The Learning Disabled and Other At-Risk Students
A Workshop for Teachers

by Leecy Wise, 4CVRC
Cortez, CO, 

You have permission to use these materials for educational purposes as long as you credit the sources.

Session I

Who is the at-risk student?

Generally speaking, the at-risk student is the one who is likely to drop out - from the school, the organization, the institution,  the system.

We can make some predictions about a student's capacity or willingness to stay in the system based on a few obvious factors, among them...

  • the student's accumulated skill and knowledge 
  • the student's ability to adapt to the learning environment
  • the student's prejudices (about him/herself, authority, school, the subject, etc...)
  • the student's mental and physical health
  • the student's neurological framework
  • the student's learning capacity
  • the student's personal, social, economic, or any other environmental situation affecting his/her life 
  • the student's opposing cultural views and values

In other words, one can safely say, for example, that an adult who cannot read lacks the accumulated skill to be able to pass Freshman English, and is thus at-risk of dropping or failing. A student who has a history of failure or of being abused by authority is at risk of failing again because of his prejudice against authority and the effectiveness of classrooms. A young student who lives in an abusive and unsupportive home environment, is at risk of falling behind and dropping out "down the line" because s/he lack the modeling, focus, and guidance needed to function in educational systems.

The are many reasons why students are labeled "at risk." Many students will never succeed in some educational systems, and as educators, we must learn to accept that we cannot fix everything in the classroom that is wrong outside of it! We may not be able to change things at home, or at work, or on the soccer field, but we can help create positive experiences for students in the classroom.

Another workshop has already dealt extensively with cultural issues that affect the success of at-risk students who come from "high-context" cultures. Those materials can be accessed through "Learning among Traditional Native Americans and Groups of Similar Culture."

This workshop will discuss strategies that are likely to address the needs of another large group of at-risk students, those who are learning disabled.  I strongly believe that instructors who understand the learning-disabled student and apply the strategies suggested for use with this population will find that most at-risk students will also benefit immensely form those approaches. In fact, all students will. 

The Learning Disabled Student

According to researchers in this area, learning disabled students are likely to be very bright, in fact, brighter than the average student! Yet, we are discovering that a large number of failures in our K-14 and ABE programs can be attributed to learning disabilities.

Definition (

"Learning disability is a generic term that refers to a heterogeneous group of disorders manifested by significant difficulties in the acquisition and use of listening, speaking, reading, writing, reasoning or mathematical abilities.  These disorders are intrinsic to the individual and presumed to be due to central nervous system dysfunction.  Even though a learning disability may occur concomitantly with other handicapping conditions (e.g., sensory impairment, mental retardation, social and emotional disturbance) or environmental influences (e.g., cultural differences, insufficient, inappropriate instruction, psychogenic factors), it is not the direct result of those conditions or influences."

According to The National Joint Committee for Learning Disabilities (1981), a learning disability...
  • is believed to be neurological (the central nervous system) in origin, 
  • has an organic, not a psychological, cause  
  • spans the person’s life, and is ,therefore, never “cured”; 
  • can be addressed through coping strategies to help the individual function through life

Frustrating Behavioral Characteristics of LD students

In  Young Students (Neela Seldin, 1998, The Lab School of Washington - )

  • Immature emotionally and socially.
  • "Spacey": Look of disorientation.
  • Can't make choices.
  • Can't stay with an activity.
  • Distractible. Impulsive.
  • Knows rules but does not apply.
  • Labile emotions; excessive silliness;
    catastrophic reactions; angry; shy or withdrawn.
  • Shifts blame?
  • Academic skills very slow in developing.
  • Strong discrepancies in skills and knowledge.
  • Socially off-base. Unaccepted by group.
  • Poor memory.
  • Easily frustrated. Won't take risks.
  • Doesn't take pride in work or accept compliments.
  • Excessively rigid: cannot abide change.
  • Artistic. Sensitive. Mechanically inclined.
  • Non-verbal reasoning is highly developed.

In Adolescence (Taken originally from's site on LD. This site has now changed to include a vast number of options for educators. Worth clicking through.)

  • Poor and laborious handwriting and/or bizarre spelling mistakes
  • Disorganized, loses things, books in a mess, notes out of order
  • Poor social skills, few friends, or socializes with a younger group
  • Lacks insights into own future, his/her strengths and weaknesses
  • Tendency to be very literal, rigid, humorless, and/or gullible
  • Vulnerable to peer pressure, often the "scapegoat" in situations


No individual will manifest all of the difficulties listed below.

It is important to note that these characteristics are often balanced by the presence of significant strengths and creativity.

In Adulthood (Compliled from a variety of sources, including the experience of local adult educators who work with the learning diasbled)

  • Excellent verbal ability, but cannot express thoughts on paper
  • Mechanical aptitude, but difficulty with reading, writing or spelling
  • Lacks social skills and has difficulty maintaining relationships or making friends
  • Learns well when shown, but cannot follow written and/or verbal instructions
  • Feels constantly anxious, tense, depressed and has a very poor self-concept
  • Cannot organize belongings, time, activities or responsibilities
  •  Inability to complete a job application form.
  • Cannot follow written direction and/or remember several verbal directions.
  • Difficulty finding or keeping a job.
  • Difficulty budgeting and managing money.
  • Time management difficulties.
  • Short attention span, restlessness or hyperactivity.
  • Difficulty in remembering and following the sequence of instructions.
  • Difficulty in understanding appropriate social behavior.
  • Poor coordination and spatial disorientation.
  • Difficulty with problem solving strategies.

Discussion Wheel

  1. If a person is disorganized and messy, what might those characteristics indicate? What would be a good thing for that person to learn and how would you teach it?

  2. How does having the above traits predict a person's inability to cope with traditional educational requirements?

  3. Do all of the characteristics listed have something in common? If so, what?

  4. Do you have any of the above characteristics? If so, has anyone ever helped you overcome them? How?

Principles of Instruction for LD Students and Other At-Risk Students

Following is a list of principle to keep in mind as you work with students, particularly adults, with disabilities. While this list is not all-inclusive, it has the added benefit of improving instruction for learners with other types of learning problems as well:

Be highly structured and predictable. Always: explain the purpose of the lesson; break down tasks into small, sequential parts; present directions one step at a time, using both oral and written directions. (This does not mean fragmenting the subject but teaching the subject in small segments.)
Include opportunities to use several senses and learning strategies. Always: provide auditory, visual, and concrete cues; use physical demonstration of abstract concepts, such as left/right; use color for visual impact; encourage the student to repeat verbal information; act out action verbs.
Provide constant structure and multi-sensory review. Always: preview and review major points, both orally and visually; ask the student to state in his/her own words what has been presented; make frequent eye contact to maintain attention and encourage participation.
Recognize and build on learners' strengths and prior knowledge. Always: relate new materials to daily life; combine life skills such as reading medicine labels and filling out forms with phonics, word recognition, and reading comprehension; provide success-oriented activities.
Simplify language but not content; emphasize content words and make concepts accessible through the use of pictures, charts, maps, time lines, and diagrams. Always: use visual aids such as overhead projectors, films, videos, slides, chalkboards, flip charts, computer graphics, or illustrations; use games, songs, rhymes to help students listen to sounds.
Reinforce main ideas and concepts through rephrasing rather than through verbatim repetition. Always: provide intensive instruction until the materials is mastered; allow ample time for learning a task (a student with a learning disability will take longer to master new material; provide instruction to help transfer of learning from one task and setting to another; set up small discussion groups to allow time for each student to talk and use the language they have already developed.

NOTE: In developing lesson plans for your students, consider how easily you can integrate some, if not all, of the above suggestions into your teaching environment.

Using Successful Coping Strategies with LD students - TAKEN FROM ... ( Learning Disabilities Association of Canada, 323 Chapel Street, Suite 200, Ottawa, Ontario, Canada,K1N 7Z2 (613) 238-5721 Fax: (613) 235-5391)

  • Identifying and recognizing strengths and weaknesses.
  • Setting realistic goals based on abilities.
  • Using technology to compensate for weaknesses (word processor, spell checker, calculator, books on tape, etc.).
  • Accepting the disability and knowing that it's quite OK.
  • Being flexible - finding other ways of getting information.
  • Joining activity-centered groups to make friends.
  • Breaking down large tasks into small ones.
  • Identifying deadlines for small manageable tasks.
  • Making to-do lists with deadlines.
  • Prioritizing rather than procrastinating.

Additional Teaching Tips for At-Risk Students

Make the text into a friend.

Teachers so often think of textbooks as these nice little guides to help students organize thoughts around very predictable topics. Ha! To those who fail in our traditional systems, textbooks are nightmares to be endured. Yuck! When you consider that most at-risk students lack organizational/grouping skills, you might catch a glimpse of what textbooks mean to them: something to be tolerated and carried around so "you look like a student and fool everyone." As a matter of fact, many handouts and assignments, not forgetting tests, have that same alien flavor.

So teach your students to love the textbook or other written materials you employ. Help them understand its layout, why chapters are organized the way they are, how to use the index and table of contents, how to focus on objectives and subtitles, how to use the appendices and end of chapter exercises, etc... Teach them how to find the main ideas in each segment (first sentence, if the book is well written). Give them group  open-book quizzes and time them on how quickly they can find items. Teach them to value a good book and how to use it for learning. Go slowly, but get them involved.

Ask yourself some questions and teach students the answers:

  • What pattern do presentations follow (Cause/Effect, Classification, Definition, etc...)?
  • How can the student identify the major sections of the book? Of each chapter?
  • How can the student predict questions that are likely to be on a test?
  • How would you test a student whose predominant style is kinesthetic (hand-on)?
  • Why are students having difficulty with this text? 
  • What students are having difficulty with this text and how can I help them cope?

Teach language patterns

  • Teach students how identify main ideas, details, and relationships in writing.
  • Teach students how to predict paragraph sequences.
  • Use devices and exercises for teaching the above.
  • color areas
  • finish or start paragraph sections
  • write or present summaries
Play games that support different group-member skills, including kinesthetic abilities .

Have students develop quizzes in groups.

Have different students/groups teach important concepts (You prep them.)

Application 1 - Choose one assignment from the list below and email me the results. Be sure to address one or more of the characteristics discussed above.

(In the picture to the left, who is the student? Why?)

1.  Create and describe a simple learning activity to teach at-risk students (any level you choose) how to...

  • write a complete sentence.
  • figure percentages.
  • write a summary.
  • locate map information.
  • create a budget.
  • predict weather patters.
  • interpret information graphically.
  • build something.
  • analyze something.
  • illustrate something.
  • tell a joke.
  • fill out a simple tax form.
  • take a test.
  • add fractions.
  • print letters from sounds.
  • run faster.
  • maintain a car.
  • draw a stick figure.
  • check out a library book.
  • make popcorn.
  • balance a checkbook.
  • set up a campground.
  • identify wild flowers or birds.
  • bake cookies.
  • stay out of trouble.

2.  OR -- Create a game that at-risk students in your classes can play to learn any of the above or other concepts. Send me the instructions through email.

NOTE: Choose a learning activity that you can incorporate into one of you lesson plans.

Session II

Discussion Wheel

  1. What did we leave out in our discussion about at-risk students?

  2. How do you feel about working one-to-one with at-risk students? Is that a good idea? Possible? 

How to Teach or Learn Anything 8 Different Ways
(Taken from

"One of the most remarkable features of the theory of multiple intelligences is how it provide eight different potential pathways to learning. If a teacher is having difficulty reaching a student in the more traditional linguistic or logical ways of instruction, the theory of multiple intelligences suggests several other ways in which the material might be presented to facilitate effective learning. Whether you are a kindergarten teacher, a graduate school instructor, or an adult learner seeking better ways of pursuing self-study on any subject of interest, the same basic guidelines apply. Whatever you are teaching or learning, see how you might connect it with

words (linguistic intelligence)
numbers or logic (logical-mathematical intelligence)
pictures (spatial intelligence)
music (musical intelligence)
self-reflection (intrapersonal intelligence)
a physical experience (bodily-kinesthetic intelligence)
a social experience (interpersonal intelligence), and/or
an experience in the natural world. (naturalist intelligence)

For example, if you’re teaching or learning about the moon, you might read books about the moon (linguistic), calculate its distance from the earth (logical-mathematical), examine photos of the different phrases of the moon (spatial), listen to songs about the moon (e.g. "Fly Me to the Moon") (musical), reflect on your earliest memories as a child of the moon (intrapersonal), build a hands-on model of the moon revolving around the earth (bodily-kinesthetic), plan a "moon-watch" via telescope with some friends (intepersonal), and/or investigate the geographic terrain of the moon (naturalist). You don’t have to teach or learn something in all eight ways, just see what the possibilities are, and then decide which particular pathways interest you the most, or seem to be the most effective teaching or learning tools. The theory of multiple intelligences is so intriguing because it expands our horizon of available teaching/learning tools beyond the conventional linguistic and logical methods used in most schools (e.g. lecture, textbooks, writing assignments, formulas, etc.)... "

"... To get started, put the topic of whatever you’re interested in teaching or learning about in the center of a blank sheet of paper, and draw eight straight lines or "spokes" radiating out from this topic. Label each line with a different intelligence. Then start brainstorming ideas for teaching or learning that topic and write down ideas next to each intelligence (this is a spatial-linguistic approach of brainstorming; you might want to do this in other ways as well, using a tape-recorder, having a group brainstorming session, etc.). Have fun! " 

Direct Instruction
(Bridges to Practice [BP], Guide Book 4 - Section 4, p -21-23)

  • Phase 1 - Provide Objective
  • Phase 2 - Introduce and Model the Skill
  • Phase 3 - Provide Guided Practice with Feedback
  • Phase 4 - Encourage Independent Practice and Generalization


  • You do it.
  • You do it with the student's help.
  • The student does it with your help.
  • The student does it.



Leecy's Five Peas and a Nod

  • Preparation

  • Practice 1 (Students help teacher)

  • Practice 2 (Teacher helps students)

  • Performance (Student outcomes)

Application 2 - Review the lesson plan at

Create a short lesson plan (30 minutes) to teach a simple concept in your course applying what you have learned about at-risk students.