Specific Learning Disability

Inclusive Education

Do you remember the little boy from the Bollywood film, ‘Taare Zameen Par’? Remember how his teacher, Aamir Khan helps him make sense of alphabets and numbers?

About 19% of school-going children in India have learning disabilities. We spoke to Ms Padma Shashtry, an expert with an impressive 30 years of teaching experience, whose expertise lies in working with students facing various mild to moderate disabilities, fostering inclusive classrooms and advancing teacher education.

In this film, Ms Shastry touches upon Learning Disabilities. She delves into the neurological and behavioral aspects arising from academic frustrations in children and shares valuable insights into identifying, assessing and supporting students with learning disabilities in the classroom. With practical strategies and a focus on teacher training, she advocates for an inclusive approach to education, aiming for the success and well-being of every student.

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Specific Learning Disability is an umbrella term. It’s a term for a neurological difficulty which happens and starts in the brain and is expressed in an academic setting in a classroom where it is expressed as a difficulty in reading or writing or mathematics or in behavior or in organization and in various areas, it affects all areas of their lifes.

Uh it starts out as an academic uh difficulty which is where it is first noticed and then uh on top of it there’s a second layer of behavioral issues that come on later, that comes mostly from the frustration that is felt over time in an academic setting.

And uh specific learning disability is not a medical condition, in the sense, it is not identified by a blood test or an x-ray or an MRI or any of that sort.

Uh it is an academic uh situation, where the teachers notice it and the parents struggle with it in at home and it is identified, it is…we don’t use the word diagnosed with it because diagnosis is a medical term and here we are trying to identify students, who have academic difficulties.

And so um it is identified first in a school and then it is assessed by a Special educator who will determine what kind of processing difficulty is happening uh in the brain.

Is it a perception problem?

Is it a memory problem?

Is it an attention problem?

And all of that is um uh uh we can get all of that through an assessment program and that is how we identify that a student has a Specific Learning disability.


Specific learning disability can be a comorbid condition.

We see it frequently in students with Autism, we also see it in students who have Spina bifida maybe or um we also see it uh in students who are undergoing a treatment for a condition such as Cancer.

All that chemotherapy or anything else that they’re going though, any other kind of treatment they’re going through has an affect on their brain, their memory suffers, their processing speed reduces, so we do see it um in as a comorbid condition.

Of course we also see Specific Learning Disability in and of itself in the classroom as well.

Um so the way we identify it usually is by the Discrepancy model.

Uh in a Discrepancy model, we see that there is a discrepancy potential and achievement and then we wonder if the potential is there, why is the achievement low?

There’s a discrepancy between the potential and the achievement and this is what we measure.

We measure potential by IQ and we measure achievement by what is happening in the classroom and then we see that there is a difference and this is what the assessment measures and based on that we determine that the student has a Specific Learning Disability.


What teachers see in the classroom uh when they might, that that would lead them to think, if that the student might have a learning disability. O\ne of the first things that they’re going to notice, as well as the students and the parents are going to notice is a report card that is falling, where the student starts struggling and the marks are low.

A failing grade on exams and tests.

And that is the first indication.

This is after all, an academic thing, so until students come to school, this might not be that apparent and once school and exams start, you, they will start seeing a failing report card.

That is the first thing that everybody notices.

Uh students are going to be very disorganized.

They will lose their papers, they will bring the wrong books, they will forget their supplies and materials, this is very common.

One of the things that we say is that, their backpack look, the condition of the brain is like the condition of their backpack.

Uh so their brain is just as disorganized, which is what shows up in their uh backpack.

Uh homework return, it will be very poor.

One day they’ll forget to do it, one day they won’t turn it in, one day they’ll lose it.

These…this is another thing that you know, homework return might be like two days in a week.

Um then you’re going to see reading problems, academic problems.

So what is commonly called Dyslexia, reading problems, Dyslexia is one of the specific learning disabilities.

As, as is Dyscalculia, which is a math difficulty, or Dysgraphia, which is a writing difficulty.

So you’re going to see fine motor issues because of what’s happening in the brain, because of the learning disability, so the hold, holding the pencil is going to be um, you know, off.

They might press too hard, they might write too lightly, they might not hold the pencil properly, not tripod grip all of this.

Uh you’re going to see academic issues.

Then they’re going to have trouble following directions, this is also going to lead to behavior problems.

Or they do the wrong work in the wrong way, in the wrong notebook.

They’ll do their science homework in their history notebook and that that kind of direction following.

Turn the page, if you say simple things like that, they’re not following along because they’re not hearing it at the moment when you say it.

They have awkward social interactions with friends.

They don’t know how to make friends.

They don’t know how to um ask, how to join a conversation and uh these things.

And other kids might think that these kids are a little weird or off and so they might not form close uh friendships.

And if they are frequently struggling with academics and if they have, um you know, constantly failing report card, their low uh their self-esteem will be low, they will, sort of, act out in other ways because their self-esteem will be low.

Uh they will develop behavior issues.

2 to 3 years of failure and struggles will lead to behavioral issues.

So, they will refuse to do the work that you ask them to do.

They’ll break the pencils, they’ll throw the notebooks, they’ll throw tantrums.

Depending on their age, it shows up in different ways, but it is bound to happen that when a person struggles then it is going to show up in their behavior over time.

In the beginning they will try, and even after trying and even after your help, if they continue to struggle, then it will turn into a behavior problem.

An academic problem turns into a behavior problem over time.

And so, um, difficulties will progress as school complexity increases.

From second grade, they’ll go to third standard to fourth standard.

Each grade the complexity increases, the difficulty level increases, then they are going to, you know, the difficulties also will increase and their behavior and everything, they just fall cumulatively behind.

And so at this point, if you see any of these signs, do talk to the parents of the student and see about getting the students assessed for a Learning disability.


Um, here is an Overlay grid. This is basically a piece of graph paper. You can use any kind of graph paper.

Uh if you are using an overhead projector, you can make a transparency of the overlay grid and lay it on top of a map or on top of a scientific drawing, the human body or anything that the students are learning in your class.

And if you want them to locate names of cities, like, where is Delhi on this map?

And the kid is looking all over, the student is looking all over the map and you can say, Delhi is in E2 and the kid is able to locate where Delhi is on the map.

So or you can give this overlay map to a student at his desk to use, so any kid who is struggling with too much information on the board, an overlay grid can help.

Another strategy, these are called Line guides, I just printed them off of google so you can just print them off of Google.

Uh these are really interesting because if you want your student to do a final publication of some piece of writing and they are writing on blank paper, their writing will go from top to bottom on slanted lines, so this, if you put it behind a sheet of white paper, they can write along straight lines and their final product looks neat and good.

Um my kids used to use it, put it against the window glass and write, so that the light from the window would show them the lines nicely.

Now, some of the work that we do in the classroom as teachers (laughs) - I have put and Post-it here - this is an example of ‘Do Not Do’.

So, what is it that you should not do for a student who has organization problems and you know, all of that going on in the brain?

Where the…where the crossword is on page 1, and the clues are on the back page, this frequent turning makes it very difficult for a student to keep up with the work.

So please put the clues and the crossword on two pieces of paper, so they have both next to each other when they’re working, makes it much easier.

Another strategy that I have frequently used with my students is to create a Word Bank like this where they write, they draw a picture.

This is very useful in um Mathematics and Science where they can draw a picture of the term that they are, the new term that they are learning and then write a definition and then they write down the page number where that term is in their textbook.

So if the uh if the term that they’re learning is, let us say, Liver, they write the word liver and they write down page 318 and they draw a a piece of, uh they draw a picture of liver and they write down what it is, it’s an organ inside the human body near the stomach etc etc.

So this is something that they can use very easily before their exams…we can um, useful to do a review.

Another strategy is what’s called Cloze Notes.

C L O Z E, Cloze Notes.

Cloze Notes are, when a student has trouble writing and you are expecting them to write a whole bunch of notes from copying from the board, it’s a lot of writing and they can’t keep up sometimes.

So what you can do is give them a copy of the notes with Fill in the Blanks spaces.

So that they’re following along with your teaching and they’re following along with the notes but they’re not writing every single word, they’re only writing the keywords.

So if you can create these ahead of time and give it to three four, three or four students who are struggling in your classroom, uh that is something that will be immensely helpful.

Okay, another strategy that we can use, that I have also used, I’m only explaining a few strategies.

There are many more, of course, but today we’ll look at a few.

This is a way of teaching them how to write a summary.

We generally say things like, ‘write a paragraph’, ‘write a summary’, ‘write a story’, but if you can’t…

It’s a big project in a student’s brain, it’s a huge thing and they don’t know how to get started.

So if you can break it up into steps and use a Graphic organizer, Graphic organizers are life savers for these kids and for teachers and so we teach them how to write something.

We use a Graphic organizer that takes them one step at a time and based on what you have helped them with on page 1, they can actually write a small paragraph on the second page.

So this is something that is very useful.

And it also shows them that it’s not a big project and it can be broken up into small steps.

Now we move on to some Testing strategies.

How do you modify testing?

Um, Testing is a nightmare for students with difficulties.

It is a nightmare for all students.

And students with learning difficulties struggle even more with it.

So one of the ways I have modified a history test, if you notice here, I have page numbers.

This is an Open book test.

And I have page numbers here, where they’re going to find answers to these Fill in the Blanks.

And I give them a textbook and they turn to these page numbers in order to find the answers.

Major questions of fairness will come up at this point.

Is it okay to do this, what are they learning?

First of all, they might, they are learning, they will learn over time.

And we do wean these strategies away over time.

This is not a life-time get-out-of-jail free card.

It’s not something that they get forever.

This is a strategy to help them succeed.

And we will generally slowly pull them back and pull back these supports.

But, even if they are not learning the actual answers to these questions, they’re learning how to use a textbook.

So they’re learning how to turn to the, you know, Rome section of the History book and find the answers about Rome.

And in the process of finding the answers, they’re actually reading through the text.

So they are learning.

And this is, again, not to be used all their…for 10 years in school.

It’s to be used so that they get to the next mature step.

Another strategy we use to modify tests, this is an example of a Math test.

Here you have the actual Math exam.

This is the problem that is actually on the test.

I have given an exact copy, a sample, here, which I have worked out.

They go through the sample and they repeat it for the actual exam question.

So, students with learn…specific learning disabilities can have memory issues, memory problems.

So they might not remember how to do the test, how to do the problem, but once they see the problem that’s like, ‘Oh yeah this is what I have to do’ and then they can repeat it.

And again, this is not going to happen all 10 years of their school life, we are going to wean it back.

Another pet peeve is, of mine is when we do a spelling test without sentences.

Spellings have to be in context.

Students do much better spelling when they have context.

So, give them a spelling test using complete sentences.

And even for adults, if I say, spell ‘two’, which ‘two’ are you going to spell?

Is it going to be T O?

Is it going to be T O O?

Or is it going to be T W O?

Context makes all the difference.

So when you give students a spelling test, please use complete sentences.

So these are some strategies, there are several more, but I hope these will help you in the classroom right away.


You will have frequently discovered that students with uh Learning difficulties also have behavioral difficulties.

So, here are some strategies that might help.

One of the important maxims that we remember as, we have to remember as teachers, is that behavior improves when students succeed.

It is the constant struggling and failure that creates the behavior issues.

So here are some strategies.

Um, certain behaviors, just accept, don’t fight it.

For example, a fidgety kid, a kid who moves around a lot, who needs a large personal space.

It’s like Whack-A-Mole, you can’t keep saying sit down, sit down, sit down and then that mole in that arcade game keeps popping up, popping up, popping up like popcorn.

So there’s no point continuously fighting this. You are annoying yourself as well as a student, so might as well accept it.

So what do you do with a student who keeps standing up like popcorn all the time and obstructing the view for the students in the back and disrupting?

Put them along the edges of a classroom.

Put them along, put their desk along this edge or in the back of the classroom or along the sides, where they don’t obstruct anybody.

Give them a STANDING DESK where they can dance on their feet and continue to work in the classroom, so the standing desk can be in one place out there.

They get a regular classroom desk as well so when they finish standing and fidgeting, they can come back to their desk.

A standing desk is not a punishment, it is a tool for them to fidget.

Uh it is a good thing.

So when they’re fidgety, ask them if they want to use the standing desk.

Another thing that you can use are FIDGET BANDS that are tied to the legs of a chair where the kid can kick those fidget bands and keep his legs or her legs in her own space, because when kids are fidgeting with their legs they’re kicking the chair in front of them and to avoid that, to avoid them annoying other students, if you attach elastic bands, bungee cords to the legs of their own chairs, they can keep kicking that.

Um, another thing that you can do is give them something to fidget with, uh something to squeeze, uh or maybe a SQUEEZE BALL.

Uh so allow for movement in the classroom.

Uh if they really are moving, I had a student who used to walk constantly to the garbage bin to sharpen his pencil and he would cross in front of the classroom and cross back.

And he needed to do this three or four times during every period.

If you have a student like that, send that student out on an errand.

Ask that student to go to the office to deliver a sheet of paper and come back or ask that student to go out and get a drink of water or something like that.

Send them out on a walk around the campus on an errand and ask them to come back.

These are some of the strategies that you can use with the fidgety, up and about kids all the time.

Other behaviors like you know, undesirable behaviors in the classroom, you can talk to the student and have an age appropriate behavior plan which includes some rewards.

If you want a kid to sit in his or her chair for 40 minutes in a class period and the kid is not even able to sit for 5 minutes without moving, then you make a behavior plan where the kid sits for 5 minutes and gets a reward and then kid sits for 10 minutes and gets a reward.

And the reward is not something like a biscuit or a sweet or something like that.

A reward is something like 5 minutes of computer time or 5 minutes extra recess or 5 minutes of… 10 minutes of a basketball game or something like that, something that the kid prefers and would appreciate.

Um, a note home to the parent. That, a kid always loves.

Your student did so well in school today and a kid smiles, you know, really nicely when uh a good note goes home because these kids sometimes get so much…so much bad reports going home to their parents, they really appreciate it when you send a note home.

So that is a powerful reward.

Send a note home with a good message.

Um so these are the kinds of rewards that you can give to students who are complying with the behavior plan, whatever you want them to be doing.

Um another strategy is to have very good, uh, well established easy to follow classroom routines: Where the lunch boxes go, where their backpacks go, where their homework goes.

Where is the bin that collects homework?

How does paper get passed out in the classroom?

Where is the pencil sharpening station?

All of this, if it is well established and the kids know where to go they won’t keep coming up and asking the teacher all the time,

“Where do I put this homework?”

“Where…what notebook do I need to take out?”

“Where do I put my lunch box?”

“The lunch box fell down, the food fell on the floor” - all of these problems will not be there on an ongoing basis regularly.

So classroom routines are really really valuable and um what do you do with a student who keeps going to the bathroom all the time, three times, four times, ten times?

In a period, asks, “I want to go drink water, I want to go to the bathroom.”

So maybe have a bathroom pass and say “three bathroom visits in a day”.

And then next quarter you say “two bathroom passes in a day” which means that once they exhaust their bathroom passes for the day they can’t keep asking.

Um, so, you know, it sort of like gives the student also something, it’s like, “Oh I only have one more bathroom pass, I can’t keep asking uh to go out.”

So it tells the student exactly what the, what the boundary conditions are.

Um another student, another strategy is to uh help the student to work.

See, you will see difficulty, you will see behavior difficulties when there are academic difficulties.

When the work is too big and overwhelming for the student, the student assumes that he or she cannot do it and won’t even try.

The pencil stays there, the paper stays there and they won’t even start working.

So if you can give the student work that the student can actually do and get started, then you will see fewer behavior issues.

You will actually see the student trying to work and use that time for work.

For example, if you give this, if you determine the reading level of the student and give a book to the student that the student can actually read, that student will actually spend 15 minutes reading that book, instead of giving the student a book that is at grade level, that is too difficult for the book to to read, for the student to read and he won’t even start the process of trying to read.

He’ll look at some pictures and then put the book down. And so this works whether it’s for writing or for reading or for any academic uh subject.

Hope these strategies are helpful in the classroom.


Based on my uh experience as an Inclusive teacher in a Public school uh in the US, I have two things, observations, and now I’ve been here for a few years in India.

I have a couple of observations that I want to share uh with you now.

One of them is about Teacher training.

Teacher training is very important when you’re working with students who are struggling whether they are identified as Special Ed or not.

Uh they are already in your classroom, so you’re already teaching students who are struggling.

And teacher training is really important.

Uh I understand that it might not be always possible but In-Service training or workshops will be really helpful in this regard.

Uh the other point I want to make, and this is a plea to authorities in the design of the B.Ed system, where uh I have observed that special educators are like general practitioners.

We help students across a breadth of uh disabilities because that is what we see in the classroom, versus specialized uh special education teachers who help deaf students or blind students or students on the autism spectrum separately.

In an inclusive setting you’re going to find one blind student maybe, one deaf and…it’s a group of students with learning disabilities or something like that, in one classroom.

So you’re going to find heterogeneity and I think a Special Ed degree that helps with all disabilities on a general level is really really…it’s time for it.

And it’s really really important for Inclusive Education to flourish.

More FAQs

Familiarize yourself with and expand your vocabulary of disability-related terminology! 
A - Abilympics
R - Reservations
S - Short Statured person
R - Reasonable Accommodation
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