How to discuss a possible learning disability with a student?
April 29, 2013 4:27 PM   Subscribe

I teach college students. One otherwise capable student I have taught this year has struggled in particular ways that suggest s/he might have a learning disability or similar. The school's office for student disability service can provide testing &c if the student contacts them. What is the best way to discuss this with the student and recommend they seek assistance?

This student is in a language class that depends heavily on reading and translating from an inflected language. The student frequently fails to properly identify verbal forms. It's not clear to me if the student simply is not yet experienced enough in the language, but it's clear they are failing to distinguish between mostly similar phonemes. The student also frequently mispronounces words in this language by transposing syllables (eg "magnificent" would become "magnicifent"), and has misspelled newly learned English words in writing (but is a native English speaker). I don't know anything about learning disabilities but it seems to me that the student is struggling specifically with this one important verbal element. There has been zero improvement over the course of the semester, which is troubling. I can't really diagnose anything but I'd like the student to have access to helpful resources.

As an educator, what is the best way to approach this? Email or face-to-face? What sort of language is appropriate? I have trouble finding a way to do this that a. doesn't involve me asking if they have ever been diagnosed (not my business) and b. doesn't offend. Or should I just butt out? I'm junior TT faculty if that helps.
posted by anonymous to Education (13 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
I would e-mail the student and ask if you can meet with them. That way, you're not embarrassing them in front of the class, but you can still have a conversation with them in person. While their diagnosis, if their is one, is probably none of your business, effectively teaching this person IS your business. You could say that you've noticed them struggling in very specific ways, and ask the student if they are interested in some extra help.
posted by roomthreeseventeen at 4:34 PM on April 29, 2013

I'd start by asking the folks at disability service if this is something they work with. If so, then don't single anybody out, just say something like "Oh, by the way, the college offers xyz services at abc building, in case any of you feel it would be helpful to you."

And leave it at that.
posted by colin_l at 4:34 PM on April 29, 2013

This is one of those situations where you ask the office for disability services exactly how you should proceed. They should have a protocol for this. In the past I've been told that it's problematic to say that you think someone has a specific problem. As you say, you're not really able to diagnose anything. However, you usually are able to note problems that you have seen in class regarding their actual performance on assignments. So, it might be fine to say "I've noticed that you sometime have problems identifying verbal forms..." and you can talk about that with them. That could lead into a recommendation that they check with the academic center for ideas, but not a specific suggestion of a disability.
posted by bizzyb at 4:38 PM on April 29, 2013 [9 favorites]

I'm pretty sure your counselling/development or LD resource staff will have tons of experience with this, and be positioned to offer guidance on the most sensitive approach.

Obviously phonemic perception is just that, perception (so, directed in part by top-down/conceptual processes). Context is important: she might not be a regular or motivated reader in any language; her education may not have afforded her the opportunity to become acquainted with formal grammar in English (knowing e.g. parts of speech in one language makes knowing them in others easier); she may not enjoy the course, and resist doing coursework.

If she's had a formal diagnosis, I'd imagine she'd have mentioned it after the first negative review, if not before.

I think, after figuring out a few possibilities given her performance (i.e., talking to colleagues), you can safely talk about performance issues, though. If you can ask her about her current levels of effort/interest in the subject, and about her educational background - without making her feel called out - that might help you with an initial direction [study skills vs. LD office]).
posted by nelljie at 4:39 PM on April 29, 2013

I absolutely agree with the suggestions that you contact disability services at your university and ask them about how to proceed. Just remember that a student isn't required to disclose a disability. It's entirely possible they have a disability and don't want to tell you. They may be afraid or ashamed to admit it. There's a lot of emotion tied up in language disabilities since we live in a society that is SO unforgiving to those who aren't perfect with their language (although I don't know where you are, so take that with a grain of salt, I'm in North America FWIW.) Please be sensitive to that (and I'm certain you will!) You don't know what this person has been through. I would be neglecting my speech-language pathology profession if I didn't throw this caution into the commentary.

You are not qualified to make a diagnosis. I would absolutely not, under any circumstances, have this conversation and say, in ANY WAY, that you think s/he has a disability. Difficulties learning a second language is not indicative of a disability. Misspelling newly learned words is also not necessarily indicative of a language disability. Only a qualified professional can suss that out.

You should absolutely do this face-to-face. Don't do this over email; that could be insensitive. What you could say, and rightly so, is that you have taught many students over x years, and that most students usually get this particular aspect of the language within x amount of time, and that you've noticed that this student is still struggling. Offer the student extra help (or maybe you have?), and then if that doesn't work, then you can ask them if they've had difficulties in the past with English (e.g. ELA in high school) and see what the student says. You could draw on your experience as a teacher, and say that *usually* students get these concepts and that the fact that Student is still struggling might suggest that there is something else going on, and that you can help them find resources if they ask. I agree with suggestions to talk about *performance*, not your suspicions regarding the underlying cognitive cause of the performance.

I know I sound a little harsh, but you should also know I applaud you for asking here on the green about the best way to proceed.

posted by absquatulate at 5:19 PM on April 29, 2013 [3 favorites]

However you handle it, I would suggest you try beforehand to clear your mind of any preconceived notions about how you expect this person to react. A) Some people are quite relieved to finally get a diagnosis and get help for things that have tripped them up their entire lives. B) It usually goes smoother if you aren't all convinced ahead of time that this will go over poorly, in part I think because it helps you choose more neutral verbal language and more neutral body language/voice tone if you aren't all geared up for delivering "bad news."
posted by Michele in California at 6:08 PM on April 29, 2013

I work with community college students and have this exact conversation at least 30 times a semester. I agree with the people who are saying that you obviously can't diagnose anything, nor is it your job to do that, but I also think that it is completely reasonable to talk about noticing a specific issue that could indicate a learning disability. I've had dozens of students over the years who just didn't know they had a specific learning issue and after pursuing a diagnosis and specialized tutoring or assistance have learned strategies that allowed them to go on to much more success (and much less frustration). As this student's instructor, you are in a good position to have this type of conversation since you can point to specific trends that the student may not have noticed.

This doesn't need to be a big official thing (though you should be prepared). I've successfully done this as a "hey do you have a second after class?" type conversation as long as you can ensure privacy. Given your scenario, here's how I would go about this:

"Hey Student, after our most recent (exam, assignment, project) I've noticed you tend to struggle with (specific issue). This is a little bit unusual since you are so good at (harder thing or things that student is good at), and usually students who struggle with (specific issue) also struggle with (harder thing). I can tell you are putting a lot of effort in to this class, and since the beginning of the semester I've seen huge improvements in (areas where student has improved) but (specific thing) seems to still give you a lot of trouble, even after all of the practice you have done.

I'm no expert, but I wonder if there isn't something specific about (specific thing) that you are having trouble processing that could point to some sort of learning disability. If this is something you are interested in looking into, our Disability Resources office can do testing and may be able to help with some additional resources or expertise beyond what I can provide that might make a difference. If this isn't something you are interested in pursuing, that is totally ok. Like I said before, you are doing well in the class and I'm very impressed by your improvements in (harder thing) I just want you to know the resources are out there if you are interested."

Big stuff to cover:

You think they are a capable student and are putting in enough effort to be successful in the class. This is not when you also call someone out on not finishing last week's homework.

It is fine with you for them to not pursue any sort of testing or services if they don't want to.

Their issue appears to be something specific and is different than "not being good at this"

Good luck!
posted by mjcon at 6:13 PM on April 29, 2013 [8 favorites]

I worked as a TA and one of the very few things that was specifically prohibited was diagnosing students in any way (mental health, disability, etc.). So please call the disability services and find out your school's protocol.
posted by DoubleLune at 6:42 PM on April 29, 2013

I also work at a community college, and also have this conversation several times a year.

Don't be surprised if the student knows they have an issue, but does not want to seek help for whatever reason*. I've seen it happen more than once where a student who has had a rough go of it in high school due to a documented disability finds that when they get to college, they have a little more choice in whether or not they accept help. And so they choose not to. And that is entirely their right, frustrating as it is for those of us on the outside. You can't force them to seek help.

*Which obviously is not your business, although it's hard to stay neutral, I know.
posted by SuperSquirrel at 7:07 PM on April 29, 2013

(Just to clarify - was not suggesting any kind of diagnosis; meant only to say that there are many possible reasons for the errors described, none of which, I agree, can be appreciated in the absence of an expert.)
posted by nelljie at 7:07 PM on April 29, 2013

The best thing you can do is contact Disability Services about how to proceed. They get asked about this exact thing all the time. Just remember - you don't know this student's history. Maybe they already have a diagnosis of an LD but want to go it alone, which is their prerogative. OR they find navigating through the college experience overwhelming and embarrassed they need to turn to Disability Services for help.

(FWIW, I work in a Disability Services office as a Technician in a Community College and work with Learning Disabled students daily.)
posted by MeatheadBrokeMyChair at 7:24 PM on April 29, 2013 [1 favorite]

I think contacting disability services and then proceeding with a script like mjcon gave is a good plan. It's entirely possible that this student does have an LD and was never diagnosed. My good friend from HS is very smart and did well in school but was always a terrible speller. She found out in college that she was dyslexic!
posted by radioamy at 8:22 PM on April 29, 2013

The student frequently fails to properly identify verbal forms. It's not clear to me if the student simply is not yet experienced enough in the language, but it's clear they are failing to distinguish between mostly similar phonemes. The student also frequently mispronounces words in this language by transposing syllables (eg "magnificent" would become "magnicifent"), and has misspelled newly learned English words in writing (but is a native English speaker).

Tell your student this. Simply state the problem and tell them if they would like more help, you will help them find it. You are in no position to diagnosis someone, and it's condescending to assume they can't decide how best to pursue this.
posted by spaltavian at 6:35 AM on April 30, 2013

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