Are We Having Fun Yet?
 Teaching Learning Disabled Students


by Ann Fernandez, B.A. NCTM
Anchorage, AK


ave you ever had the opportunity of traveling to a destination you had only previously seen in postcards or travel brochures? Wasn’t the experience of visiting that special place much more powerful and memorable than just seeing the photo of it? Of course it was! The act of moving through that special vacation spot, happily taking in all the sensations around you, solidifies that precious memory in your whole being. It makes it easy to return home and tell your friends all the details of your wonderful trip. True active learning like this happens whenever people are relaxed, having a fun time and are totally immersed in the reality of the experience.

In this article, I hope to share some of my favorite simple and fun techniques that facilitate the active learning experience for learning disabled students. The majority of these techniques are based on the latest research on movement and how it relates to learning. Some of the methods may even make you smile, because they’ll remind you of the advice your Mom may have doled out, but they’re all very effective at keeping the body and brain relaxed, yet ready for action.




"Learning is experience. The rest is just information." Albert Einstein

Learning disabled students often have a great deal of difficulty memorizing. They have trouble interpreting visual, auditory, and kinesthetic information. Learning disabled students also struggle with accessing and linking information from various parts of the brain. Sometimes a learning disability is accompanied by an attention deficit disorder (ADD), by hyper-activity (ADHD), or by emotional problems. Learning disabilities also manifest distinct symptoms in motor coordination and language expression. It’s not hard to see how all these ‘crossed wires’ interfere with the memory process.

Emotions also greatly influence learning potential. If a particular activity is perceived as a horrendous, stressful situation, our bodies produce certain stress hormones, such as cortisol, as a survival mechanism. Unfortunately, these reactions to stress decrease our ability to learn and remember. On the other hand, viewing an activity as a great opportunity or adventure produces different bodily responses that increase our ability to retain information. Obviously, when it comes to learning, attitude is everything!

"If you never did you should. These things are fun and fun is good!" Dr. Seuss

I’ve never met a child who doesn’t like to laugh. Humor is one of the most effective tools I know for establishing rapport. It expels tension, anger and aggression and even stimulates both sides of the brain. And, of course, a joyous student is much more receptive to new learning situations. The ability to play and laugh with the student is crucial to a good relationship and to cognitive development, so look for the humor in every situation and use it to your best advantage.

My students are often the best source of funny and creative thinking. A couple years ago, to segue into talking about eighth rests, I asked my young student, Mary, if she saw anything new on the page. She thoughtfully replied, "Well, I don’t know how to describe it, but it looks like a 7 with an Elvis hairdo!" That cracked me up so much, I just had to share it with the other students, and wouldn’t you know nobody ever forgets eighth rests anymore?

Another one of my students was having trouble memorizing a piece for recital, so we dutifully chopped the music into sections. I asked the little guy if he’d like to use alphabets or numbers for identifying each section, to which he replied, "Mrs. Fernandez, can I please use food names? I just love food!" I agreed, and he ended up with sections called fried chicken, grapefruit, bread, and cornbread. It really tickled my funny bone to call out, "Play the cornbread, Nathan!" More importantly, he remembered every section because it was his own funny little idea. I appreciate that kind of creative thinking, where the unknown is associated with something familiar, comforting, or just plain silly. It certainly makes learning more enjoyable, and it saves time in the long run.

Games that encourage large muscle movement and touch are also high on my list of fun, musical learning activities. The group game Charades can easily be adapted for use in the private lesson. The students love twisting their bodies into musical symbols and/or acting out musical directions. I adapt other games to suit our musical purposes as well. The students beg to play them, and don’t realize how much active learning is taking place. This is truly a win-win situation.

"Hard work never killed anyone but why take a chance?" Charlie McCarthy

Next to having fun I love learning techniques that are easy and efficient. The latest research has unearthed many simple strategies that satisfy my criteria. At the start of each lesson, I typically ask the student to wash his hands and take a few sips of water. Within 5 minutes of drinking water, researchers have found marked declines in two hormones associated with elevated stress levels. Water, along with a set of coordinated physical movements preps the brain for learning. The series of simple, coordinated movements I use are from the Brain Gym method of integrative movements. This method was selected by the National Learning Foundation as one of today’s leading technologies for education.

Once the brain and body are prepared for learning, I use a variety of teaching tools, but I always teach to the student’s strength, whether it is visual, aural, kinesthetic, or intellectual. Speaking into the dominant ear also helps the student receive and retain instruction (Ask the student which ear they put the phone to. It’s the easiest way to figure this out). My lessons are highly structured and sequenced, and I present only one or two new skills or concepts per session. Presenting the new material in a multi-sensory way, at specific intervals, say at the beginning, middle, and end of the lesson, is an excellent memory making technique. This concept of intermittent learning also applies to practice. Children really do get more out of practice if done in short bursts during the course of the day.

Recent research also supports reviewing new material within 24 hours for best retention. This is where communication between teacher and parent is crucial. Parents need to know between 50-80% of new learning is lost if this review doesn’t happen! That’s like having to start all over again, and with learning disabled students, this would be very frustrating and defeating. Research also reveals motor skills take at least 6 hours to solidify, and that sleeping for 6-8 hours after learning the new skill enhances the performance as much as 20-30 percent. Parents love this concept, but try convincing a kid to go to sleep. Now that’s tough!

"To live is to dance, to dance is to live." Snoopy

So put on your dancing shoes and your play clothes, remember to work smart, not hard, and boogie through some lively lessons. You may be surprised at how much you can accomplish with relative ease.

Additional Reading

Dennison, Paul E.: Brain Gym Teacher’s Edition Revised. Edu-Kinesthetics, Inc. Ventura, CA

Fernandez, Ann M.: "Resources for Students with Learning Disabilities." The Keyboard Companion, Spring, 2002

Hannaford, Carla: Smart Moves: Why learning is not all in your head. Great Ocean Publishers, Arlington, VA

Jensen, Eric: Teaching with the Brain in Mind. Alexandria, VA: Association for supervision and curriculum development, 1998

Kalat, James W.: Introduction to Psychology, seventh edition. Wadsworth Thomson Learning. Belmont, CA

Page created: 7/3/05
Last updated: 06/23/17
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