Welcome to the first 2011 issue of the School Supplies Newsletter. I hope the New Year has been a happy and fulfilling one for you and your family so far. I am thankful for all the feedback I received about the last newsletter and my web site. Keep it coming! This year I have introduced some new ways to comment and to interact with other readers and with me. Emails continue to be welcome, of course. You can also follow me on twitter. I will post links related to school and mental health. You can also check out copewithschool.com on Facebook at: facebook.com/copewithschool. The Facebook page invites you to speak about school-related issues, newsletters, articles, and general concerns you wish to discuss. You can respond to posted discussion topics or start new ones. Check out the page and ‘like’ to get status updates.

This edition of School Supplies provides the conclusion of my conversation with PhD candidate Ariel Simon about his experience living with learning disabilities. He speaks about coping skills that have been particularly helpful to him as a student. Thank you, Ariel, for taking the time to share your insight and wisdom. The first half of our talk is posted here. Finally, you may have noticed the improved look of The School Supplies Newsletter. Thank you to the talented Naava Katz for the attractive new design. Best wishes for a happy and healthy New Year and please stay in touch!

All the best,

June 2010 Interview with PhD Candidate Ariel Simon (Continued)

SCHOOL SUPPLIES: What if anything did your school do to help you cope?

Ariel Simon (AS): The school didn’t do much to help me cope. In grade school I was sent to the resource center during the school year. They would work on issues relating specific to my learning disability, but I always remember there being sort of a disconnect with what was going in the resource room and what was going on in the mainstream classes. I don’t think there was much dialogue going on. I will never forget the time when I failed a division test in the fourth grade and the teacher was reviewing the exam. It was my time to go to resource and the teacher yelled at me for failing the exam and then missing the review as if it were my fault. In ninth or tenth grade my parents hired an outside learning specialist who really helped me organize my studies.

SCHOOL SUPPLIES: How did she help you with organizational skills?

AS: She worked with me on keeping my classes organized, keeping a calendar for when things were due, setting up time tables for projects. These skills were extremely important for me to start handling high school requirement.

SCHOOL SUPPLIES: Do you find you are still using these skills?

AS: Oh, to this day I definitely do. I find when I am not keeping above water it is because I am not keeping up with my (organizational) skills.

SCHOOL SUPPLIES: Can you give an example of how your learning disability affects you today and how you manage with tools you have picked up?

AS: When I grade my own students’ papers, I hand write my notes. There is no spell check when you hand write, so I need to keep my electronic spellchecker handy. I have also created a list of common words that always come up when I am grading exams.

SCHOOL SUPPLIES: It sounds like developing these skills from an early age has really paid off.

AS: Without a doubt. Having been knowledgeable about my learning disability since I was a child has taught me what methods work best for me. I see that even now, when I have to learn foreign languages in graduate school, I know that the methods suggested by the school will not work well for me. I have to find other ways to learn the languages. Understanding the way I learn has taught me to recognize what does and does not work for me.

SCHOOL SUPPLIES: How did you make yourself feel better in school when things got really frustrating?

AS: I think the key was having extracurricular activities that I was good at. In high school I played the electric bass in the school band and was in student government. Being able to participate in activities where my strengths shined was so important so I wasn’t surrounded by failures. Even in these activities, though, I had to deal with my learning disabilities. In band, I had to memorize music and that was very difficult. In reality, I think I always made sure to have the sheet music in front of me. I didn’t let this bother me and instead tried to focus on how good the music sounded.

I want to let people know about how important it is to be an advocate when it comes to learning disabilities. One of my accommodations is that I am allowed extra time on exams. In college I had to meet with each professor to tell them that I needed the extra time. This was a humbling experience because often these professors had no idea what learning disabilities are. I learned from this that I had to advocate for myself. They were required by federal law to grant me the extended time. It definitely was not pleasant to have to go through this before every exam.

SCHOOL SUPPLIES: There really should be a better way for schools to deal with accommodations.

AS: Yes, there should be a system in which the administration would send a letter to all the professors, so the student would not have to do all the orchestrating. However, it was definitely an important lesson of advocating. I also learned this when my mother had to advocate for me to receive the extra time in high school and arrange for me to take the SAT at a different school that would accommodate me. I have learned that I can’t be embarrassed about having learning disabilities. At the end of the day, if I do not receive the accommodations I will not be able to achieve.

SCHOOL SUPPLIES: Have you found the use of technology to be helpful as a student?

AS: Now that I am writing my dissertation, I have to take notes on a vast number of books and articles. I use a program called Microsoft One Note. This is designed for students to use as a note taking tool. Many of my friends use a regular Word document, but I find it very hard to find all the information this way. This program helps me organize the information in different ways. I can even use charts, which is helpful because I like to think graphically. The program also has a search function, which is very helpful. I am not afraid to use technology, but rather am always searching for ways to stay organized.

SCHOOL SUPPLIES: Some students benefit from having laptops in the classroom.

AS: I used a laptop in the classroom starting in 12th grade, but at home I have been using the computer since the Apple 2E back in the ’80s. I think the earlier kids start to use computers the better, as they will feel more comfortable with them as they progress in school.

SCHOOL SUPPLIES: Have you read anything you found to be particularly helpful throughout the years?

AS: I started reading more about learning disabilities in graduate school and I definitely recommend The Pressured Child by Michael Thompson and The Myth of Laziness by Mel Levine. Both these books helped me to feel normal. I was able to realize that many people are going through what I am, struggling with similar things.

SCHOOL SUPPLIES: What do you want to tell children (and their parents) who are reading this that you wish someone had told you?

AS: Don’t get frustrated. It is not your fault! As you grow older you will continue to learn how to cope with your learning disabilities. You are not stupid. With the right help you can achieve at school and more importantly in life. I have found that I have to work much harder than my peers who do not have learning disabilities. This can be frustrating, but I have come to accept it and know that if I want something I will work hard for it. When I achieve I feel great about it. I have to put a lot of time into learning a piece of music, but when I do get it, it is an amazing feeling because I know what I had to do to get where I wanted to be. Remember to advocate for yourself so you will have all the support you need.

SCHOOL SUPPLIES: What should teachers be taught about learning disabilities?

AS: I like the term “learning differences.” This is key. Teachers need to realize that students learn in different ways. Some students learn best through hearing, some learn through seeing. Teachers need to have imagination and patience. They need to be able to think outside the box and think of different ways to teach their students. They have to expect that their students will learn at different speeds and in different ways.

SCHOOL SUPPLIES: What about parents?

AS: Parents need to be supportive. They should reassure their children that they are not dumb because of their disability and they should make them feel good about their achievements. Parents should advocate as much as possible for their children in school and if necessary, consider getting outside help such as a tutor.

SCHOOL SUPPLIES: Thank you so much for coming to speak with us today. It has been very helpful to hear about your experience. Do you have any final thoughts for our readers?

AS: With proper training and education, all kids can grow up to do what they want to do even if they have learning disabilities. The key is to learn how to navigate through life with the disabilities. Learning disabilities should not prevent you from achieving what you want to do in life.

***Check out the first edition of School Supplies for the first part of our interview with Ariel Simon.***