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Educational therapy for learners with diverse needs

By Yasaara Kaluaratchi

Neurodiversity is a term which was coined in the early 1900s by journalist Harvey Blume and Australian autism activist Judy Singer. Conventional special education views learners with differing needs such as autism, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), and dyslexia as having a combination of biological, neurobiological, and genetic causes. However, advocates of neurodiversity emphasise on the advantages of symptoms unique to these differing needs. Thomas Armstrong in the Journal of Education Leadership emphasises that neurological differences must be respected and honoured similar to any other human variation such as race, ethnicity, gender identity, religion, and so forth. 

NILD educational therapist (USA) and trained Orton Gillingham practitioner Nedra Perumal

Nedra Perumal, a qualified National Institute for Learning Development (NILD) educational therapist (USA) and a trained Orton Gillingham practitioner who has extensive experience in special education elucidated how various types of educational therapies aid neurodiverse learners.

What is educational therapy? 

Educational therapy is a form of therapy that focuses on improving specific skill deficits/learning differences in children. Poor spelling, illegible handwriting, inability to express thoughts verbally or in writing, and difficulty with reading and math are common indicators of a learning disability. Educational therapy consists of intervention programmes that seek to address underlying causes of learning differences rather than simply treating the symptoms. This type of therapy is built on the premise that thinking is modifiable with intensive, focused intervention. The term educational therapy is not very commonly used in Sri Lanka as the term is mainly associated with a specific type of therapy known as NILD therapy.

NILD therapy

A NILD educational therapist providing one-on-one support to a learner

NILD in the US introduced this therapy to assist neurodiverse learners. NILD educational therapy is a programme that focuses on developing key competencies in areas such as cognition, perception, emotion, and academics. This therapy is different to tutoring as it is skill oriented and aims to support students learn and retain content better in a mainstream classroom setting. The primary objective of this programme is to teach children how to think rather than what to think. 

Some of the activities of this programme include: 

  • Rhythmic writing 
  • The Blue Book method for spelling 
  • Buzzer activity (to improve working memory)
  • Math block (to improve mental math strategies) 
  • Dictation and near-point copying 
  • Auditory memory training exercises SEARCH and TEACH: SEARCH and TEACH is an early identification and remediation programme that has been designed by the NILD to help children who are most vulnerable or who might be at risk of learning problems. This programme is for young learners between the ages of 63 and 80 months. SEARCH consists of a set of tasks to scan and assess strengths and weaknesses of basic skills required to function in a school setting, while TEACH consists of 55 tools used to plan an intervention based on the child’s weaknesses. TEACH is organised based on the child’s SEARCH profile. This early identification and intervention programme will help ascertain needs of young learners before they experience academic failure. The programme focuses on developing skills in the following clusters: Visual and Visual Motor Cluster, Intermodal Cluster, Body Image Cluster, and Auditory Cluster

There is a wide array of benefits of this intervention programme for students:

  • Helps the student to stay focused on the teacher’s voice
  • Helps the students accurately hear and remember what the teacher is saying
  • Helps student figure out main teaching points so that they could record important points 
  • Helps with spelling and reading by teaching associative skills 
  • Helps children record information legibly 

A learner engaged in rhythmic writing, which is a core activity of NILD therapy

As stated by the NILD, research suggests that thinking can be developed through focused intervention. Language and thinking skills are interdependent. Therefore, when one skill is enhanced, the other is strengthened. This intervention programme trains the students to transition from being dependent learners to self-reliant learners who can think and reason independently.

Approaches to remediating reading, writing, and spelling 

The Orton Gillingham Approach is a research-based approach used to teach literacy skills to struggling readers such as those with dyslexia. It must be noted that this is not a method but a highly structured, multi-sensory approach to teaching reading, writing, and spelling. As with dyslexia, some of the most common difficulties are sorting, recognising, and organising language so this approach teaches explicitly the relationship between sounds and letters while teaching spelling rules, patterns, and decoding skills. It helps students encode and decode, using rules of syllabification to build automaticity and fluency in reading and spelling. It is an individualised approach that builds on the students’ competencies. 

The Orton Gillingham Approach provides a multi-sensory approach to language development

The Wilson’s Reading System is another popular structured literacy programme which was built on the principles of phonological-coding research and the Orton Gillingham approach. It is a direct and systematic approach to teach the structure of the English language. Learners are exposed to fluent decoding and encoding skills to the level of mastery. Both programmes have shown to be very effective with those diagnosed with dyslexia. The key difference between the two programmes is that the Wilson’s Reading Scheme starts at the very foundation to ensure mastery whereas the Orton Gillingham approach allows for adaptations based on individual needs. 

There are quite a few other programmes that are used, such as the Barton Reading system, the Lindamood Bell, and the SRA Reading Laboratory programme to name a few. All these specialised programmes equip the students to become independent, life-long learners. However, it must be noted that these programmes require specialised training in order to be able to support students with specific learning differences. 

Nedra Perumal is a qualified Level 1 NILD educational therapist (USA) and a trained Orton Gillingham practitioner. She holds a Master’s in Applied Psychology specialising in Child and Education. She has over 18 years of experience in the field of special education and has worked as a special education co-ordinator in two leading international schools in Colombo. She works with students who have been diagnosed with specific learning difficulties, with a focus on remediating those with dyslexia, dyscalculia, and weak cognitive competencies.

(The writer has over a decade of experience in the education sector as a lecturer, mentor, and facilitator specialised in education psychology, currently serving as the Director of Academics at Prospects Academy, Colombo, Sri Lanka)