I am thrilled to present the first installment of School Supplies. Just in time for the beginning of the school year, School Supplies, together with copewithschoolnyc.com, will address a wide range of school-related topics for children, teens and parents. The school year started late for many students this year in New York City, as the Jewish High Holidays arrived early. Public schools opened on a Wednesday only to close again until the following Monday. This left many of the kids I spoke with happily enjoying a couple more days of precious vacation. Some parents had a little extra time to get last minute school supplies and teachers could tweak their lesson plans. Others enjoyed the holiday with family members. For some, however, the additional time off meant more anxiety, more worrying, and more dread. Who will my teachers be? Will they like me? How hard will the work be? Will I be able to handle it? Who will help me with my homework? Will the other kids in the class like me or will I get bullied like last year? Will I be able to sit still in class and focus? Will I get the support I need from my school?

Many of the students are anxious because they have difficulty learning in one way or another. Not every student learns the same way and if this is not addressed, an individual is at risk for further anxiety, low self-esteem, and depression. Learning disabilities are more common than you might think. Studies have shown that as many as 1 out of every 5 people in the United States have some sort of learning disability (National Dissemination Center for Children with Disabilities – Twenty-fourth Annual Report to Congress, 2002). Having a learning disability can be extremely frustrating at all ages, especially when the environment is not supportive.

This issue will feature a recent conversation with Ariel Simon, a PhD candidate in New York City. Ariel speaks about his own experience living with learning disabilities, from grade school to his current graduate work. He describes his frustrations and struggles, as well as ways he learned to cope and succeed. You can read the first part of our talk below. The second part can be found here.

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June 2010 Interview with PhD Candidate Ariel Simon

SCHOOL SUPPLIES: So, tell us a little bit about yourself.

Ariel Simon (AS): Well, I’m 33 years old and a graduate student in NYC where I am a PhD candidate in the department of Hebrew and Judaic Studies where I study ancient Jewish history.

SCHOOL SUPPLIES: When were you first diagnosed with learning disabilities?

AS: My earliest recollection is that it was first grade when I was taken to a center where I was tested and diagnosed.

SCHOOL SUPPLIES: What can you tell us about the learning disability itself?

AS: It’s a language-based learning disability. The hardest thing for me is memorizing. Whether it’s spelling or having to learn vocabulary, memorizing definitions of words or names and dates in history class. Really anything having to do with memorizing and having to retrieve and give back information is very hard for me. It’s interesting how it is difficult for me to remember specific names, dates, and places, but larger themes and ideas are not a problem. Also, with a language-based learning disability, foreign languages, which require a lot of memorization and specifics is very difficult for me.

SCHOOL SUPPLIES: What was your reaction when you were told that you had a learning disability? Was it explained to you well? What else do you remember about that time?

AS: It is really hard for me to remember all the way back to the first grade. I seem to remember not fully understanding why things were harder for me than they were for other students early on. I would say that by the third grade already I had a very clear understanding that things were hard for me in school. Particularly spelling and memorizing the times table. I don’t think I understood at all that I had a learning disability, I think I just thought the tasks were hard for me.

SCHOOL SUPPLIES: Do you remember people trying to explain why certain things were so hard for you at this young age?

AS: I don’t think I was explained about a learning disability and what that meant until junior high school or even high school.

SCHOOL SUPPLIES: How did your family react to your diagnosis?

AS: My family was always very supportive. For sure, my parents each have some sort of learning disability. My mother has difficulty spelling and exhibits a little bit of dyslexia when she talks or reads things. My father has difficulty memorizing things, so it is definitely in the family. My brother, who is older than me was diagnosed with a learning disability, so that’s how my parents knew to test me. The family was always supportive of my disability, meaning that when I was in school they would always try and get me a tutor (later on in sixth grade). They were definitely attuned to the fact that I had learning disabilities and always tried, especially when I was younger, to come up with ways to help we with spelling and math. They also let me air my frustrations when it came to these issues.

SCHOOL SUPPLIES: They got it.

AS: Yeah, they definitely got it, but I’ll admit at the same time they expected me to study hard for the exams and looking back it seems to me that even though they got it and were supportive, their expectations and the school’s expectations were out of line with what my abilities were.

SCHOOL SUPPLIES: Ariel, what kind of a student were you early on?

AS: I definitely struggled when it came to the issues I have been discussing (math, spelling, etc). I definitely worked hard and I wasn’t uninterested in school, but I didn’t get great grades in many of the subjects because I found a lot of the subjects were difficult because of my learning disability. The school didn’t necessarily create ways for me to achieve based on my specific learning styles. For instance, instead of memorizing 20 spelling words, they might have asked me to learn 10 words. But still 10 was extremely difficult and the environment was pressured. So, even though the school was somewhat attuned to what my needs were, the methods were out of tune with my disabilities and learning style, so my grades were not too great throughout most of elementary school.

SCHOOL SUPPLIES: It must have been really frustrating for you when the school thought they were helping you, but you felt like you were failing even more. I mean, the way your brain processed, learning 10 words might have felt like 40 rather than the 20 that was expected from many of your peers.

AS: I remember not thinking that I was stupid, but rather that the test was stupid. That spelling was stupid. I was aggravated that I was being asked to take the tests and do the work and being annoyed about the expectations being asked of me.

SCHOOL SUPPLIES: You didn’t take it in too much. Didn’t let it get to you.

AS: Right. Throughout my life when the expectations were unrealistic I was able to think that the demands were out of line. Not me.

SCHOOL SUPPLIES: How were you treated by your teachers?

AS: I always got the sense that my teachers were frustrated with me. I think they felt that they were lowering their expectations, whether this was in grade school for spelling or high school for history or foreign language. Teachers did not understand why I was still having difficulty even after they lowered the requirements. I felt the teachers did not understand that to help me they had to present the material in ways that I would work for me. This kind of created a barrier between me and school where I felt school was a waste of time. I do remember one teacher in the fifth grade who understood that things were difficult for me. If I turned in an assignment late or didn’t do well on a spelling test he would be understanding, where many teachers would be angry with me for not performing, despite the help they thought they were giving.

SCHOOL SUPPLIES: So that teacher in fifth grade helped your perception that it was not lack of intelligence or laziness holding you back?

AS: Most teachers thought that I was stupid. They thought I couldn’t hack it and that I wasn’t trying.

SCHOOL SUPPLIES: Would you want to tell them anything now?

AS: Yeah, but you can’t print it! (Laughs). The fact that I’m getting a PhD right now at a prestigious university speaks to the fact that I am not stupid. In college I was able to achieve. I actually majored in ancient history and the teachers there did not expect rote memorization of names and places, but rather a broader understanding of issues in history and complexity of writing history, which suited my strengths. They didn’t make me memorize every specific date and place.

***Check out the next School Supplies for the conclusion of our interview with Ariel Simon. Ariel speaks about how he was able to develop coping strategies to help him succeed in academics and in life.***