Improving the School Environment for Students with Disabilities and Learning Difficulties

Posted by Brainspring on 8th Oct 2014

Hi everyone,

One of the things I hope you took away from last week’s post about how more exercise benefits students with ADHD (all students, in fact) is that we need to find ways to adapt school and classroom environments so they are better suited for students with disabilities and learning difficulties.   This should be a priority issue, not something that we relegate to our “in a perfect world” list of improvements, like new iPads for every student.   In many cases, these are the students who need support and guidance the most, and yet they are put in an environment that not only makes it more difficult for them to succeed, but that can also add more challenges and struggles that erode self-esteem and the desire to learn.


School Environment can Worsen Behaviors

Research done by the Institute of Education, the London School of Economics and the National Children’s Bureau found that the behavior of students with learning difficulties and disabilities gets worse when they start school.  They tend to become more hyper-active and have more trouble getting along with peers.

“Our findings suggest that some early school environments may exacerbate behavioural problems for disabled children in ways that cannot solely be solved by learning support – because the underlying issue is behavioural rather than cognitive,” say the authors.

That quote reveals something very important: the problems with behavior aren’t fixed by learning support because the behavior problems are caused by something that is not cognitive.  Something other than struggling to master the curriculum is causing changes in the children’s behaviors.  One of the researchers pinpoints the school environment itself as the cause:  “School is not the easiest environment and if you have other things to struggle with it can be very difficult.  Other children adjust and their behaviour improves – but this is often harder for children with other challenges.”

What additional challenges do you notice students with disabilities or learning difficulties face at school?


Social Challenges

Bullying is one of the school environment factors mentioned in the study: “Martha Evans of the Anti-Bullying Alliance said disabled children were too often seen as “other” and as being harder to empathise with by their schoolmates – which could lead to isolation and bullying.”  Part of the reason these students are seen as “other” is because their schoolmates notice that they have difficulty conforming to the classroom standards, which often results in negative attention from the teacher.  It does not have to be this way, however.  As last week’s article suggests for example, if all students were engaged in exercise as part of a before- or after-school program, students with a disability like ADHD could function more appropriately in the classroom.  Or if students were encouraged to move around and find a comfortable place with a clipboard for writing assignments, students who struggle to sit at a desk wouldn’t feel so alienated.  Combining changes to the classroom environment with honest discussions about bullying and treating all people with respect could go a long way toward making the classroom a more comfortable place for students with disabilities and learning difficulties.

Any parents or teachers who would like to share their experience of how social challenges affected their student, please comment below.  What struggles did your student face?  How did you or the school help them handle the situation?

How can we help cultivate respect in our schools? 


Bringing About a More Positive Environment

Another thing we can do to help build self-esteem and foster desire to learn in our students is to notice their strengths and use them when teaching.  This goes back to another Thursday post from a few weeks ago.  For example, I have a student who was very nervous to start tutoring sessions with me.  She felt that she wasn’t smart and that I would think less of her because she had such a hard time reading.  By taking the time to get to know her a little, I found out she is a good chess player.  I am a terrible chess player, but have always wanted to learn to be better.  So after our lessons, I ask her if she has a few extra minutes to teach me about chess.  Being able to teach the teacher has improved her self-confidence during the lessons, and I’m slowly learning how not to lose within the first few moves!


Changes to make the school environment better suit the needs of students aren’t going to happen right away or all at once, but there has to be a start.   First, we need to be aware of the additional challenges students with disabilities and learning difficulties may face when they come to school.  Then, we need to find ways to change the environment to lessen the impact of those challenges on our students’ self-esteem and desire to learn.


Comment here to share your thoughts and ideas for adapting the school environment for our students’ needs.


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