I taught my students that learning differently is like traveling. Most of the time traveling from place to place is straightforward. However, sometimes a roadblock is placed in our way by no fault or choosing of our own. We can find our way to the place we were going, but it might take longer and will look different, but we’ll still get there. How we get to where we are going shouldn’t matter as much as the fact that we got there. I experienced a roadblock just recently that was very reminiscent of a time earlier in my life.
As a high school student I was required to take Geometry. We were working on concepts that the teacher required us to show our work. Not an unreasonable request at all, especially for a math class. For some reason in the second quarter, I could come up with correct answers, but could not understand how my brain was getting those answers in order to show the work. If all I had to do was answer the question I would have gotten a B or higher. Since I had to show my work and couldn't, I earned an F. The teacher watched me like a hawk, because at first, he thought I must be cheating. He called me to his desk many times during the quarter and gave me problems from a different book to see if I really could get the correct answer on my own. He showed me several times how to write out the steps and it made sense at his desk. Then I would go back to my seat and not be able to recreate the steps. With the types of questions we were doing that quarter I couldn’t have been guessing the right answer with that high of a percentage correct, my brain was actually doing the figuring. I wanted to be able to show my work. I respected the teacher and wanted him to think well of me. I didn’t struggle in any other classes. I was an honor roll student so this problem of mine was extremely frustrating, not just to my teacher.
I remember sitting at the kitchen table with my dad, who had the IQ of a genius and math was like breathing to him. He could do it so naturally he didn’t understand why everyone didn’t get it, especially me, as easily as he did. My dad was a very gentle man, never raised his voice, rarely saw him angry, but he pounded his fist on the kitchen table and said, “How are you not getting this?” during one of our times at the table that quarter. That is how frustrated he was. My answer through tears was, “I don’t know!” My dad was my hero. It broke my heart to disappoint him. I wanted to understand, wanted to be able to write out the steps for solving the problems, wanted to make him proud, but something in my brain just wasn’t allowing it to happen.
Just this week I had a situation similar to my high school experience. I have a few ways to receive payments from my customers. Then that money is transferred into our company bank account. For the first time I needed to pay a vendor directly from one of those ways. I understand how debits and credits work when it comes to a checking or savings account. I understand I need more money in the account than what is going out of the account. This particular transaction had, in my brain, an extra few steps because of working with two different financial institutions. I felt the two ran parallel to each other and was not seeing a connection although I knew there was one. I needed to see the connection in order to feel confident in what was happening. So, I asked my best friend if he could explain it to me.
He explained it in very simple terms (his words, not mine) and I still didn’t grasp it. He told me I did understand and was choosing to make it more difficult. (My brain and body began to feel as though a weight had been dropped on it. This was not being done on purpose, I hate not understanding things!) I tried to explain my thoughts but the words weren’t coming to me, several seconds would elapse between each word as I tried to come up with the words and say the right thing. (My brain felt like it was stuck behind a super heavy steel door. I was pushing hard to get the words out, but could only get the door open enough for one word at time.) This frustrated him even more. His tone of voice and body language relayed he was frustrated, I started to think he thought I was stupid, I became upset. (I felt the steel door slam shut)) He showed me a step in the online platform that I didn’t know about. It helped, but not really. (And now the ceiling was starting to push down on my brain as well. The steel door changed to a thick heavy plexiglass door. I knew the answer was on the other side. I could “see” something but it still was not clear. I still saw the two financial institutions running parallel to each other, I still felt there was a piece missing to connect the two.) I tried to explain that. Again, he said I was choosing to make this difficult and making it more complicated than it needed to be. (I felt as though the answer was just on the other side of the door, that it was within my grasp, but I just couldn’t reach it. I really wanted to understand. I wanted him to think well of me. The blood in my veins felt cold, a compression of my chest started happening, my heart was beating faster. I was still having a difficult time getting words out, organizing my thoughts, and was working so hard!) He explained it one more time, but broke down a step into the pieces that made up that step. BINGO! The missing piece that connected the two was finally clear. I was able to understand the problem, push through the door, and finally clearly see and grasp what had been just out of reach and foggy before. However, I was so upset and exhausted by the interaction I had to step away for a while.
During the time that was going on, I could not express any of the feelings in parentheses. I had to have time to process what happened and what it felt like. As I relived it while typing I had some of the same feelings and still had a difficult time describing the feelings. It was an awful experience and one I do not wish to go through ever again.
This experience made me think this is what children who learn differently experience. I know from my teaching years, all of the verbal students I ever worked with wished they could learn like everyone else. I had several of them tell me they wanted to do well, they wanted to please their teachers and parents. They wanted to be like the kids who got it. They wanted to be smart. They wished the teachers would understand the amount of effort that went into their schoolwork. If they had been graded on their effort they would have always gotten an A. My best friend meant no harm when he told me I was making it more difficult. He believed in my ability and was perplexed that the simplest definition didn’t make sense to me. If he could have seen what was happening in my brain, he would have understood my struggle. I would bet my life savings that if we could see in our childrens’ brains who learn differently, we would all be amazed!
Is there something different I wish my best friend would have said? Yes. Instead of using words that blamed me or sounded accusatory, I would have preferred he told me what I figured out later. I wish he would have said he believed in my ability to grasp the concept and he was perplexed by why I wasn’t. I wish he would have said, “I know this is stumping you right now, but together we’ll figure it out.” “Let me try another way to explain this as I can see that you want to understand.”
Those words would have kept me from feeling as though he thought I was stupid or that he was attacking or blaming me. Those words would have validated my feelings. I truly believe that he meant no harm in his words, but that’s what they did. Our words, body language, and tone of voice really do communicate an entire picture. Sometimes the body language and tone of voice relay more of a message than the words. We must be careful to be aware of all 3 and that they are working in harmony to express our message.
For me, this was a rare happening, however for many students this type of roadblock pops up often. As adults we must be aware of what our children are saying with their body language, tone of voice, actions, and words. We must walk alongside them and help them find their way without blaming or attacking them. As an adult, eventually I was able to process and explain what happened however our children’s brains are not developed with all the skills necessary to do that. All they know is things make sense to others but not for them. They feel stupid.
If you are an adult and have lost your cool with your child in a situation similar, forgive yourself, apologize to the child, ask for forgiveness, and change your ways. You will get frustrated again. You know how I know? I have been in those shoes, too. My frustration was with myself though because I couldn’t figure out a way to get the child where he needed to go. I had to explain that to my student, because that frustration showed and he recognized it. As Maya Angelou said, “When we know better, we do better.” Now you know better, so please do better.
Educational Consultant and Master IEP Coach®
Making the world better for all, one IEP at a time.
P. S. The teacher was a kind man and because he could see that somehow I was truly doing the work in my head, he made the grade on my report card a D-. I remember going to him when I received the report card and asked why he did that. He told me that he trusted that I wasn’t cheating, he could see my own frustration in not being able to show the work, and he just didn’t feel right putting an F on my report card. I have been out of that math class for over 30 years but those memories stay with me as a learning experience. I recently saw that teacher and told him of the story and how much I respected and learned from him for doing that. He told me he should have given me the B!