Thinking Outside the Textbook to Help Students Learn

Educators are taking creative approaches to helping children with learning disabilities, from using headphones for lessons to bringing pet therapy dogs in the classroom.

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According to the National Center for Learning Disabilites, 2.4 million children in U.S. public schools receive educational support for learning disabilities, which may include extended time for tests, tutoring, or assistance from note takers and readers. However, educators are realizing that aside from these standard methods, there are other creative approaches that can work as effectively, from using headphones for lessons to bringing pet therapy dogs in the classroom.

When students struggle in school, it can be hard to tell at the outset if they’re distracted by problems at home, social interactions with peers, learning disabilities, or simply aren’t being challenged. And, with so many root causes, it can be even harder to figure out which teaching techniques can help them perform better in the classroom. Because all students learn differently, educators are constantly finding creative methods to help students learn.

Several Contra Costa County library locations in northern California have found an unexpected reading partner for students: dogs. Tony La Russa’s Animal Rescue Foundation has established the All Ears Reading program, which pairs children in grades one through five with therapy dogs. The presence of attentive dogs have been shown to help students regulate their stress levels so that they can tackle the challenges associated with learning disabilities or low confidence. With classroom pets, some pre-kindergarten through eighth grade students are even learning about pet care, science, biology, and the cycle of life. Teachers create curriculums that include the pets throughout the year, including turtles, snakes, fish, chinchillas, guinea pigs, hermit crabs, rabbits, mice, or tarantulas from grant programs and foundations like Pet Care Trust. When the pet is incorporated into lessons, students learn how to understand both pet and human body language, which helps them develop socially.

Ann D’Angelo, an educator in California, has found that an acute awareness for surroundings is another effective way to reach students. “Introspection—noticing not only thoughts, emotions, and body sensations brings students back to a present moment so that they can notice habitual patterns and create new ones,” she says. With breathing exercises and yoga, students can learn to refocus and self-regulate. D’Angelo even takes mindful education one step further by breaking down regular everyday activities with students.

“We do lessons on mindful speaking. Students ask themselves if their words are necessary, true, and kind before they speak them. We also do mindful eating with something as small as a raisin or strawberry. Students won’t look at what they’re eating until they think about what they’re smelling, what textures they’re feeling, what memories are coming up,” D’Angelo says. Giving that much attention to the process of eating and speaking helps students develop focus for things like test-taking and reading.

Beyond animal therapy and mindful methods, educators and specialists are also making teaching more hands-on—literally. Liz Von Schlegell is a play therapist in California who uses trampolines, toys and books to help children relax, refocus, and calm phobias or trauma.

With personal FM listening systems, students who have trouble focusing can listen to a book on tape or hear a teacher’s lesson played back, without being distracted by classroom sounds. And, for students that have a hard time with handwriting, electronic math sheets allow them to align numbers while reading them into a speech synthesizer, decreasing their chances of getting confused while problem-solving. Yet, as technology becomes a part of learning, it is still important for both parents and teachers to remember how important personal interactions and mindfulness are in a student’s life.

“When a child can share with others and realize they’re not the only one that may have difficulties, it brings a sense of an interconnectedness, and a feeling that we’re all in this together, and this is a common humanity,” D’Angelo says.

While methods like electronic math sheets, trampolines, and pet therapy dogs seem to be totally diverse with little to do with each other, in fact these learning tools all share a key commonality: the ability to teach children mindfulness. Bringing focus to a child is invaluable for them to overcome learning disabilities, and having physical, tactile, and even auditory tools to bring out their fullest potential opens up a whole word of creative possibilities for educators.

Julian Meehan

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