A Beautiful Mind: Teaching Students with Learning Disabilities in France

Teaching students with disabilities in France

For students with learning disabilities, school in France poses challenges far more formidable than those of us without can imagine.

School is challenging for us all. And that’s okay. In fact, that is usually a good thing, because it means you’re growing. It means that you’re being pushed beyond the known, beyond the familiar. You’re expanding your skills and enlarging your mind, and that, by definition, requires some measure of effort and discomfort. However, for students with learning disabilities (LD), the school poses challenges far more formidable than those of us without LD can imagine.

The experience of schooling for students with LD can be debilitating, traumatic, confidence-shattering, life-altering. Yet these soul-wounding experiences are shrinking the hopes, dreams, and self-esteem of millions of children around the world each and every day. This article will explore strategies for supporting students with learning disabilities in developed nations around the world, with a particular focus on the French education system, a system currently undergoing sweeping and highly controversial reform.

Why It Matters

Learning disabilities are pervasive, challenging students, families, educators, and education systems worldwide. According to current estimates from the World Health Organization, as many as 1 in 160 children are on the autism spectrum. In the United States, it is estimated that as many as 1 in 5 children have dyslexia and that 80 to 90% of all learning disorders may be attributed to some form of dyslexia.

Despite the global prevalence of LD, education systems in even the richest and most highly developed nations around the world have largely failed in their responsibility to provide equitable, effective education for these students. The consequences of this failure to successfully accommodate students’ needs are profound and long-lasting. Studies show that of the nearly 2 million job-eligible persons with disabilities in France, nearly 400,000 are unemployed.

The Difficulty of Detection

The simple fact is that even in highly developed countries like France, children with disabilities, and learning disabilities in particular, are getting left behind. LD, for example, can be extremely difficult to detect, delaying diagnosis and essential intervention. By the time the LD has been recognized, the student has likely already internalized the labels misperceiving teachers have given them — lazy, disruptive, incorrigible. And once the education system has sufficiently alienated and disgruntled the child with LD, it’s very hard to get them back.

Taking the Power Back

The French education system today is facing a host of difficulties. According to a recent survey, 75% of French feel that the quality of education in the country is declining. At the same time, French legislators are increasingly cracking down on the proliferation of mobile technologies in schools, granting educators the legal right to confiscate students’ devices while encouraging teachers themselves to scale back on the use of screens in the classroom. Though this may sound like good education practice in theory, in reality, the shift away from technology in the classroom may be detrimental for students with learning differences.

Finding a Voice

Despite the growing concern over the influx of technology in the modern French classroom, studies show that these tools, used properly, can greatly benefit students with learning disabilities. For example, the use of augmentative and alternative communication (AAC) technologies have been shown to be immensely helpful for students with communication impairments. AAC provides non-verbal students with a voice in the classroom. AAC enables students to ask questions and to answer them just like any other student in the class would be able, and expected, to do.

Even more importantly, though, is that with AAC, students are able to bridge the speech divide between themselves and their teacher and peers. It helps them forge relationships and to show that there is a real, living, thinking, feeling human being behind that still voice. This is key not just to the student’s intellectual and academic development, but also to their social and emotional development as well.

Doing What Works

Teaching students with learning disabilities requires educators to break free of their pedagogical comfort zone. It means changing things up. It means accepting a process of trial and error, experimenting until you find that particular thing that works for that particular student — and then doing it all over again for the next student. Just as no two students, with or without LD, are alike, the strategies used to teach them shouldn’t be identical, either. For example, in her discussion of her methods for teaching foreign languages to students with learning disabilities, Irene Konyndyk describes the rich assortment of strategies she uses, from audiobooks to strategically assigned seating, to meet the diverse needs of her students.

Reaching Out

Teachers entrusted with educating our youth are, in essence, charged with building our collective future. The quality of education a child receives, especially in the early years of life, shapes their destiny, impacting their overall quality of life well into adulthood. As formidable as the challenges of educating students with learning disabilities may be, French educators and parents alike have abundant resources to support them in supporting these special needs children.

From childcare stipends for parents looking to procure specialized, needs-based care for their children, to the vast array of domestic and international organizations committed to serving persons with disabilities and their care providers, the help is as abundant as they need, provided one knows where to find it.