Students Speak: Would I Trade My Brain? Part 1

The following is a transcript from a speech given by William Warren at ResearchILD’s Pathways to Success Gala. He’s all grown up now, but William was actually a student in one of the first versions of SMARTS! In this talk he recounts the struggles he faced and how he learned to view his learning difference as a true asset.

“It wasn’t long after I started first grade when I began falling behind.  My first grade teacher, Mrs. Tiches, was the first to notice that something was off — I had trouble paying attention in class, I was constantly losing things, I couldn’t follow directions to save my life, and most importantly I could not read.

Throughout the year, my parents attended countless parent-teacher conferences discussing what was at the root of these problems, and they tried dozens of strategies to help me stay organized and engaged in the classroom. All of my folders were labeled and color coded. Mrs. Tiches made me a cubicle out of cardboard boxes to keep me from getting distracted by my peers. She even had a speaker system installed in the classroom in the hopes that amplifying her voice while she was giving directions would be enough to command my attention.  She tried everything she could think of to help — anything she thought might work. She had 25 other students to worry about, and she still went above and beyond to make sure that I didn’t get left behind.

My point in saying all this is there are a lot of good teachers out there. They may not always know the best way to help kids with learning differences, but they play a critical role in this process. They are your first line of defense, and without their keen observation and willingness to intervene many kids with learning differences would never get the help they need — fortunately, I did.

That summer, I came to ILD and began working with reading specialist Kathy Boyle. Kathy was exactly what I needed. She was calm, patient, observant — when she noticed me fidgeting with things in my pockets during our session, she made it a habit that I empty my pockets before our session began so I could give her my full attention. I came to enjoy this ritual. On the days when I had lessons with Kathy, I would stuff my pockets full of little things throughout the day so I could have something to show her. I was comfortable with her and I liked her, so it was easy to learn from her. When I no longer needed her help, I wanted to continue our sessions anyways. She assured me that if I ever needed her help again she was only a phone call away. That was my security blanket — I knew I could always call Kathy if I needed her.

Years later, when I was in high school, the SMARTS program was founded and I reconnected with ILD to join the program as a mentor and member of the student leadership committee. My first encounter with SMARTS was at the program’s first end-of-the-year event, and I knew before leaving that day that this was a program I wanted to be a part of.

At the most basic level, the objective of the SMARTS program is to create a fun and supportive community for kids with learning differences. But what does this support system look like? Kids with learning differences experience a wide variety of academic, social, and emotional challenges, and the support system has to reflect that. To address the academic component, we teach kids executive function strategies to help them organize themselves, set goals and priorities, manage their time, and think about problems in new ways. As a mentor, modeling these skills is essential to getting mentees to start using them and continue using them long term.

On the social/emotional side, growing up with a learning difference can be really hard, and it can have huge repercussions on self-esteem.  This is something that has to be addressed in order to make any progress. At SMARTS, we help kids recognize and appreciate the things they are good at, and we expose them to all sorts of new games, activities, art forms — you name it — to help them find new things they like doing that they can use as an outlet.”

  • Stay tuned for Part 2 of William’s talk!