When we work with students with nonverbal learning disabilities, we often face a daunting combination of anxiety and tendency to become overwhelmed by the volume and complexity of work as they enter upper grade levels. Students can become cognitively and emotionally overwhelmed, they may avoid work, and because they are so verbally adept (“obviously smart,” in the words of one school administrator I worked with), they are often accused by teachers of having a defective character instead of being recognized as having cognitive difficulties. Their parents can become baffled and overwhelmed by their loss of self- esteem, a decline in grades, or the appearance of social difficulties related to teachers who don’t understand them. Here are a couple of stories about NLD children, showing the way that verbal mediation in the areas of critical thinking, executive function, and writing tasks can help them navigate the demands of school.
The Case of M: A Fifth Grade Boy Diagnosed with Non-Verbal Learning Disabilities
M, an anxious, round-faced, soft-spoken boy with a Beatles haircut and black-rimmed glasses, writes furiously in his journal. He is in public school on the upper west side of Manhattan, and he starts his session with worries about a bully in his class who is calling him names and has instigated a water balloon incident on the playground in which he is the victim. He wants to brainstorm ways of handling the problem without involving his parents. When he tells the teacher about the bullying, he feels it incites more teasing about his slower- moving and rounder body and about his wanting to do the right thing. “I hold the door for everyone going into recess. Why don’t they like me?”
M is an expert on the life of John Lennon and the Beatles; he dreams of visiting Liverpool, England, to see where the whole phenomenon started. M and I start our sessions collaborating on how to avoid conflict with the boys in his class. M wants to be able to read the danger signs, and then to use words to defuse the bullying. M has some difficulty judging the effect of his actions on others, and difficulty reading the social signals from others. His peer group doesn’t know much about the Beatles, so it is hard for him to share his enthusiasm with them.
“When you see the boys take water balloons out of their backpacks, what can you do then?” I wonder aloud with M.
“I can tell the teacher! I can throw them right back at them if they throw them at me.”
“You could do that. What might happen if you throw the balloon back and it breaks on someone?”
“I could get in trouble, but it wouldn’t be fair!” M pleads.
“That’s great predicting, though. If the teacher sees you with the balloon, you might be the one to get detention, right?” I reason, helping M to draw some inferences by pic- turing the scene. “Plus I wonder what the other boys think when they see you join in the balloon throwing.”
“Maybe they think I want to fight. So what should I do?” M shrugs. “I tell the teachers about the boys but nothing happens. They just wait and throw them later after school.”
“I’m wondering if walking away is a good idea when you see the balloons come out. Maybe if you aren’t in the middle, you won’t get wet, and you won’t be tempted to throw the balloons back.” We experiment with different ways of picturing the scene and the outcome of various choices M can make.
M is reliant on adults to be his mediators. He also experiences difficulty with math and with comprehension of inferences in his reading. He would like to be more inde- pendent and able to understand the demands of his teachers, and more nimble at negotiating his place in his peer group. His oral precocity creates expectations for him to be equally adept in all areas of the curriculum. However, the disparity between his verbal and his visual-spatial skills makes it hard for M to play catch, to write easily by hand, and to make social judgments.
M’s mother is a wonderful advocate for him. His grades, with the help of a homework helper, have been strong. About a year ago his parents sought educational therapy be- cause homework was becoming a tussle between M and his mother, who wanted to step away from organizing his efforts and enforcing M’s compliance in doing all his work. She recognized that organizing his planner and understanding what the directions on his homework required was causing M to spend a great deal longer at his homework than was normal.
He has an assignment to write a mystery story that uses elements of suspense to help the reader make predic- tions about the killer in a whodunnit tale. This is a difficult assignment for M, as he tends to write formulaic stories in his journal that all begin with vampires and end in bloody mayhem and death.
“M, when I think about vampires, I don’t usually have to wonder who the killer is. Mostly I know it’s the vampire if I read about bite marks on somebody’s neck. How can we make it a mystery who the killer is?”
“This is a good story,” M insists.
“It is, but the assignment is to write a mystery, right? Should we read a page or two from a mystery story I have here to see how the author does it?” I ask. I pull out Molly Bang’s Dawn, a retelling of the Japanese folktale The Crane Wife. I read:
“One day I was in the swamp when I saw a Canada goose in the water near me. Geese need open space; they should never be in the swamp. The bird had been shot, and its wing was broken. I picked it up, carried it home, and nursed it to health. In a few weeks it flew away. One morning a young woman came into the yard and asked if I needed a sail maker. She was dressed very oddly, with a heavy brown cloak over a dress as pink as your cheeks. She had a long slender neck and tiny teeth, delicate and white. She had a scar on her arm. I noticed it when she took off her cloak. How could I know what it was from?” (Bang, 2002. p. 6)
M and I look at the illustration of the woman dressed in the colors of a Canada goose, and of course, M understands who she is. I ask, “So how did we know she was the goose turned human? The story didn’t say so.”
M says, “It’s the clues in the picture and in the description.”
“That’s it exactly. So how can we make clues in your story so people reading it can figure out who the killer is?”
In this way, M can begin to have concrete examples and strategies of words and ways to make predictions possible, and good inferences probable, in his writing. If he can do this, then we can work on his ability to make more and better inferences from his reading for language arts class.
The Case of R
R, a student with NLD, attends a demanding private high school. He has been receiving poor grades on English essays and has great difficulty understanding the symbols and inferences in his texts. He feels misunderstood by the teacher, and he is. The teacher thinks he is obstinate and unwilling to take her editing suggestions. She can’t recognize that his interpretations are improving, and that at present they are the best he can do. He is in danger of giving up in class. He is a wiry, tall, and tense young man, very anxious, and had difficulty making eye contact with me for the first 6 weeks of our therapy sessions together. He has a quirky sense of humor, which consists of reciting whole scenes from Monty Python movies when things get tense, as a way of establishing contact with me. I know these movies so I can appreciate his taste, even if the timing of his recitations is sometimes awkward. R has a fascination with Sparta, Rome and military tactics and even has a display case in his home filled with toy Greek and Roman soldiers.
We break the ice together when I buy and read a book he recommends to me about Leonidas and the 300 Spartans at Thermopylae, Gates of Fire, by Steven Pressfield (1998).
But we are not working on battle tactics today. I am trying to help R organize his essay in response to a very difficult essay question he must address about Toni Morrison’s Sula, and the paper is behind schedule. R must decide why the town of Medallion, Ohio, needs Sula to be their outcast and enemy, in order to be “good” themselves.
“WHY can’t I just read an abstract about this book, so then I’d know the answer? Why do I have to read the book? I don’t get it!” he tells me in exasperation. “The teacher isn’t going to give me better than a C no matter what I do.”
I am afraid that he is right about that. She hasn’t seen the incremental improvements in his analyses as worthy of her comment or reward.
“Books are like mysteries. We have to read the clues and decide for ourselves what they mean,” I say.
“No, there is only one right way. HER way,” R says bitterly, and he is right to some degree. He does have a teacher who is teaching her interpretation of the book.
“If we can reason it out well, and organize a good argument, she will reward that,” I say and hope I am right. I have to help R reason his way through the clues so that the teacher’s interpretation at least makes sense, and so that he can argue one of his own. “In any case, there is no getting out of writing it. So, what does Sula do that makes people hate her?”
“She steals her best friend’s husband,” R says.
“Right, and how does Sula feel about it? Is she sorry?” We look in the text to see. No, there is no evidence that she is sorry for what she has done.
“How do you think people feel when someone hurts them, and then has no guilt about it, no remorse?”
“I don’t know.”
We picture some situations in school that could make a kid unpopular. We wonder together what would make R’s friends, who do get his sense of humor, turn away. “If they trusted me. If I took something of value from them. If I never asked them about it.”
“Right. There are rules about behavior in groups. People have to know what to expect if you want to stay on their good side. So why would the town need her to be on the outside, to be their scapegoat?”
“So we can define bad. So people can enjoy their in-status?”
R’s conjecture is supported by the text, and we find the examples. Through several sessions we work on finding evidence, making connections, and working up an outline consisting of complete sentences, to relieve R from having to reinvent the essay again.
A postscript: R did graduate from high school and went on to win a college scholarship based on his excellent memory for facts and details. He currently receives coaching from an onsite educational therapist in order to remain organized and to help him with the critical thinking demands of his English classes.
High school students with NLD are in danger of being misunderstood by their teachers. Their language skills may be excellent, sometimes creating unrealistic expectations about communications skills and the ability to interpret others’ intent. They need assistance in understanding tasks that are based on comparing broad trends and concepts rather than on the memorization of facts. When assistance of this nature is provided then students with NLD can excel.
Bang, Molly (2002). 2nd edition. Dawn. San Francisco, CA: Chronicle Books.
Association of Educational Therapists Website