donna was made to feel like an oddball when she was younger due to learning difficulties that she would later discover stemmed from a form of dyslexia. I can't help but identify with Donna, who, like me, was born into a family of geniuses and struggled with the "what's wrong with ME?" and "how in the world did I come from this family?" questions that are rooted in insecurity. Donna went on to speak publicly and write about her past experiences (she also covers the workplace) and help pave the way for the next generation -what she hopes is a smoother way.

"There was one teacher who really believed in me and stated that she expected more from me when I was feeling turned off to school because of all I'd been through," Donna says, "Until that point, I had never heard those words from a teacher and it motivated me to succeed because I knew it was true."

I too had that one teacher who believed in me. I l considered poetry a form of catharsis at that time and not something to share with others, but she knew that I had a talent and she encouraged me to write and not worry about what people thought. Yes, she knew about my earlier psychological and intelligence tests and she wasn't going to let the diagnoses of "attention focusing problems" and "cognitive deficits in visual-spatial orientation" (I think I'm a whiz at mazes today, but that is the area that tripped me up on earlier testing) get in the way of talent, depth, introspection and possibility...

I speak with VanBergeijk and then later with Richard Horowitz, a former special education teacher and principal as well as author (Family Centered Parenting), about Rosenthal and Jacobson's Pygmalion Effect study (findings published in Psychological Reports, 1966, vol. 19). The focus of the study was on teacher expectations. Teachers administered a Test of General Ability (TOGA) to measure a student's IQ. After students completed the examinations, some were chosen randomly to be labeled as academic bloomers (what would now be termed "gifted" learners or "more advanced" learners), and their names were then given to their teachers (Spitz, 1999). At the end of the academic year, when the students were re-tested, those students considered advanced by their teachers showed a more significant increase in TOGA scores than students not thought to be bloomers. The conclusion was that teachers' expectations influence students' intellectual abilities, a conclusion that garnered widespread media coverage at that time.

Though facets of the study were later criticized and the research gave rise to numerous other studies, it would be proven time and again that teacher's expectations influence student performance.

The results of the Pygmalion Effect study were published right before the dawn of a new decade in education, the radical 1970s. Along with flower power came "measures of intelligence" that would later need to be fine-tuned. While the WISC-R was the IQ test of choice in 1980 - when I was in kindergarten - it would later be updated (we currently have the WISC-IV) to prevent significant discrepancy between verbal and performance IQ and intra-test variability (in scoring), identified flaws of the WISC-R.

When PL 94-142 was passed a year after my birth, 1975, there was a greater need to classify students than ever before, a "scramble" as Birnbaum puts it to qualify students for special education. VanBergeijk believes this may have led to over-labeling and mislabeling. Another reality of this time: We still had all different types of teachers in "regular" classrooms across the country, some with old- fashioned notions about students with learning difficulties. While many were opening their minds to a new way of teaching and dealing with their students, others were comfortably set in a more rigorous approach, trying to "fix" wrongs rather than - as VanBergeijk words it - "teaching to the strengths" of the child. While some would undergo sensitivity training in the 1980s, I don't have to tell you that sensitivity was not a prerequisite for teaching in numerous schools at the time.

Richard Horowitz remembers teaching special education classes in the 70s in a claustrophobic storage area of a school. It was inevitable that given those conditions, he encountered students who felt depressed - not only for being taken out of the "regular" classroom and separated from their peers, but for being sequestered to a dusty storage room. He felt tremendous compassion for them and it shaped him as a teacher. A combination of "Learned Helplessness," isolation from one's peers and a negative response to being labeled can contribute to depression, confirms Bruce Davis, Ph.D of the The Behavioral Health and Intellectual Disability Clinic at Vanderbilt University .

I consult with Dr. Barry Birnbaum, Special Education Specialization Coordinator at Walden University . He and I discuss how minority students in urban areas were treated at this time, particularly male students who were mislabeled as mentally retarded when today they might be termed "cognitively challenged." He explains that male minority students whose strengths went unrecognized were often placed in classes for (what was then called) "mental retardation" because educators did not know what to do with them. These students became frustrated and many dropped out of school.

Davis explains that the negative response to labeling is a contributing factor to other psychological problems. Students internalize the way that society responds and again, we have the Pygmalion effect, AKA the "self-fulfilling prophesy."

PL 94-142 didn't change everything initially (and as some educators contend, we still have a long way to go). While administrators and psychologists strive to stray from labeling and work to mainstream students from special ed to regular classrooms, others students are identified by their "shadows." Educational shadows are 1:1 adult aids (often trained in Psychology, Education, Behavior and Child Development ) who assist children with learning in the classroom as well as behavior in the classroom and peer socialization.

The good news, according to Birnbaum, is that we as a society are more sensitive to what the student feels and we realize that a student who may not be "getting it" in the classroom will "get" when they're being treated differently. In the 1980s, there were teachers who took part in "Sensitivity Training." Also, Howard Gardner (, a developmenta.l psychologist from Harvard, introduced his views in 1983 helping to broaden the general conception of intelligence among psychologists and educators..

Birnbaum points me to Gardner 's works and I head to Barnes and Nobles for a day of research: Gardner highlighted 9 types of intelligenc (Linguistic,Logical/Mathematical, Musical Rhythmic, Bodily/Kinesthetic, Spatial, Naturalist, Intrapersonal and Existential) and the crux of his work is also the crux of Vanderbeijk's: teaching to the strengths of the individual rather than to his or her weaknesses.

In 1995, Daniel Goleman would go on to publish the best-seller Emotional Intelligence: Why it Can Matter More than IQ. This was a book that piqued my personal interest back in the 90s when I read a review. For me, it was a period of intense reflection upon my elementary school years in an effort to "get over" the past. How could a kindergartener who knew exactly why her teacher was singling her out be "dumb?" I knew that I had never been, despite being made to feel that way. The argument that Goleman presented in his work was that intuition/self-awareness, altruism, personal motivation, empathy, and the ability to love and be loved by friends, partners, and family members are inclusive in what makes an individual successful. As someone who was always intuitive, I knew that there was more to me than the "strange" girl who played with an imaginary rope. Emotional intelligence can not be measured by standardized IQ testing and I think it was something that was greatly underestimated when I was young.

And in the 1980s, former LD-labeled kids would go on to use their firsthand experience to innovate and create new technologies and programs for kids with learning struggles. One such exemplary fellow was Don Johnston (, who in 1980 would go on to own Don Johnston Incorporated, a company that offers over a dozen literacy programs and adaptive devices to break through common learning barriers. Thousands of U.S. school districts use Johnston 's award-winning programs Read:OutLoud (a text reader that delivers accessible instruction materials) and Co:Writer (a word prediction accommodation writing tool that improves literacy skills such as spelling, vocabulary and grammar).

Ben Shifrin is another example of someone who used negative experiences to make positive changes. Shifrin,a member of the Executive Board of Directors of the International Dyslexia Association and head of the Jemicy School in Owings Mills, MD, has made a life's work of "finding ways for bright students with language-based learning differences to succeed in academics and in life."

A dyslexic himself, Shifrin grew up with many of the same academic challenges that his students at Jemicy, a school for students with dyslexia and language-based learning differences, face. He is a nationally recognized expert on education, and speaks frequently on the topic of educating students with dyslexia. Shifrin says he was labeled "educable retarded" as a child when no one could identify his true learning difficulties.

"In the early 90s, researchers were able to prove that comprehension and decoding are two separate things. You can understand all the words on the page but not understand how to put it together." He explains that many dyslexics back in the 70s and 80s (following PL 94-142) scored high on intelligence tests so those kids didn't receive special education. As a result, they often floundered in the classroom, frustrating their teachers and their selves.

"It was not only 'learned helplessness,'" explains Shifrin, "There was no road map to get back in - You were put in this class, you didn't qualify for an Individualized Education Plan (IEP) and you were stuck. You felt it on the playground, you felt it socially...A lot can happen from the classroom."

Shifrin says we've made progress. There are various programs that are set up as sensitivity training in which teachers see things as if they are looking through the eyes of a dyslexic student. "At Jemiicy, we're involved in training Baltimore city teachers in reading methodology," he explains, "A school for children with dyslexia makes a huge difference because we have spent time learning and researching. We've learned from neuroscience about the way the brain works."

There is so much more information than the space of this article can accommodate, so forgive me readers for what I need to leave out for now. Perhaps the above is helpful in creating fantastic teachers today, but the debates (especially in light of "No Child Left Behind" and arguments surrounding standardized testing) rage on regarding how to assess, quantify and qualify intelligence, especially when it comes to students who don't have obvious disabilities. While it may be a question of "in special ed or the 'regular' classroom?" for an educator, a label can lead to learned helplessness, the Pygmalion Effect, depression, anxiety, behavioral issues...and more. Labels affect our children.

Natascha Santos, a certified school psychologist and doctoral candidate who is writing a dissertation on disproportionality in special education, says "historically, there were inappropriate assessment practices that would mislabel children." She provides me with several studies, including some that link learning disability labels to depression and anxiety. One study, Depression Among Students with Learning Disabilities: Assessing the Risk (Maag and Reid,2006) shows that students with LD had significantly higher depression scores than students without LD. And it is no wonder when there is another study showing that children with LD have a negative concept of their abilities/academic skills compared to peers without LD (Gans, Kenny, & Ghany,2003).

The role of the teacher has transformed from the decade of my birth (the 70s) to today. Whereas many teachers chose to "butt out" of peer to peer socialization and stick with their lesson plans, today more and more are paying attention on the playground. "I don't break from my job at recess," one teacher told me. "I watch everything that goes on and I have eyes in the back of my head for what I can't see in front of me."

Statistics regarding socialization among different types of learners also dictate that teachers better pay attention: 70 percent of children with learning disabilities report having "major difficulty with peers," when only 15 percent of LD students experience "major difficulty" (Rick Lavoie, 2007).

Aside from depression, there is anger. "All children want to be liked and accepted by their peers and to fit in with the 'others,'" says former special education teacher Jennifer Little, Ph.D. of "This means achieving and doing like the others. Children who don't learn like the others or aren't accepted are frustrated. Because they are children, their communications skills are limited and they aren't aware of their emotions, much less how to properly express those emotions..Anger results." This anger can lead to problems on the playground. When Little taught, she was focused on building up the self-esteem of her students. She explains that kids with learning disabilities are of normal and above intelligence. "They know [intuitively] that they are as smart or smarter than the others in their classes," she explains, further evidence of why it is so frustrating for them when they're treated differently on a social level, and another indication of the importance of how teachers treat them.

As Rick Lavoie writes in this article"By demonstrating that you enjoy a child's company and that you genuinely like her, you greatly increase her "social stock" among her peers and often cause her classmates to reexamine their feelings about the rejected child."

Back in 1980, my kindergarten teacher talked down to me. She spotlighted me as someone different in the classroom - and I don't mean "different" in a good way. There is no doubt that the other students noticed this treatment. I wish it had stopped there, but I can remember other teachers over the years (like the 5th grade ogre who ripped up my homework sheet - because of poor penmanship - in front of the entire class as they watched me turn red). Of course, my peers probably responded to the teacher's treatment of me because they were aware of which kids were "smart" and which kids were "dumb." It was on that basis that cliques formed.

For a long time I was angry at teachers, then for a brief period I considered becoming one (to right any wrongs, make things better for the future generation). I went into the field of marketing and writing instead and later, I became a mother. My older children have teachers today. I learned to wipe the slate clean when I saw that many do things differently. However, I'm still critical of the teachers who seem to embody old fashioned notions.

"When the kids ask me what reading group they're in, 'Am I in the highest? Am I in the lowest?' I tell them 'You're in a group that's right for you,'" said my son's second grade teacher. I decided she is among the best in the world. "No one knows what level they're in and they stop asking." I won't tell you which reading group my son was in, but I will say that he was confident in his reading abilities. He was also extremely happy in her class. Knowing that elementary school memories can stay with you for life, I'm hopeful that his experience can be repeated.