These days everyone has a learning disability. We prefer to call it a learning genius. The fact is not every student learns in the same way. Some are excellent at visualizing scenarios in their head but have difficulty with reading and writing. Some are excellent at memorization but have trouble with logic. What people don’t talk about is that a deficiency in one area often comes with a genius in another. It’s important to use systems to manage the disability, but also celebrate and encourage their unique genius.
A note to parents: A learning disability is not an excuse.
Don’t get me wrong, there are many students out there that work their butts off to make up for their learning disability. Some parents use the diagnosis as a reason to skip over important skills. Once I was told a student cannot memorize their multiplication tables due to dyscalculia. This is simply not true, any student can memorize their multiplication tables. They need to be presented in a way that fits their logic framework.
In the end, success is a decision. A learning difference won’t stop you if you decide to go after what you want in life. Einstein was most likely dyslexic, and he became the GOAT.
Stephen Hawking lost all motor ability and dominated physics. Manage the disability, encourage the genius.
“Everybody is a genius. But if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing that it is stupid.”
Common learning geniuses and the best practices to manage them
We will focus on the genius that comes with each.
Dyslexia is a learning disability that makes reading difficult despite normal intelligence. Dyslexia can manifest in many different ways.
Reasons dyslexia is a form of genius
People with dyslexia are often amazing at spatial imaging in their heads. This is one of Einstein’s great abilities, to visualize complex systems in the minds’ eye. While dyslexics struggle with symbols and order, they have an amazing ability to see the big picture.
Other famous dyslexics include
Entrepreneurship seems to be a dyslexic forte.
Here is a more complete list of famous dyslexic achievers
Persons with dyslexia are often very creative. There is a huge list of famous dyslexic actors and artists, including Pablo Picasso.
Ways to manage dyslexia
Never underestimate the power of graph paper! We focus on mathematics and physics, and graph paper is a great tool for anyone. It's especially useful if you have dyslexia! The squares help to manage symbols and order. If the student concentrates on putting one symbol per square, they are guaranteed to line up. You might consider graph paper with extra-large squares such as this: Large Square Graph Paper
Another useful trick is to make an outline of any assignment before getting into the details. This plays into dyslexic strength, the ability to see the big picture. For example, if your student is working on a math problem, they can write down a list of steps to follow. Most good teachers will help your student make this list. Once completed and the student can see the bigger picture, they can then concentrate on the individual steps. Dyslexics see the forest but not the trees.
“Whether you think you can, or you think you can’t–you’re right.”
Attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADD, ADHD) is a learning difference affecting attention and focus.
Michael Phelps was diagnosed with ADHD at age 9. His mother used excellent strategies to manage his learning genius. Michael struggled with reading, so she had him read the sports page.
Thank you Michael Phelps’ mom, you understand the key to managing ADHD! You make the material relevant to the students’ passion in life. I can’t overstate this enough, the key is to find your students’ passion and relate all school subjects to it. Our specialty is math and physics. In the case of Michael Phelps, we would talk about fluid dynamics. A young Michael would then realize that a knowledge of physics would inform his swimming technique. Now you have tapped his genius and will enter the zone of hyper-focus.
Symptoms of ADHD
- Difficulty finishing tasks
- Organizationally challenged
- Difficulty focusing on one task for extended periods of time
- Difficulty waiting their turn to speak
- Often impatient
- Short fuse
Reasons ADHD is a form of genius
People love to talk about how attention-deficit students can’t concentrate on anything for an extended period of time. This is incorrect. Attention deficit students in fact have hyper-focus on subjects they find fascinating. Many musicians are ADD and have the ability to practice their instruments all day. Normal people can’t focus on one thing for that long. Unsurprisingly there is an endless list of attention-deficit musicians.
"Those traits work well for me in studios and in meetings about creative ideas. … If I was stuck at a different job I'd be horrible and wouldn't survive. Music is my therapy. … Music keeps me sane and keeps my mind on something. It's fragile up there."
ADHD students become obsessed with their passions and can often recite an incredible number of facts surrounding their area of expertise. Therefore you should start by identifying your student's passion and start to encourage it right away. Michael Phelps’s mother understood this. Michael didn’t have the attention for reading, so she made him read the sports page. She brilliantly tied reading into his obsession.
Ways to manage ADHD
Therefore if you have an ADHD child and don’t know what their passion is yet, make this your #1 priority. I promise they will have one, try everything. You’ll know when you’ve found it.
Then relate all learnings to this passion. If the student believes the material will enhance their special ability then you’ve tapped into their superpower.
Beware of video games. In my 15 years of working with ADHD students the most common denominator is video game use. Think about it, video games are filled with action every second. This gives a continuous release of dopamine to the player. Like all dopamine-inducing substances or activities, the crash cannot be avoided. This has the effect of making low-action activities like homework unbearable.
Another word of caution on medications such as Adderall and Ritalin. Many parents have had great success with these medications so I don’t mean to knock it. However, it’s not the right solution for every student. Be sure to try natural remedies first, the most effective of which are regular exercise and meditation. For more details on how to manage ADHD naturally see our article here: How to manage studying for math with ADHD
The most important thing when managing ADHD is to make the subject material relevant to the students’ passions. In the case of mathematics if you can convince the student that a knowledge of mathematics will make them better at their passion you will see a huge increase in engagement.
For example, let’s say your student is obsessed with sports and baseball. Then you can teach them the statistics concepts from the movie Moneyball. Moneyball is a true story of how the manager for the Oakland Athletics put together a winning team using statistics.
If the student is a musician you can teach them that frequency and wavelength are the properties of sound that determine the pitch. Remember attention deficit students are obsessed with their passion, if they think the lesson will improve their skill in this area you now have the full power of ADHD obsession on your side!
“If you haven't found it yet, keep looking. Don't settle. As with all matters of the heart, you'll know when you find it. And, like any great relationship, it just gets better and better as the years roll on.”
-Steve Jobs, dyslexic
Students with dyscalculia have difficulty with mathematical thinking. Frequently they are given accommodations such as a calculator. Accommodations can be helpful, but in some cases they can also be harmful.
Most dyscalculia students I've worked with have poor math foundations. This poor math foundation is supported by the diagnosis. Accommodations are given that allow the student to skip important foundational skills. To parents that have a child with a dyscalculia diagnosis: I’m not saying you were misdiagnosed. I just want to share my experience, which could easily differ from yours.
For example, many dyscalculia students receive a calculator accommodation in their IEP. As a result, they don't memorize multiplication tables. I find this to be a disservice to the student, as there will be times as an adult when they need to know these. I’m not saying calculator accommodation is a bad thing. I am saying everyone should learn their multiplication tables. The calculator can then be used on more complex multiplication and division problems.
Furthermore, the student will be embarrassed that they don’t know their tables. They will do their best to hide this fact from their fellow peers. This will only get worse in upper-level high school math classes. I believe that all students have the ability to memorize multiplication tables. Only when you use the diagnosis as an excuse does that students end up not knowing them.
In our experience almost all math issues stem from unmastered fundamental skills. These skills are first presented around the 4th to 7th grades. The most frequently missed skills are fractions, negative numbers, and basic one and two-step algebra. Every dyscalculia student I’ve worked with had not mastered these skills and was given accommodations such that they didn't have to. These students lose all confidence in math, and without confidence in math, you’re sunk.
Ways to manage Dyscalculia
The best way to manage dyscalculia is to return to the foundational principles of mathematics and really master them. Just like with attention-deficit you need to make math relevant to the students’ passions. Once you have convinced the student that a knowledge of mathematics will enhance their experience with their zone of genius you will tap into their superpower.
Here is a list of steps that will make a huge difference with your dyscalculia student:
- Master your fractions. Revisit the rules for adding, subtracting, multiplying, and dividing fractions. Watch the following video which presents fractions in a logical and visual manner that will appeal to your student: Fractions, the mother of all math issues.
- Master your negative numbers. The most common problem is that students confuse the rules for multiplying negative numbers with the rules for adding and subtracting them. Here is a detailed video on each: Adding and Subtracting Negative Numbers. Multiplying Negative Numbers
- Memorize your multiplication tables. If your student is struggling with this I recommend using a “multiplication table of the week”, such as 6 x 8 = 48. Assign more complicated multiplication problems that all have combinations of 6 and 8 in them. For example 16 x 28. In doing this problem the student will encounter 6 x 8. Assign problems like this with 6 and 8 all week long. Then the following week you can introduce a new one, such as 3 x 6. Once you get through a good number you can start combining them. Continue adding more combinations each week, they will get it I promise 🙂 Some students excel when using a game, here’s a good one: https://www.timestables.com/animal-rescue.html
- Get a math tutor! One-on-one instruction is the absolute best way to ensure your student learns the fundamental skills listed above. Your student probably feels embarrassed in math class and doesn’t want to ask questions. Creating a safe place where your child feels comfortable making mistakes is essential. This is how they will build their confidence which is the most important math skill to have. For more information on the benefits of having a tutor read this article: The benefits of having a tutor
The above skills are essential for any math student. I guarantee if your dyscalculia student studies the above videos you will see a huge improvement.
Here is a recourse for free practice problems: https://www.kutasoftware.com/
Under the free worksheet section, you can search for the above topics and get plenty of free practice problems.
Dysgraphia is a neurological disorder that affects handwriting.
Famous Dysgraphics include the author Agatha Christie. That’s right, a person with a writing disorder became the best-selling writer of all time.
“I have enjoyed greatly the second blooming... suddenly you find - at the age of 50, say - that a whole new life has opened before you.”
-Agatha Christie, dysgraphic
I’ll say it again, your learning difference is not an excuse nor a barrier to your success.
Symptoms of Dysgraphia
- Illegible handwriting
- An awkward grip on the pen or pencil, causing the hand muscles to cramp or get tired
- Difficulty with the spacing of characters
- Difficulty with spelling
- Rushes handwriting
- Words tend to run into each other
I’ve never met a dysgraphic student that couldn’t write well. I know what you’re thinking, if they could write well they wouldn’t be dysgraphic!
The problem is these students rush their handwriting like crazy. Ask the student to slow down and write as neatly as possible. Give them as much time as they need. The results will blow your mind, totally legible handwriting every time.
Am I saying that dysgraphia is really just rushing? Not at all. If the student continues writing as neatly as possible for an extended period of time they will quickly become exhausted. Slowing down is a tool that can help, however.
Ways to manage Dysgraphia
- Slow down!!! It’s not a race, ask your student to really take their time and you will see a huge improvement.
- Dysgraphics often have trouble gripping the pen. One effective technique is to get an assortment of pens of different widths and let your student pick their favorite. Having the right-width pen can reduce the effort needed and give your student more writing stamina.
- You can also try adding a grip to the pen such as this: Pencil Grip
- Don’t underestimate graph paper. The squares on the page can help a dysgraphic student with letter spacing and staying organized. We recommend large square graph paper such as this: Large Square Graph Paper
Whatever your learning genius is don’t let it discourage you! Just because you are having a hard time with a class doesn’t mean you won’t be successful.
I hope I have proven to you that your learning genius is not an obstacle but a gift. If you have any questions you are welcome to contact me anytime, I love talking about this stuff!
"Everyone's got it in him if he'll only make up his mind and stick at it. None of us is born with a stop-valve on his powers or with a set limit to his capacities, There's no limit possible to the expansion of each one of us."
-Charles Schwab, dyslexic.