Educational Therapists: The Educators You’ve Never Heard of – An Essay by Natalie Powell

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Imagine that you are in third grade, and still cannot read a clock. You can solve complex Tangram puzzles, but struggle to perform simple mental arithmetic such as 10+3 or 6+4. You are unable to remember how to write the number 13. You struggle to answer simple math questions, such as “What number comes before 20?” and begin addition and subtraction problems from the left side. When asked to draw a 4-sided shape, instead of immediately drawing a square or a rectangle, you painstakingly draw a half circle-half triangle. Yet, you’re a talented artist and already include elements of perspective in your paintings.

Imagine that you are in fourth grade and still cannot tell the difference between “b” and “d.” You are able to accurately sound out a word when it’s written in large font, but cannot sound out the same word when it is written in smaller font. You’ve passed your latest vision screening, yet when sounding out words, you omit and scramble letters unless you are explicitly told to focus your eyes with all your strength on each individual letter in a word. You are skilled at drawing, yet your penmanship is completely illegible even to you. You are intuitive and have excellent listening comprehension yet speak in short, choppy sentences, frequently unable to retrieve the word that you need. Psycho-educational testing finds that you have no learning disability, and a speech evaluation points to no speech deficit.

Imagine you’re a second grader who cannot instantly recognize “what,” “want,” “find,” and many other kindergarten-level words that do not follow phonics rules. You often read “a” as “the” and vice-versa. Yet, you can accurately sound out long, seemingly more complex words such as “fingernail.” You are extremely verbally articulate, yet you write both individual letters and whole words backwards, mixing capital and lowercase letters. You excel in math, but struggle to memorize your math facts.

Sufficiently baffled yet? 

As an educational therapist, I work with children with average to above-average intelligence who exhibit fascinating, contradictory symptoms such as these on a daily basis. To say each day is an adventure is an understatement. Prerequisites for this line of work include: an investigative/ever-curious personality; the ability to happily communicate with others about academics and other serious matters all day long; a loathe of boredom or routine; and a fascination with fun (in your eyes) jargon that eloquently sums up human cognition. (Ex: dysnomia: the exacerbating situation in which the word you’re looking for is on the tip of your tongue, but you just can’t quite make it come out. Yes, there’s a name for that.)

When children first begin working with me, they have no idea why they are failing in school or why certain academic areas are such a struggle. Meanwhile, their parents are frustrated, worried, and out of ideas. In situations such as these, educational therapists – the quiet superheros in the world of education – swoop out of the wings.

Educational therapists are like detectives, in that we investigate social, emotional, cognitive, and academic influences that cause breakdowns in school performance. Take the student in the second vignette, above. She clearly had significant difficulties with all language arts areas, yet her educational assessments said otherwise. Contradictions abounded in her case. Like a detective, I had to unravel the mystery of this student’s school performance. Observation, interviews, assessments, intervention sessions, and a whole lot of deep thinking eventually revealed that this student was experiencing symptoms of dyslexia as well as dysgraphia, a written language learning difference.  

Meanwhile, educational therapists also work to correct areas of learning failure, build up students’ confidence in their strengths, and help them form (often for the first time) positive impressions of learning. For the student in the second vignette above, I use a multiplicity of techniques to help her form positive impressions of reading, including: providing her with high-interest, self-penned narratives about my own travels (because students are always curious about their teachers’ “personal lives”!); guiding her in reading humorous, high-interest books at and above her reading level; providing guidance regarding how to pick a book at “just the right level” for independent reading; playing reading games; continually praising her improvement and sharing tangible proof of this; and arranging that she and her mom read together nightly for added practice. 

As you can see, it is no easy task to help a dyslexic child who has endured years of failure enjoy reading, and an ET has to take an “all hands on deck” approach in order to make this happen. Encouragement, guidance, and understanding must come from all quarters! (This is the therapy aspect of the job.) In particular, ETs pay close attention to topics that dyslexic students seem to enjoy and then either find or produce materials relating to that topic at the student’s reading level. The student in the last vignette loves mysteries, so I write accordion-style mysteries for her in which she reads one sentence containing a clue at a time, working her way down through the folds until the answer to the mystery is revealed. At every session, this student asks if I’ve brought a mystery! While reading may be hard for her, she’s realized that there are certain times where reading is fun. This revelation is huge.

For my struggling math students, I provide exposure to different kinds of fun math-related activities such as Tangram puzzles, logic problems, riddles, Sudoku puzzles, and critical thinking activities. These activities work the parts of the brain involved in math processes, and help students sharpen their fluid intelligence– or their ability to solve novel problems in logical, systematic ways. This has major implications for math success.

And best of all, even my students with math processing difficulties and attentional deficits love these activities. Indeed, the time they spend playing these math games is the only times they’re ever excited about math. In this way, educational therapists show students who think they’re “bad at math” that they may struggle with a certain area of math, but math is broad. For example, while a student might struggle with division, she very well may excel in other kinds of math activities that don’t see the light of day in many public schools. Without educational therapy, these students might never come to appreciate the full scope of their cognitive abilities. 

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Consider this paradox: struggling students have to improve at twice the rate of grade-level learners in order to catch up to the latter group. It’s not enough for “low” students and “high” students to improve at the same rate- in that case, the gap will always exist. Therefore “low” students have to not only improve, but improve faster than those without learning differences! And further still, the majority of these students are not qualifying for in-school assistance. A viscous cycle of discouragement, failure, falling further behind; more discouragement, more failure, falling further behind is too often the fate that befalls these under-performing learners without intervention.

Educational therapists help struggling learners avoid this tide of discouragement and beat the odds through remediation, or filling in educational gaps that may extend back several years. Without a doubt, the meat of educational therapy is remediation. This is the most challenging, taxing, and frustrating aspect of the profession- after all, each mind is different, and there is no foolproof battery of interventions that an ET can “pull off the shelf.” Yet remediation is also the most rewarding, worthwhile, and heart-warming aspect of educational therapy. This is where you see huge academic gains and attitude transformations, and where you get to know your client backwards and forwards, forming a close, trusting relationship and delighting in their achievements.  

The key components of remediation are repeated review and active learning. Many students struggle in school – whether or not they have a learning difference – due to problems with memory. Review games and goal setting are invaluable in ensuring that mastered concepts don’t get rusty. They’re also fun and help students realize their own progress. Active learning involves students testing their skills, using prior knowledge, taking on challenges, and engaging in verbal, visual, and tactile activities to fully grasp concepts. A student with dyscalculia (a severe difficulty in making arithmetical calculations), such as the student in the first vignette, benefits from learning not by listening, but by doing: she is the most active of learners. So, on days when I see this student, I often look like I’m packed for a hiking trip, what with my toting around base-10 blocks, a clock with movable hands, gemstones, number lines, sidewalk chalk, a portable white board, number tiles, and a litany of other hands-on learning aids!

The magic of educational therapy is the difference it makes in children’s lives: The dyscalculic student in the first vignette just got a 100% on a rounding test. The dyslexic student in the second vignette now has a “favorite author” and told me last week that she “stayed up late under the covers reading one of his books;” this was the first time she’d ever done that. And the dyslexic student in the third vignette has memorized 50+ sight words since September, and is now almost on-grade level.

Most importantly, these students are feeling so good about themselves- my dyslexic students now have favorite books and even ask to read books that they know will be challenging! They’re actually seeking out reading challenges. It’s hard to emphasize how significant this is. Do they still have a long way to go? Absolutely. But it’s little triumphs such as these that over time add up to a child who has hope, a learner for whom things that used to be hard are much easier, and a student who enjoys learning.

What would have happened to these three talented students – all undiagnosed but struggling – without educational therapy? By combining investigative data gathering, targeted remediation, and confidence-building activities into encouraging weekly sessions, educational therapists restore students’ confidence, bridge gaps in knowledge, and ignite passion for learning. My students each have their own unique brand of intelligence- unfortunately, grades for intuitiveness, humbleness, creativity, problem solving ability, and determination are not given in school. Yet having to fight to succeed academically, for better or worse, has ensured that these youngsters have more grit than anyone I know. They are going to go forward and do great things. Educational therapy gives capable students – who just think differently – a chance to succeed.

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