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Test Him Before He Fails


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Parents often bring children into my office when they are already failing several subjects in school. These students are dejected, frustrated, and often depressed. They believe that because of their past performance, they will never succeed in school. It is not strange that constant effort and subsequent failure have taught them to believe that failure is the only option.

Recent advances in the way that educators assess learning disabilities can prevent this pervading sense of futility many children who struggle with school feel. This new initiative, called “Response to Intervention” (RTI) is helping educators recognize learning disabilities before the children have a chance to struggle.

Professor Lynn Fuchs, a special education professor at Vanderbilt University, explains that that the traditional way to find out which children need help is to test those who are failing. She continues, “But research shows that failure can lead to depression, and that can make improvement in school very difficult.” To combat this problem, some educators and schools are implementing RTI which helps parents and teachers identify problems much earlier.

Perhaps the most important element of RTI is universal screening, which means everyone gets tested regardless of their scores or perceived aptitude. This allows educators to catch potential struggles without forcing the child to fail first.

Response To Intervention

Screen: the first step in RTI is the screening process. In other words, RTI involves administering a series of short, comprehensive tests that have no bearing on the standard curriculum. Rather, these tests are used to determine whether a child might have difficulty responding to the core curriculum as traditionally delivered in the regular classroom. These tests determine children who are academically “at risk” or who might have undiagnosed learning disabilities. The downside of these tests is that they may produce many false positives for “at risk” children.

Teach. The next step is ensuring that the regular classroom teaching is research-based and field-tested. Trained and qualified teachers should administer this curriculum.

Intervene. In addition to the regular curriculum, children who are determined to be “at risk” during the screening process should be provided enhanced opportunities to learn, including, additional time with the core curriculum, small group lessons, and other supplementary instruction.

Probe. Given that children who are identified as at-risk are provided with extra instruction, their progress in essential skills must be monitored to ensure that this instruction is sufficient and effective. Short, frequent assessments that test specific skills help teachers understand the usefulness (or lack thereof) of the instruction provided.

Chart. Based on the probes above, a specialist should create a chart that provides a visual record of the rate of gain in specific skill areas that lead to a specified goal. Because the goal of intervention is to help the child improve his skills, this chart helps indicate whether the intervention is working.

Adjust. After several sessions and charts, the educator should evaluate in what ways the intervention is successful and in what ways the intervention is failing. Adjustments should be made in both directions, pumping up the successful methods and skills and reworking the unsuccessful ones.

Potential Learning Disabilities Aided Through RTI

Visual Processing Disorder: A visual processing (or perceptual) disorder refers to an inability to make sense of information absorbed through the eyes. This does not mean that the child has trouble with sight and needs glasses; rather it involves difficulty processing the visual information in the brain. Reading and math are two areas that can be severely affected by visual processing disorder because these subjects rely heavily on symbols (letter, numbers, signs). Some indications of visual processing disorders are:

Spatial Relation: Spatial relation involves distinguishing the positions of objects in space. For reading, confusion of similarly shaped letters such as “b” and “d“ or “p” and “q” can be attributed to a problem with spatial relation. In addition, for many math problems, the only cues are the spacing and order between the symbols. For instance, for the problem “13 + 6,” the child must be able to recognize that 13 is one number rather than two distinct numbers (1 and 3) and recognize that the “+” is between the 13 and the 6. While this is automatic for many people, these activities presuppose an ability and understanding of spatial relationships.

Visual Discrimination: Visual discrimination involves differentiating objects based on their individual characteristics such as color, form, shape, pattern, and size. Another element of visual discrimination is recognizing shapes as distinct from their background. When dealing with reading and math, difficulties with visual discrimination can lead to trouble with charts, graphs, or recognizing letters on the chalkboard. Books that force children to “find the object,” such as “Where’s Waldo?” might be impossible for children with visual processing disorder.

Visual-Motor Integration: Visual-motor integration requires the combination of visual cues to guide movements. Children who have deficits with visual-motor integration are often seen as clumsy or awkward because they have a hard time figuring out where their body is in relation to other objects. They miss their chairs and drop objects on the floor because they miscalculate the distance between the object and the surface they are trying to put it on. This lack of integration can lead to problems with writing and organization. In addition to these academic impacts, a lack of visual-motor integration can cause problems in children’s lives both socially and athletically.

Dyslexia - The National Institute of Health defines dyslexia as characterized by difficulties with accurate or fluent word recognition, and by poor spelling and decoding abilities. Dyslexia is a learning disability that is neurological in origin and often runs in the family. Children with dyslexia experience trouble reading when taught through traditional instruction.

Though the symptoms of dyslexia manifest themselves in different ways depending on the age of the child, some common symptoms for a kindergartener through fourth grader are:

Difficulty reading single words that are not surrounded by other words. Slow to learn the connection between letters and sounds. Confusion around small words such as “at” and “to,” or “does” and “goes.” Consistent reading and spelling errors, including: Letter reversals such as “d” for “b.” Word reversals such as “tip” for “pit.” Inversions such as “m” and “w” and “u” and “n.” Transpositions such as “felt” and “left.” Substitutions such as “house” and “home.”

Children with dyslexia are often well-adjusted and happy preschoolers. However, research shows that they begin to experience emotional problems during early reading instruction. Over the years, their frustration mounts as classmates surpass them in reading skills. Often, these children feel that they fail to meet other people’s expectations. Teachers and parents see a bright child who is failing to learn to read and write and assume that he is simply “not trying hard enough.”

The Bright Side

If children are universally screened, there is no significant danger that they will be classed as “not trying hard enough” or “lazy.” Rather, adjustments can be made to make sure that these children can reach their potential. That’s exactly what RTI is for!

About the Author: An acclaimed educator and education consultant, Mrs. Rifka Schonfeld has served the Jewish community for close to thirty years. She founded and directs the widely acclaimed educational program, SOS, servicing all grade levels in secular as well as Hebrew studies. A kriah and reading specialist, she has given dynamic workshops and has set up reading labs in many schools. In addition, she offers evaluations G.E.D. preparation,, social skills training and shidduch coaching, focusing on building self-esteem and self-awareness. She can be reached at 718-382-5437 or at rifkaschonfeld@verizon.net. Visit her on the web at rifkaschonfeldsos.com.


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