--Education 2: Learning Disabled--or Mislabeled?

--Education 2: Learning Disabled--or Mislabeled?

Date: 6/1/2002

In a previous article we discussed the issue of Attention Deficit Disorder. Another problem facing the educational system is the issue of learning disabilities and students who are underachievers.

Over the years that I have been teaching I have encountered a number of students who told me they are "learning disabled" ("LD"). My impression was that for many of them "LD" might be an inappropriate label and that having that label contributed to their poor performance. Let's discuss why this is so and what can be done to help underachievers and students with minor learning disabilities reach their potential.


By "attitude" we simply mean your opinion of someone, your feelings toward him, etc. Many people don't make the connection, but what you are thinking on the inside manifests itself on the outside. Your attitude comes through even if you do not voice it. It is broadcasted loud and clear in your non-verbal communication: voice tone, facial expressions, gestures. Children are especially sensitive to this.

The attitude of the parents and teachers towards the child with a minor LD or who is an underachiever can make a tremendous difference in how that child performs--for good or for bad. In some ways it can be worse to just have a negative attitude than to express it orally. When someone's non-verbal communication mismatches his verbal communication the other person may think "so that's what they think of me..."

What are some examples of unresourceful attitudes?

Pity: "Oh you poor thing, let me help you"

Discouraging encouragement: "I am not saying that you are going to be the world's greatest genius, but you can certainly do better than you are doing now."

Sarcasm: "Excellent...for a two year old."


"All generalizations eventually break down--including this one (!)" In other words there can be certain situations where having and even voicing attitudes like these might be right. However, there is a big difference between deliberately choosing these attitudes and just having them out of habit.

Make a personal inventory to see what your attitudes are and then decide if you want to keep or to change them. You can do this by either (1) having someone observe you and tell you what messages do they receive from your non-verbal communication. (Prepare yourself for a possible shock by what they report back to you!) Or, (2) take notice what your thoughts are when you're with certain people and in certain situations. Are you thinking in a manner similar to some of the expressions listed above? Do you want to be thinking this way?

What should be our attitude? In most cases, encouragement--without any fine print. Hold in your mind something like "We all have our limitations and can go far beyond what we think we're capable of doing when we apply ourselves." You might keep some of your own limitations in mind, too. If the learner has a talent, hold that in your mind as well. This will produce an entirely different non-verbal communication. When you feel it is appropriate you can, of course, verbalize these messages.

By the way, in case you're thinking that you might be able to mask your true attitudes, be aware that studies show that the average person cannot suppress his body language for more than about 30 seconds!

"R" is a young man with a learning disability that resulted from an unfortunate childhood accident which caused some brain damage. He had been in special education programs for most of his life. His reading skills were very poor. Even though he was intelligent, able to converse on a wide variety of topics, popular with friends, and captain of his school's sports team, he had very low self-esteem. His principle told me that "R" thought of himself as "sub-human."

The special education program "R" had learned in was certainly of great benefit to him. Now he was ready for something different. When he entered a regular (not special education) Yeshiva program for boys from weaker backgrounds "R" was able to make breakthroughs he had never thought possible. This changed the way he looked at himself and undoubtedly the course of his life as well. To be sure, he encountered many social and academic challenges. He also discovered the pleasure of putting in steady efforts and that such efforts produce results.

At the end of the year he embarked on a self-initiated learning program. He decided what to learn, as well as when and with whom to learn it. After about a month he was able to read, explain, and had basically memorized the first page of the Gemora "Taanis." When he first entered the Yeshiva it was inconceivable to him that he should be able to accomplish anything like this.

Not making an "issue" of his learning disability, not preparing him for failure, but rather letting him explore his own strengths and break through his perceived limitations at his own pace and in his own way all contributed to giving "R"a new self-image.

Attitude also played a part. The attitude I adopted with him was "True--you have a learning disability, but we all have our limitations. You've already made a lot of breakthroughs. Just keep going and you'll be amazed to see that you're going to make many more. "

Not every story has a happy ending. For example "Y" was diagnosed as LD and at age 18 was very worried about his future. "I already know that I am never going to be very successful, " he told me. So convinced was he that he was doomed to be a failure that he overlooked the fact that he had musical talent and an exceptional singing voice. Unfortunately, "Y" had been exposed to so much discouragement that he had developed a very negative identity. Unlike "R", he was very resistant to working on improving himself.

Learning Styles

In order to understand why some people are not achieving it is important to consider that people have different learning styles. Furthermore, if a teacher has a different style than the learner the results may be unsatisfactory. Here are 3 considerations that may help underachievers and learners with minor LDs.

The first consideration has to do with Representational Systems  (see article "Representational Systems"). Of our five senses, seeing, hearing, feeling, tasting, smelling, the first three are the primary ways in which we experience the world. While we use all of our senses when we learn, we tend to favor and rely on one of the senses. We may favor different senses in different learning situations. There are, then, primarily Visual learners, primarily Auditory learners, and primarily Kinesthetic learners.

Visual learners have a preference for seeing what they are learning.  Writing on a blackboard, gisving them a handout, or doing a demonstration will help them understand what you a teaching and help them remembver it.  For these learners, a diagram can be worth a million words.

Auditory learners function best hearing what they are learning.  They prefer listening to a lecture and having a discussion about the material.  Very often they will look away from you when you are talking because it helps them tune in to what you are saying.  The proverbial "look at me when I am talking to you" may satisfy our rules of proper etiquette, but it may also disturb the auditory learner's ability to concentrate.  If you have to diagram something for them, speak it out with them as you write.

Kinesthetic learners are inclined to learn by doing.  They like personal involvement, projects, physically moving around.  (It is not true that people have to sit still to pay attention.) They need to have a "feel" of what they are learning in order to "grasp" it.  Typically they will get emotionally involved in their learning more than the other groups. They will be making judgements about how much they love this class or dislike that one--and their performance is very related to these judgements.  If it is necessary to diagram something for them, let them do the writing and the designing of the chart.

Visual and Auditory learners may find it distracting when the Kinesthetic learner stands up and moves around.

Visual and Kinesthetic learners may lose interest and start daydreaming during a lecture and find a discussion difficult to follow.

Auditory and Kinesthetic learners may find written handouts and demonstrations boring and even useless as part of the learning process.

Modern educational systems favor Visual learners and the other two groups may perform less successfully. This is especially true with Kinesthetic learners. This certainly does not mean that the other two groups are less intelligent.

For instance, the speed at which the different groups learn varies. Visual learners naturally store material in mental pictures and are the fastest. Auditory learners may want to speak things out to themselves and this takes more time. Kinesthetic learners who have to get a "feel" of the material and are more prone to making emotional evaluations about it are the slowest.

One NLP researcher claims that many Kinesthetic learners are mistaken as LD. Based on my own teaching experience, I tend to agree with him. There are techniques for teaching the Kinesthetic student to learn more Visually.

Bonus tip for teachers: classrooms will function more effectively when you do things that appeal to each of the three groups.

Yeshiva learning, on the other hand, is very accommodating to all three groups. The Chavrusa system (learning in pairs) of learning appeals to Auditory learners as does the Shiur with it's lecture and discussion format. That one can stand up and move around, and has some choice in designing how one is going to learn, appeals to Kinesthetic learners. I have personally observed that many students who are below average in classroom-style learning flourish when they go to Yeshiva and I believe that in many cases it is connected to this.

A second consideration has to do with chunk size which we alluded to in the article "Avoiding Misunderstandings". General learners prefer large chunks of information, the big picture, the causes and effects, ideas, the general trends and patterns. Specific learners prefer details, the facts, hard data, conclusions.

How these two are combined and sequenced is also important. Many learners need to start with a general overview of what is going to be learned. Without this they do not tune in to the specifics of the learning and can quickly find themselves lost. Others need a general summary after the specifics. Without it they tend to forget what they have learned. The summary puts it all together and cements it in. And, there are others who do not need an overview or summary.

If your learner is not "getting it" consider these two changes. 1) Make the chunk size either more specific or more general. 2) Add or take away the overview or summary. These changes can make a tremendous difference.

A third consideration has to do with the ability to match and mismatch. (See the article "Matchers and Mismatchers"). Learning involves seeing how things are similar ("matching") and seeing how they are different ("mismatching").

For example, a young child learns that by turning a doorknob he can open the door. Later he encounters a second door with a handle instead of a doorknob. He understands that essentially they are the same and proceeds to apply what he learned from the first door to open the second door. This is matching. Then he encounters a third door that works differently--there is no handle or doorknob at all. Here he has to mismatch what he has learned about doors. In order to pass through it he will have to push it open. If he insists on "turning the doorknob" he will be stuck.

In Gemorah learning one must "match" to understand the proof and "mismatch" to understand the question.

Most of us are fairly well-balanced in using both of these processes. Impaired learning can be a result of a deficiency in one of these processes. But there are ways to ameliorate it. Here are two examples.

I once worked with a boy who had trouble mismatching. This was causing him difficulties in school. His problem was compounded by the fact that he also became very uncomfortable whenever people discussed how two things are different.

One technique which remedied his situation was having his parents pleasantly ask his advice when they had to make a decision. For example, which item to buy in a store. In order to answer that question he had to contemplate how the two items were different. Since this was an indirect approach he didn't realize that he was mismatching and did not resist. Associating a pleasant voice tone and the "honor" of his parents' asking his opinion helped him become more comfortable with seeing differences.

Another boy I worked with had the opposite problem. He could easily see how things were different but not how they were the same. For instance, I asked him where fruit should be kept. He answered that fruit does not belong in the washing machine or on the book shelves. However, it did not occur to him that it belongs in the refrigerator or in a bowl on the table.

I had the boy observe people performing selected tasks, and then report back to me on what he noticed. Then we discussed the reasons why they were doing them in this manner. This helped him acquire the thought processes that most people develop naturally as they grow up.

His was a very unusual condition. It seems that from the time he was very young he was scolded whenever he made a mistake. There was pain associated with doing everyday tasks. As a way of avoiding this pain he prevented himself from developing the ability to make the simple associations that enable us to perform tasks like putting away fruit. It was safer to be ignorant about how to do simple jobs; then people would leave him alone.

Emotional States

This boy and some of the people mentioned above are good examples that people will not function well in learning situations if something really disturbs them.

This is not to say that we have to go out of our way to satisfy every little whim. However, even if you feel that they are making a mountain out of a molehill, don't belittle their pain. Usually it makes them feel worse. As a rule you want to be perceived as being on their side and not against them. You can be firm in your position and empathetic at the same time.

On the other hand, if the learner is miserable, this needs to be dealt with. Many people will be able to deal with their emotional discomfort just by talking it out with someone. Often they come up with their own solutions. When appropriate you can put in advice, but there is a lot to be said for just listening and letting them work it through.

Time is a precious commodity nowadays. It is regrettable that we can't always find the time to sit and listen to our children and students. In the long run, however, making the time to listen may actually save you a lot of time. You can help clear up some of the little issues before they become big problems.

Two simple rules about listening well: (1) Let them do most of the talking. (2) Show them that you are actively listening by paying attention to them and eliminating interruptions as much as possible. (Yes, this includes turning off your cellular phone!)

Learning Strategies

Here, the word "strategy" means a sequence of thoughts and actions that occur before a certain behavior that enable you to accomplish that behavior. We have strategies for everything and learning is no exception. Sometimes we develop cumbersome strategies with unnecessary, extra steps that slow us down and frustrate us. Other times our strategies are missing steps and this can cause us to make mistakes.

The question to ask is what is the difference between the strategy that successful learners use and that of unsuccessful learners. Once you pinpoint this you can help the unsuccessful learner make the appropriate changes. Have them go through new strategy's steps slowly and methodically over and over again until they do them in one smooth progression. Don't just tell them what they should be doing; do it with them at their pace until they can do it automatically.

As an example let's take Gemora learning. (Note: this method can be adapted to developing reading skills and particularly when learning a foreign language.) In my experience many people who have a difficult time reading and understanding Gemora are missing steps in their strategy. One of the most common mistakes is trying to explain the text as they are reading it for the first time. Another is trying to translate word by word. These will almost always result in misinterpreting the text. Or, as we say, getting the wrong Pshat.

I use a method of correcting this which has helped a lot of people become proficient in correctly reading the Gemora. Essentially this is the strategy that successful learners use. The only difference is that successful learners unconsciously run through these steps very rapidly. When I teach this strategy I have the learner go through the steps slowly and methodically. As it becomes more and more familiar they run through the steps more quickly until it becomes their natural strategy.

To digress for a moment, this is how we learn to do almost anything. At first you go through the steps slowly and methodically. You need to concentrate on what you're doing to ensure that you are doing every step correctly and in the right sequence. Then, as you practice, it becomes progressively more familiar and you need to pay less attention to what you're doing. Finally, you reach a stage where it is second nature and you run through the steps automatically, paying little conscious attention to what you're doing.

To illustrate, recall the awkwardness you felt when you first learned how to write or swim or drive a car... Then recall how those feelings of awkwardness started going away as you became more familiar with these skills...Finally, think how smoothly it went when these skills became second nature.

We already mentioned what unsuccessful learners do. What, then, are the steps that one must go through to read and understand Gemora? In other words, what is the strategy that successful learners use instead?

First you have to phrase the Gemora. Without knowing where the phrases begin and end you cannot understand what is being said. I have the person read over the text instructing him not to translate yet. Depending on their level I will either show them where the phrase ends or let them figure it out. At this point I work exclusively on reading. I tell them to read until the end of the phrase or idea. (this could be the question, the proof, or the answer, etc.) Usually I have them go over it two, three, or four times saying "until you are comfortable with it." I help them with the pronunciation. By the time we have finished this stage they can correctly read the section and feel a sense of accomplishment over this. Even though I told them not to translate they have already begun mentally translating without realizing it.

The next step is the translation. Now that they have a sense of how the words are grouped it is possible to translate. I instruct them to read the phrase and translate it. This is instead of their ineffective method of translating word by word. If they do not know individual words, I define them. It is more important that they can translate phrases, and this I have them do. We repeat this process two or three times until it flows smoothly and then move on to the next phrase until we have covered the piece they read in step one.

The last step is explanation. Here we take the translated piece and make sense out of it. Think of this as "polishing" or "smoothing out" the translation. I tell them "Now read and explain the Gemorah."

Then we move on to the next piece and repeat these three steps. I find that this process works most effectively if you do it every day, several days in a row for 30- 45 minutes per session. They should begin to notice improvement by the third day which usually gives them the inspiration to follow through.

As they get more familiar with it you can tell them that they can practice it on their own until it becomes second nature. Have them check back with you two or three times a week for the next couple of weeks.

Once again, the goal is that it should become their habitual way of approaching the Gemora. Intensive practice will do this. Successful learners naturally do these three steps in one quick smooth progression without thinking about them consciously.

I have found this method to be successful with both native English and native Hebrew speakers and with different age groups.


Identities are what come after the words "I am..." We are not born with our identities. We acquire them through our life experiences--including the attitude our families and teachers have about us. We can have many identities but may stress some more than others. Our identities are not necessarily "true"; they can even be very inaccurate. They can be changed. In our context the question is: do our identities support our growth in learning or are they making us into underachievers?

When a child is informed that he has a learning disability he will probably identify himself as "I am learning disabled." The Dictionary defines the word "disable" as "to weaken or destroy the normal physical or mental abilities of; incapacitate." Who would feel happy with the identity "I am someone whose learning has been weakened, destroyed, or incapacitated?"

Not your typical teenager.

I remember growing up in New York City when the job title "garbage man" was officially changed to "sanitation engineer". It is not just a matter of semantics or euphemisms. People perform better when their identity is positive.

How can we counteract the effects of a negative identity? By stressing a positive identity instead. One way to do this is to create an identity based on an accomplishment of that person. The formula is "You are a person who____(fill in their accomplishment).

When the LD person identifies himself as "I am learning disabled" you can respond with an alternative identity such as "You are a person who memorized the first page of the Gemora Taanis."

Some of you will think that I am nit-picking, but it is usually more effective to word it as an identity than just stating the accomplishment. Notice the difference between the wording in the last paragraph and this: "You memorized the first page of the Gemora Taanis."

A second way is to create an identity based on talents and abilities they have. "You are a person with musical talent and an exceptional singing voice." You might add some encouragement: "...and who can go far in the field of music."

This is a powerful tool and with it you can undo even some of their most negative identities. Perhaps this is so because these new identities are based on fact. On some level of consciousness the learner knows that they are true.

Parents and teachers have the advantage of being in constant touch with the child to be able to reinforce these positive identities. Make a list of their accomplishments and their talents so you are always prepared and ready to suggest resourceful, nurturing identities.

Some Closing Remarks

Primarily, the ideas and suggestions in this newsletter are meant to be remedial. That means that if someone is an underachiever or has been diagnosed with a minor learning disability, these ideas and suggestions can make a difference in his development.

What about if someone is "learning well"? I feel that usually it is best to let them develop naturally in their own way. Perhaps you could improve your approach to attitude, identities, and to listening to them. In some cases you may even want to incorporate some of what we learned about representational systems, chunk size, and matching and mismatching. But, be careful not to intervene too much. Don't rock the boat.

It can be quite painful for someone who finds learning to be frustrating and difficult; to see your peers advancing when you don't understand what is being taught. I hope that some of the thoughts presented in this article will help in such situations. And I hope that it will make the job of our teachers easier....

Please email me your personal experiences.