Is the July ACT Right for You?
September 17, 2018
Setting Up a Solid Foundation in Seventh Grade
November 2, 2018

Learning Better with Learning Differences

learning differences strategies customized tutoringWhen we tutor, it’s very important to us that children learn not only the academic content but also how they learn best. It’s no different when we work with students who have learning differences. We want them to be active learners who know which strategies will help them grasp concepts, complete work, and self-advocate.

Tutoring will not “cure” a disability, disorder, or difference. Our job is to provide scaffolding, strategies, and techniques that will help a student access learning. When we do this, we light a spark, and the “aha!” moments follow.

How do we get there? Here are three steps we take with each family.

Identify and Find a Way Around the Roadblock

For many students with learning differences, school can be overwhelming and confusing. They often feel like they’re spending a lot of time working but not really learning. This is so frustrating and demoralizing!

In one-to-one tutoring, we’re able to spend time figuring out where in the “doing” of the work the student is hitting a roadblock. As we said earlier, we can’t fix the disability, but we can find a way around the obstacle and continue down the road. For example, we can’t increase a student’s working memory (that part of our brain that holds onto information while we’re working on it and then lets it go), but we can teach them strategies that will enable them to maximize what they’ve got.

We can illustrate this by describing how we worked with one of our high school students. His poor working memory gave him an especially tough time with longer writing assignments. He simultaneously tried to think about what the writing prompt asked for; how to articulate and organize his thoughts using proper grammar, punctuation, and paragraphing; what evidence would support his argument; and how much time he’d need to spend on the work. Of course he was forgetting elements and not improving his writing skills in the process!

Learning an approach to writing that he could apply to every assignment made a huge difference for him. The tutor taught him how to tackle one piece at a time in the same order. She also taught him to rely on written checklists, rubrics, and guidelines over his memory. This way, he freed his working memory to focus on the actual writing, proofreading, and editing.

He learned a valuable lesson about himself as a learner: I can hold only so much information in my working memory at once, so I need to decide what’s most important and focus only on that.

Customize Tutoring Beyond Academics

While we can draw some conclusions about a student’s learning profile based on their diagnosis, we spend time getting to know specifics about their own personality, experience, and preferences. From our decades of education experience, we know that for students with learning differences, academic content is just one piece of the puzzle. They also may be dealing with school avoidance, social-emotional issues, sensitivities, complex family dynamics, and teachers who aren’t able to sufficiently support them.

A while back, we tutored a student with a math learning disability. School was a struggle, and he blamed all of his trouble on his teacher. It was obvious to us that he didn’t feel that he had any control over his learning. We knew that the tutor would have to do as much work with that obstacle as he did with the math content. We created a tutoring plan that integrated Mindset and self-advocacy lessons to show the student how to engage with his education. The tutoring director also talked with the tutor and the student’s parents about the importance of celebrating successes both big and small.

It took trial and error, time, and lots of hard work, but the student got in the habit of applying strategies and took ownership of his learning. Obviously, patience is key here, but so is being tuned in and genuinely listening to what a child is communicating – either directly or indirectly.

We cannot adequately support students if we treat them all the same, or ignore the other conditions at play. It’s also important that we know the boundaries of our own expertise. When students need support beyond what we can provide, we talk with parents and connect them with other professionals we know and trust.

Shift the Focus from Weaknesses to Strengths

Capitalizing on what a student is good at, as well as their interests, makes tutoring more effective and more fun. It’s really something when a student who’s always focused on their areas of weakness realizes they possess strengths! When they make this shift, learning becomes exciting, and all sorts of new doors open.

Let’s take studying for a vocabulary test. For one of our students, reading and memorizing definitions was not the best way to internalize the meaning of the word. Her tutor knew she was a great storyteller, so she taught her how to visualize a scene about each vocab word.

The student was really into music, so for the word arrogant, she imagined the scene of a famous musician ignoring his cheering fans as he walked from the venue to his tour bus. She talked about the look on the musician’s face and the way the crowd felt as he walked away. By providing meaningful context, she truly grasped the definition of the word arrogant! After practicing this technique with other words, she was able to independently study for – and do well on – vocabulary quizzes.

Studying was no longer a chore, but something that was entertaining and got results. We’ve had students tell us they consider themselves readers or mathematicians when before they identified themselves as “not a good student” or “bad at math.” How wonderful for them to completely redefine themselves!


We maintain high expectations for our students with learning differences. We do not water down curriculum or excuse them from hard work. We take them from where they are, respect their abilities, and level the playing field appropriately. Then we watch them learn and grow, surprising even themselves with what they achieve.

We’d love to help your child flourish! Give us a call to get started.