Schools are typically designed to serve the average student, and those with learning differences — such as dyslexia or trouble with executive functioning skills — usually make up a smaller part of the population. Estimates find that 5 to 20 percent of Americans have learning differences. If struggling students don’t find the help they need in school, keeping up with the rest of the class can be an enormous challenge.

Currey Ingram Academy is an independent school in Nashville developed specifically for kids with learning differences. As a way to spread the word about tactics that have worked at Currey Ingram Academy, head of school Jeffrey Mitchell shared 10 principles the school uses that are “realistic for every school in every context” as they seek to meet the needs of diverse learners. He presented his findings at the SXSWedu conference in Austin.

He said that educators might already be applying the following ideas, and some might not work at their school. “But if you take home one or two or three of these things and tweak what you’re currently doing, I think that the outcome will be positive.”

Be Intentional

Let the mission of the school — and your own personal mission — guide your work, said Mitchell. School mission statements should be “understandable, memorable, powerful and simple,” so that teachers and administrators can say with confidence, “I know that, I believe in that, I live that. That’s what we do as a school.” The mission at his school is to create an academy “that empowers students with learning differences to achieve their fullest potential.”

Teachers can also adopt personal mission statements to help guide their planning. For example, when Mitchell was a seventh-grade science teacher, he wanted his students to be able to “ask questions like scientists,” and he infused that idea into each of his units.

Rely on Evidence

Whether the topic is reading instruction or classroom management, there is rich research available if you take the time to look for it. For example, recent advances in neuroimaging are changing intervention methods for students with dyslexia. Mitchell also pointed to John Hattie’s research on 1,200 meta-analyses in an effort to determine the variables that truly impact students’ achievement.*

“If something is not working, consult the evidence,” said Mitchell. “Because chances are somebody out there is doing research on it and there’s good evidence to support a practice that you might not know about.”

Break Down the Traditional Structure of School

“I love being an educator,” said Mitchell. “But most everything about the industrial-factory model of school is not ideal for learners.” However, there are ways teachers can work around this structure, such as focusing on the word “variety.”

“When you, as an administrator or teacher, are constructing curriculum, think about variety,” said Mitchell. He reminds educators that classes will have a variety of learners so it’s important to have several offerings. “Think about multiple-sensory inputs — let them hear it, let them see it, let them feel it — and think about multiple instructional forms.” He also said variety is important when assessing student understanding; one form of test or assessment will not adequately reveal every student’s knowledge and skills.

Provide Clear Instruction on How to Think

At Currey Ingram Academy, teachers explicitly teach executive functioning skills to their students. Executive function and self-regulation skills are, according to Harvard’s Center on the Developing Child, “the mental processes that enable us to plan, focus attention, remember instructions, and juggle multiple tasks successfully.”

Mitchell shared a strategy used by a third-grade teacher who was giving a short unit test. Immediately prior to the test, she spent 10 minutes reviewing test-taking strategies with her students — with the test right in front of them. “She reminded them of seemingly simple things like, ‘There are four blanks for question two, and that means four responses are needed.’” After students were done with the test, they engaged in one more learning exercise. “They went over the test again. Not the answers, but the test itself. Did you answer all the questions? Instead of a typically summative learning experience, she made it a formative learning experience.”

Be Mindful of Working Memory Limitations

Working memory is a brain system that temporarily holds information while you process it. It’s where humans store data, step-by-step instructions, or a list until they don’t need it anymore.

“The fundamental friction between the human brain and the traditional learning structure of school resides with our relatively poor working memory,” said Mitchell. He believes that sometimes teachers misinterpret a working memory issue as “willful misbehavior.” For example, what an adult might call “difficulty paying attention” may simply be that “there might be too many things for that child [to hold in working memory], especially children with learning differences.”

Working memory also affects students’ ability to access information, remember instructions, get started on a task and copy information from the board. For some students, “three instructions may be too many. You may need to break it down to one or two.”

Teach Reading Explicitly

Evidence reveals that “explicit, direct instruction works,” said Mitchell, “especially for younger and struggling readers.” There are many evidence-based programs available, but they all contain five strains: phonemic awareness, phonics, fluency, vocabulary and comprehension. But even with a great program, a school must still schedule enough time for students to master these skills, said Mitchell. “You need an hour to an hour and a half every day to make the difference.”

Manage Behavior Through Prevention

Mitchell believes that 90 percent of classroom management is prevention: rules, routines, engaging instruction and structure. Rules should be simple, generated by consensus and reviewed regularly. Routines should include regular brain breaks (Mitchell’s teachers use egg timers and take a one-minute “learning break” when it dings), and instruction should use a variety of activities to engage learners. “For the other 10 percent,” said Mitchell, “you need formal, systematic behavior plans and support.”

Use Communication to Your Advantage

Schools “teach families, not just students,” said Mitchell. “If you reach out to your students or parents before they reach out to you, you have built up immense capital.”  He recommends that teachers and administrators conduct regular surveys to hear feedback about how things are going in the classroom and at the school. Mitchell has found that his constituents often respond to the surveys with “ ‘thanks for listening to me,’ and that’s probably the most important thing that happens.”

Use Supporting Programs in a Targeted Way

Strong schools engage in “robust and targeted professional development,” said Mitchell. “By targeted I mean you’ve set a goal as a district, you’ve set a goal as a school, you’ve set a goal as an individual, and you target your professional development based on those goals.” Given the financial constraints every school faces, targeting professional development to goals is the “most effective way to utilize your finite resources.”

Celebrate and Empower Students

“Systematically, identify and celebrate at least one strength in every student,” said Mitchell. Then, “give each student opportunities to showcase this strength.”

Students who enroll in Currey Ingram Academy after attending school in a more traditional environment “come in and they are fragile – they have had little success in the academic setting,” said Mitchell. He hopes that these 10 ideas his school employs can help schools that aren’t specifically designed for kids with learning differences better meet the needs of all learners.

*An earlier version of this post confused the number of meta-analyses as the number of studies. We regret this error.

10 Ways To Help Kids With Learning Differences That Could Benefit All Students 15 March,2017Deborah Farmer Kris
  • MichaelMaser

    These are valuable guidelines. Thanks for writing them up and sharing them.
    – Michael Maser
    Dreaming Dragon Consulting

  • snordmark

    Nice post. Would love to have seen reference to Universal Design for Learning (UDL) which provides a research-based framework for adapting the learning environment to meet the needs of diverse learners.

  • Heidi Campbell

    This article is nicely done. I agree with the multi-sensory inputs, but prefer Howard Gardner’s Multiple Intelligence Theory that integrates MSI. What I have yet to see discussed is how the modern student is becoming more of a visual/tactile learner and does not fit the mold of traditional verbal/linguistic & logical learning. We keep administering standardized tests that do not honor how most children can demonstrate mastery of a concept. Someday soon, it would be wonderful if teachers are consistently trained to assess students based on their strongest learning style(s) and can customize the lessons based on the needs of each student in an inclusion classroom. I know some schools are doing this, but it sure would be awesome if it was the norm; no matter location or socio-economic status. We’d have a much different future as a country.

  • Loved the article. Waiting for your next article.
    You can also visit my blog at

  • Daragh Coulter

    I have been a classroom teacher for over two decades…and a pretty darn good one…I ALWAYS listened to the suggestions of the (always overworked) Learning Support teacher (SPECIAL EDUCATION TEACHER in the old lingo) so I could help students in my classroom. I was always about inclusiveness. Several years ago I finished a graduate degree in Special Education to help me in my classroom. This year I am working full-time Learning Support because of a LS teacher being away on stress leave (surprise, surprise). I love this (what is to me) common sense article and will share it with my colleagues.

  • Synchronous way to show up the new things and thoughts, that can understand for our kids education, love this..

  • Nan O’Shaughnessy Smith

    This was a great article. I agree including UDL would have been good.

  • Judy Yero

    Learning differences? Meeting the needs of diverse learners? What is still lacking in the perception of many educators is that there is no “standard” way to learn. EVERY PERSON learns in different ways and the most effective way to deal with that is to stop labeling people and actually see, hear, and respect each individual as unique. The majority of labels used in education focus on some “negative” characteristic (as perceived by the person who attaches the label)! The “school as hospital” metaphor assumes that each student is “broken” in some way and needs to be fixed! I’m certainly not suggesting that there aren’t students with issues that require special attention, but many children labeled as “special ed” simply don’t conform to the way schools are structured. “5-20% of Americans with learning differences” that must be “treated” in specific ways??? Really? 100% of Americans…and of all human beings…are different in the ways in which they process information. Different isn’t “wrong”–it’s just different–unlike others. That MUST be true because no two individuals have the same connections among the 100 billion neurons in the brain. And trying to “fit” all those differences into a convenient and efficient “process” of education is an exercise in futility!

    Learner-centered schools, in which the responsibility for learning is returned to the students, provide enriched environments in which learners can explore and access information in whatever way best suits them at that moment. This often changes from one context to another, or one subject to another, so it’s ridiculous for teachers to think they have to or even CAN “diversify” learning from the top down. Yes, create an overarching framework and goals, but then turn the execution of the learning over to the learners and be there for them if/when they need help or other resources. The repeated use of the words “teach” and “manage” in this article demonstrates the belief that learning can’t take place without teaching–that children need adults to “manage” their learning. I suspect that would surprise any child under the age of 5! Can adults facilitate learning? Absolutely. But they do that by providing individuals with what they need/want (according to the individual) at that moment in time…not what the adult THINKS they need. They do that by encouraging the learners to ask and answer their own questions and to reflect on what works and what doesn’t.

  • Melody Stendal

    This article was extremely beneficial when reflecting on my own teaching. As I was reading I was thinking back to my own classroom and checking off what I incorporate and how and then also making mental notes of what I need to try. My favorite method was to teach kids how to think. So often, now-a-days, kids don’t have those key test taking strategies that are required. This is simply because nobody has taught them. It’s along the same lines of me telling my third graders to study for an upcoming science test and none of them have any experience with studying. Our students at this age need to be taught these key skills to help them be successful later on in life. Thank you for all the insight!


Deborah Farmer Kris

Deborah Farmer Kris has taught elementary, middle and high school and served as a charter school administrator. She spent a decade as an associate at Boston University’s Center for Character and Social Responsibilityresearching, writing, and consulting with schools. She is the mother of two young children. You can follower her on Twitter @dfkris.

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