Ability to Benefit: Changing the Way We Look at Learning Differences

One of the first students I ever really struggled with was a student who had been in our program for many years but never really progressed. He bounced from one class to another. He showed up to do the work and, most days, he was happy and engaged about it…but he just couldn’t do the work at the same level as his peers. We started to have conversations about conversations with him. It was suggested that we should have a conversation with him about his “ability to benefit” from the education he was getting–or not getting–in the classroom. None of us had the heart to have that talk, and he eventually left on his own. Years later, it still bothers me what happened to him.

We call disabilities “learning differences” because it removes the stigma and provides a more accurate term for the broad range of differences in our students. Students can have physical limitations, intellectual challenges, emotional challenges, and/or learning difficulties. Some of these problems are actual diseases and illnesses; others are phobias students are working through; considerably more are not diagnosed at all. According to the Learning Disabilities Association of America, one-third of students enrolled in adult basic skills education programs have a disclosed or undisclosed learning difference or disability.

As educators, we are told to meet certain standards and follow certain benchmarks that keep inching ahead of us…changing before we can meet them. It is hard enough to get a student to these benchmarks when they have every cognitive ability to do well in class, but what about the ones who don’t? What about the ones who are different? How do we get them across the benchmark?

If you really want to make a difference, start seeing the differences as assets, not deficits.

I love what the writer, Nalo Hopkinson, said about herself. She has a non-verbal learning difference and doesn’t pick up on a lot of social cues, but she says of herself that it is “a good brain for a writer to have”. As she explains what her mind is like in this short video, she keeps telling you why her differences are a good thing.

Learning Difference (LD) learners need extra encouragement in a classroom because they have very few positive experiences in learning. The last thing an LD wants to do is try to learn when it already carries bad associations of bullying peers and teachers who cared more about content cramming and bottom-line scores then what they needed to do to help them learn.

An LD may not look like much on the struggling side of learning, but look what they can become!

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Adopting the right attitude can change a bad experience into a positive one.

  • (Teachers) Be patient with your students and be willing to change your teaching styles to whatever works best for them NOT you. Get CREATIVE!
  • Reinforce a positive perspective on their abilities; minimize focus on their inabilities. Take this project for example; it is a beautiful representation of turning a learning difference into a positive situation.
  • Change your mindset to see their weaknesses as gifts. Learn growth mindset!
  • (Students) Be willing to work your way out of accommodations.


The greatest lesson I have learned in life is that I still have a lot to learn. –Anonymous