There’s always a way in special education. Don’t stop until you find it.

I’ve spent most of my life thinking about students with disabilities. That may seem hyperbolic, but it’s not.

I wasn’t diagnosed with dyslexia until I was in sixth grade, after years of struggling but not knowing why. Ever since then, I’ve done all I can to understand both myself and the countless kids out there who think differently—but are just as smart, competent, and deserving of excellent instruction that can meet them where they are.

What it means to be known

It’s not always easy to understand other people. Ask any spouse. Ask any parent. It’s also not always easy to understand ourselves.

For a long time, I didn’t know (much less understand) what was different about me. All I knew was that in the summer after kindergarten, my classmates were moving on to some independent reading while I was still struggling with my letter books.

Years later, as a special education teacher, I encountered students who weren’t easy to understand either. But when I finally had that “aha” moment with them—when I was able to reach them and see them how they needed to be seen—every frustration was worth it.

Questioning everything I know

Jason was one of those students: the kind who changed everything I thought I knew.

Jason was a gangly, blond six-year-old when I met him, just at the start of first grade. He was sweet and a little awkward. I ended up working with him for three years. Early on, his teachers thought they had him pegged well enough: spelling and comprehension were a challenge, so he got put in the dyslexia bucket. That’s what I’d been pulled in for. To assess him, confer a diagnosis, and put an individualized education program (IEP) in place.

But I was suspicious—maybe because I knew that bucket so well myself. Yes, spelling and comprehension were difficult for Jason, but he could decode well and read fluently. He was clearly intelligent because he would say brilliant things, and he had deep knowledge about plenty of subjects, including pretty much anything related to animals and plants. I often joked that he was a walking NOVA episode.

I’ve done all I can to understand both myself and the countless kids out there who think differently—but are just as smart, competent, and deserving of excellent instruction that can meet them where they are.

While Jason likely didn’t have dyslexia, he was struggling academically. I couldn’t deny that. I didn’t know exactly how his mind worked. I noticed him do things I simply hadn’t ever seen someone do before. He would walk into his classroom, for example, and not be able to find his seat, even though it was the only seat that was empty. Or his teacher would ask the class to place their assignments in a pile on her desk, and Jason could never find the pile. There was absolutely nothing wrong with his eyes.

Jason also could not identify numerals, so he struggled with math. A lot. I’d been taught that repetition is really important for kids with disabilities, so one strategy I tried right away was focusing on numeral identification, using multiple strategies. For example, I tried writing numbers in different colors so Jason could see the difference. Nothing seemed to work.

Then I realized I hadn’t asked a very important question: Does Jason know what a numeral means? Can he equate the numeral 1 with one cube? I decided to take the numerals away and use Unifix cubes instead. I placed five cubes in front of us, and he knew there were five. How about eight cubes? He knew there were eight. Three cubes? Right again. Put the numerals in front of him—5, 8, 3—and he had no idea. But use the Unifix cubes? Now we were onto something. I just started doing everything in Unifix cubes after that, and he could do addition, subtraction, multiplication, division—he could do it all.

Additional testing proved what I was seeing in Jason during our time together. He was really strong verbally and with expression, which meant he was collecting a lot of auditory information, just in a different way than you or I do. He struggled with visual information and spatial awareness. His difficulties with math and finding his seat were more related than it may have seemed at first.

Doing things differently

When I realized just how much numerals were getting in the way for Jason, I started thinking about how we force-feed numerals to so many students. Maybe, like Jason, all they need is to experience numerals in a different format so they can show us what they’re capable of. Maybe our role is to learn to speak their language so nothing gets lost in translation.

What are the things that get in the way for you or the people you’re responsible for? For me, the barrier was my own thinking. I believed math was linear. I believed Jason had to be able to identify numerals before he could understand addition and subtraction. I was wrong.

I’m certainly not the first person to make an assumption. We all make assumptions all the time. What has kept Jason in the back of my mind all these years, however, is knowing how hard school would have been for him if we hadn’t had that breakthrough. Remember, he used to have trouble merely finding his desk. How would he have gotten through his K–12 years if he hadn’t cracked the code of numeral identification?

Whether you’re a C-level executive at a Fortune 500 company, a yoga instructor, or a bus driver, think about the things that get in the way of you being able to do your job and serve the people you’re there to serve. Identify those things. Ask questions about those things. And don’t just accept those things. Because there’s always a way.

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