Empowering students with language-based learning differences
The Siena School Blog
“The brains of some people are just wired differently. They just need a different system of teaching”—so says a character in Ann Hu’s independent film Confetti (2020), which tells the story of a mother and her daughter traveling from China to New York in search of a school that meets her learning needs.
To commemorate Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month, Siena is spotlighting independent film Director Ann Hu. Her most recent film is the partly autobiographical Confetti, which combines issues surrounding dyslexia and immigration with the diverse identities and experiences related to Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month.
Confetti continues the cultural contributions Hu has made through her other films, Shadow Magic (2000) and Beauty Remains (2005). Her work has gotten awards and nominations at film festivals in China, Taiwan, and Japan.
Here’s a short synopsis of Hu’s three films:
- Confetti has a contemporary setting and tells the story of a mother taking her dyslexic daughter from a small town in China to New York in search of a school that meets her learning needs. Based partly on Hu’s own experiences with her daughter Michelle, Confetti shows Meimei in school doing multisensory learning and other methods used in LD classrooms, as well as uses visuals to represent how Meimei sees words and letters.
- Shadow Magic is set in Beijing, China, in 1902 and tells the story of a Chinese photographer and British innovator trying to introduce the modern technology of film into a traditional Chinese society.
- Beauty Remains is set in Qingdao, China, in 1948 and follows the lives of two sisters as they deal with their late father’s will and legacy, as well as a common love interest that complicates their relationship.
As a 2021 article on the underdiagnosis of learning differences in Asian American community quotes Hu, “Seeing how Michelle struggled in the classroom and struggled to finish her homework after school between 3:00pm and 11:00pm every day was truly a heartbreaking experience for me. Often Michelle would pretend that she understood the question just to help me feel less stressed.”
Learn More About Ann Hu
- See Confetti’s official website and rundown of its cast and crew, as well as its official YouTube channel for related content and interviews.
- Read this profile in Deadline (from 2017) to learn more about Hu’s background, reception of her earlier films, and cultural and creative differences between China and the U.S.
- Listen to Hu on The Filmmakers Podcast discussing Confetti and her overall approach to independent filmmaking.
- Read Hu’s Interview with Medium, “5 Things Parents Can Do To Help Their Children Thrive and Excel In School.”
- See this review of Confetti and interview with Hu in Forbes.
Resources for AAPI Month
The theme for AAPI Heritage Month 2022 is “Advancing Leaders Through Collaboration.” Learn more about AAPI Heritage Month and why it’s in May here.
Hu gave an interview with Women in Hollywood in August 2021 about Confetti’s autobiographical roots, noting “In trying to figure out what to do, I ended up walking a long and hard journey to get to where I am today. In the process, my viewpoint changed, and I became a different person.”
Learn about Siena’s commitments and ongoing initiatives for Diversity, Equity, Inclusion, and Belonging. And, see Siena’s blog for related material, including a spotlight on poet Amanda Gorman from Black History Month and Olympian and activist Meryl Davis from Women’s History Month.
“I learned how I learned and how my brain worked. It helped me adjust and compensate for my differences…. It opened me up to problem solving, seeing things differently, and how I can help myself overcome things.” —Olympian Meryl Davis on her dyslexia
Even before she won Olympic gold in 2014, Meryl Davis knew the importance of advocating for herself and others. A competitive skater and ice dancer since age 5, Davis has used both her public presence and her community dedication to help young people achieve their goals.
As part of Women's History Month this year, Siena is honoring Davis for her successes in inspiring women and girls both on and off the ice, in part through her perseverance in adjusting to her own learning differences.
Davis’s dyslexia diagnosis came in 3rd grade. At first, she felt less-than and inadequate, and she eventually figured out how to learn in her own way, finishing high school as a member of the National Honor Society. She attended the University of Michigan, majoring in Cultural Anthropology (Class of 2020) while also training full-time on the ice rink.
Davis also lacks depth perception and has trouble seeing out of her right eye, which was another adjustment she made successfully. As she did in the classroom, Davis developed accommodations for her vision issues on the ice, such as by memorizing markings on the ice to situate herself when skating and trusting her partner to stay safe and avoid collisions with other skaters.
A profile from the Yale Center for Dyslexia and Creativity quotes Davis on her professional path: “With skating I could feel it more than see it.” Moreover, “I fell in love with it because it made sense to me, partly because I see things differently. I learned to enjoy it, worry free, in terms of moving with the music. It’s been a really beautiful part of my life.”
At the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia, Davis and her partner Charlie White became the first American team to win the gold medal in ice dancing. Davis and White had won medals in other competitions since 2006, and their Olympic victory capped their great run as skating partners. In 2020, they were named to the U.S. Figure Skating Hall of Fame. Learn more here about Davis’s accomplishments on the ice.
Since winning Olympic gold, Davis has been dedicated to supporting young people and advocating for access to figure skating, education, and social–emotional wellness—particularly in underserved communities. Among her post-Olympics accomplishments are:
- In 2015, she wrote for Team USA about the importance of sports and community advocacy. “[S]port is about the kind of success that brings you one step closer to being the best version of yourself,” she wrote in helping define “success” more broadly than international competitions, medals, or other accolades.
- She’s worked with Classroom Champions, an organization that partners with elite athletes to help children’s academic and social–emotional wellness.
- A Michigan native, Davis is a founding co-chair of the organization Figure Skating in Detroit as well as an ambassador for the Women's Sport Foundation. Figure Skating in Detroit combines figure skating, tutoring, STEM coursework, and leadership training to give Detroit-area girls access to a supportive, mentoring community. “Figure skating is an expensive sport,” notes Davis, who’s part of the program’s leadership committee and a member of its champions committee. “It hasn't been a particularly diverse sport historically, so we focus on giving access to girls of color in the city of Detroit.” (Learn more here about Figure Skating in Detroit.)
- In April 2021, Davis added children’s book author to her professional accomplishments, publishing the picture book Moon Walk: Forever by Your Side, about a parent and a child bonding.
“Patience with oneself is the key to learning how to be your best self in any case. Just because things come differently to you doesn’t make you any less. You have to rely on the people who are there for you.” —Olympian Meryl Davis on using available supports
See Siena’s blog for related material on successful women, including a spotlight on astrophysicist Maggie Aderin-Pocock from Women’s History Month 2021 and one on poet and activist Amanda Gorman from Black History Month 2022.
“I like fidgets because I can use them under the desk. I also like them because they give me a bit more focus and I won't be moving around too much.”
—Siena Middle School Student
“It’s always nice to have it nearby. It makes me feel better. It’s comforting.”
—Siena Middle School Student
Pop Its...squeeze balls...infinity cubes: these have come to be known commonly as fidgets, but a generation or so ago, they might’ve been seen as toys for a student to hide or a teacher to confiscate.
Although they can be counterproductive when misused, fidgets can also be highly effective tools for students with ADHD, anxiety, and other difficulties that affect their performance in class.
There’s ample research to support the benefits of fidgets for children and adults, particularly students with ADHD or sensory processing needs. Sydney Zentall, a professor of Educational Studies at Purdue, has written about the importance of multisensory activities accompanying a primary task (such as listening to music while writing a paper). This recent piece in ADDitude draws on Zentall’s work: “Intentional fidgets allow you and your child to self-regulate ADHD symptoms in a controlled, constructive fashion.” (See below for additional reading and resources.)
Siena Middle School Humanities Teacher Meredith Shinners follows this principle of controlled and constructive fidget use in her classes: “I love when students can appropriately use them to calm their bodies and give them some movement in their hands. Students are most successful with a fidget if it is a simple motion back and forth.” Both Shinners and Reading Teacher Leslie Holst strongly prefer fidgets that can be inconspicuous and used under students’ desks—that is, out of sight and out of hearing.
Holst adds an important caveat: “Fidgets are positive and constructive classroom tools only when respecting everyone else’s ability to learn.” So, how can fidgets be both beneficial to students themselves and not detrimental to those around them?
Why Students Use Fidgets
“I like the fidgets because they help keep me occupied and not space out.”
—Siena Middle School Student
When used appropriately as tools of grounding and self-regulation, fidgets such as these can be beneficial:
- Squeeze ball (e.g., an Isoflex grip ball)
- Therapy putty
- Infinity cube
- Fidget cube
- Pop It
- Baby Porcupine Ball
- Fidget jewelry (e.g., rings that double as manipulatives, or beaded bracelets from Old Soul)
- Elastic desk straps like Bouncy Bands
- Fidget stools (see these from Hokki and Kore)
For this elementary student, fidgets make her “de-stressed and calm” in physically redirecting any inner anxiety:
Inspired Treehouse reminds us that “Fidgets provide us with subtle movement and touch input that can help calm our bodies and keep our minds attentive, alert, and focused. Movement [is] a powerful component of focus and problem solving and fidgets provide an outlet for small movements of the hands while we work.”
There are clear benefits of movement for ADHD support in the classroom, including heightened alertness and better information processing. A wobble stool, for example, lets students move some parts of their bodies in a controlled, non-disruptive way (instead of pacing around the room or having to take frequent walks in the halls). Regular movement and multisensory learning are integral to Siena’s approach to teaching, so fidgets in the classroom are often another way to maximize learning and performance.
For students with anxiety, there’s comfort in knowing that their fidgets are there, even if they don’t need to use them for focus when working. One middle schooler made her own squeeze ball (a balloon filled with beads) and finds it “nice to use” for calming and focusing during class. Different textures and colors can additionally help anxious students ground themselves.
Teacher Advice for Fidgets in the Classroom
“For the most part, they use them appropriately to help them focus. We try to limit it to 1 fidget per student so that things don’t get lost in the mix.”
—Shannon Robichaud, Siena Elementary Teacher
Siena teachers understand the benefits and risks of fidget use—such as when it becomes the primary focus instead of the teacher and their lesson. The more that students understand that an infinity cube or fidget stool is a tool to improve focus and assuage anxiety, the more their fidgets won’t become toys to distract them or their classmates from learning. Instead, the tool helps them channel extra energy in productive, classroom-appropriate ways.
When fidgets are used constructively and respectfully in a classroom, they can improve students’ focus, performance, and self-regulation. Shinners suggests that teachers implement clear policies for fidget use and misuse: “Fidgets can’t be a visual or auditory distraction to anyone, so students can use silent fidgets under the desk. We talk a lot about how fidgets become toys if you’re looking at and playing with them, so they get put away.”
There’s an important learning trajectory that Siena students follow from elementary school through middle and high school with regard to fidgets. An elementary or younger middle school student might not realize that while their fidget cube calms them, it can irritate their classmates due to the clicking noise. In both learning how to learn and how to respect others’ learning while at Siena, students gradually develop the higher-level thinking to be aware of how their actions and body movements affect others.
“Students are still learning the socially acceptable ways to maintain their attention or manage their anxiety in the classroom,” Holst notes. “8th graders and high schoolers are generally better at using fidgets to maintain their attention or calm their anxiety. They understand the connection between the object and how it makes them feel.”
Resources for Fidgets in the Classroom
Fidgets are Tools, Not Toys (2019)
“I have a planner that I use. I still use my Siena color-coding skills. That has really been pushing me through all of my years—both at Siena and at college.” —Siena Alumnus
How do Siena students learn the skills necessary for them to succeed both at Siena and in college?
Through accommodations, through adaptation, and through self-advocacy each and every day.
Since October is Dyslexia Awareness Month, it’s the perfect time to reflect on the strategies that Siena regularly adopts to support our students’ different learning styles. At both our Silver Spring and Northern Virginia campuses, students have ample opportunities to self-advocate and seek the accommodations that best meet their individual needs.
Advocates and Advocacy at Siena
Advocacy and adaptation on students’ behalf is central to what Siena does every day:
- Students self-advocate by understanding their personal learning methods and needs, as well as by working with their teachers to succeed and, if necessary, make adjustments.
- Teachers advocate by having an open line of communication with students and parents and sharing what they’re noticing at school (both academically and socially–emotionally).
- Parents advocate by both promoting student self-advocacy at home and staying in contact with teachers about their students’ progress and needs.
From the beginning, Siena students are introduced to their accommodations and the reasons we use them. The students also trial different classroom supports and learn what works best, among them:
- flexible seating options (e.g., a standing desk)
- color strips
- fidgets (to help them focus)
- different pencil grips
- color-coding (good for particularly visual learners)
Siena students learn how to be active advocates, from requesting feedback on written assignments early in the process or seeking extra guidance to having a teacher act as a scribe to help them get their thoughts on paper.
The elementary team uses sentence starters to guide students if they need extra help or clarification during class. These are posted in the classroom as a visual reminder of how students can best ask for what they need.
As students move through Siena’s academic grade divisions, they gradually become more independent in handling their assignments, deadlines, and overall learning conditions.
The advocacy lessons don’t stop when students graduate. A Siena alumnus who’s now a senior in college has learned the importance of talking with his professors and other support staff about accommodations because of how he was taught and practiced using them while attending Siena: “Get out there, talk to your professors, and be yourself,” he shared. “That’s how you can succeed.”
Resources Used in Siena Classes
In tandem with regular student-centered advocacy, Siena encourages students to use appropriate methods and resources to enhance their learning. For example, the Siena Planner helps students with organizing and executive functioning. It has both immediate and long-term benefits: it helps students learn how to regulate their homework and study schedules, as well as provides a tool to bring with them when they graduate.
“I still use a planner [in college]. It’s not exactly like Siena’s but it has everything in it. My planner is my life. Color-coding is huge.” —Siena Alumnus
In addition to print and physical accommodations, assistive technology is integrated into students’ daily lives, through such tools and resources as:
- Individual, school-issued Chromebooks (including a suite of Chrome extensions like Mercury Reader, Speech to Text, and Read & Write)
- Learning Ally
There are also class-specific resources for math, reading, and other subjects. (See how our math team has adapted the curriculum to help students with dyscalculia.)
Additional Resources for Students and Families
Siena sets students up for success both in their time here and in their lives after by equipping them with useful tools and a willingness to self-advocate. In the process, students learn the skills they need outside the content-area knowledge they get in class:
Such a student-centered approach to learning helps Siena students maximize their potential for success—both as students and as alumni.
Visit our website to learn more about Siena’s individualized instruction and emphasis on self-advocacy and executive functioning. And, see our previous blog post for links to resources in the DC Metro area, including WISER and Decoding Dyslexia Maryland.
And then the tears began.
Unfortunately for this parent, this was not an unexpected response to a question about her child’s school day. She had been advocating for accommodations for her child’s struggles, but each year, the concerns were dismissed, and each year, the gap in reading ability became wider. The teachers were kind, well-meaning, and dedicated; unfortunately, they were also misinformed:
Sadly, this is not an uncommon occurrence, and it’s not about effort, intellect, or gender. Neuroscience teaches us otherwise.
Our expanding understanding of dyslexia, a specific learning disability, and its neurobiological origins is helping to develop appropriate interventions. With science informing practice, our ability to respond to reading difficulties is advancing, and evidence-based interventions can now be implemented. Learn more from leading dyslexia expert, Dr. Guinevere Eden, by viewing Understood.org’s video Dyslexia and the Brain and reading the International Dyslexia Association’s article Compensatory Skills and Dyslexia: What Does the Science Say?
According to recent surveys conducted by the Pew Research Center, almost 90% of teens feel under pressure to achieve good grades. With the detrimental effect of stress on learning, the best educational practice is to reduce stress by removing barriers so that every child may engage in their education. If a child without a learning disability is stressed, imagine how a child with dyslexia feels as they struggle to keep up with literacy requirements.
As reported by the National Center for Education Statistics, the majority of children (approximately a third) served under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) are diagnosed with a specific learning disability, defined as “a disorder in one or more of the basic psychological processes involved in understanding or using language, spoken or written ...” Furthermore, according to the International Dyslexia Association, possibly 15-20% of the population exhibit some symptoms of dyslexia.
So what does this mean? It means that there is probably a student with dyslexia, diagnosed or not, in every classroom. As such, let’s ensure that opportunities for equitable learning are available for every child. Let’s not wait for mandated support but make it the norm to provide access to tools and strategies commonly considered accommodations.
Technology provides opportunities to seamlessly integrate tools such as speech-to-text into everyday life. Pause a moment and think about how many times a day you say “Hey Google,” “Hey Siri,” or “Alexa.” Is this an accommodation or just the new norm?
Recently downloaded an audiobook? Take time to brainstorm and plan your ideas? Are these accommodations or just the new norm?
As adults, we use ‘accommodations’ throughout our daily lives, so shouldn’t we be providing the same opportunities for our children?
Let’s explore some options further:
Speech-to-text (dictation) provides students with an opportunity to write without being concerned about spelling. By speaking into a device, children may use more sophisticated vocabulary and progress faster because the mechanics of writing do not hamper them. The good news? Speech-to-text is built in and available for free through a variety of devices, such as laptops, iPads, and cell phones.
Audiobooks and text-to-speech provide opportunities to access high-level, complex text without being disadvantaged by one’s independent reading level. Ear reading allows a child’s intellect and curiosity to drive book choice, not reading ability. Schools and families of children with documented print disabilities may subscribe to Learning Ally and have access to over 80,000 human-read audiobooks, with many also synched to text. Other fee-based options include Audible, Google Play Books, and Apple Books. However, access is also available at no cost through apps like Libby that provide free access through the library to audiobooks and ebooks. Furthermore, Bookshare offers free ebook access for U.S. students with qualifying reading disabilities.
Mind maps and other graphic organizers help students organize their ideas through visual tools. Another way to remove barriers to learning, graphic organizers are beneficial to all students as a system for approaching multi-step tasks and can support reading comprehension, writing, and study skills across all subject areas. Free templates are readily available online.
The adage that equity and equality are not the same continues to hold. For those with dyslexia, embedded accommodations that are available to all learners can remove the stigma associated with reading difficulties. Imagine a classroom where every child’s educational experience is optimized, a learning environment that provides a range of tools not only to assist the learning of those with documented learning differences but to help all students. Let’s remove barriers to learning and replace the word accommodation with options or choice.
Isn’t it the new norm anyway?
October is Dyslexia Awareness month! 1 in 5 students have a learning difference like dyslexia, and there are several organizations who are serving and helping this growing population. Read below to find some resources specific to the D.C., Maryland, and Virginia region.
Decoding Dyslexia, Maryland, is a grassroots movement driven by Maryland families who are concerned with limited access to educational interventions for dyslexia and other language-based learning disabilities in Maryland public schools. Their mission is to raise dyslexia awareness, to empower others to support struggling readers with dyslexia, and to inform policy-makers on best practices to identify, educate, and support students. There are chapters all across the US; you can find your local chapter here. The Montgomery County Chapter of Decoding Dyslexia meets at The Siena School every month! They provide numerous resources for parents and teachers on their website.
Microsoft is hosting free trainings at their store for local stores for students with dyslexia. Their software helps students read and write. Access articles on their training, learning tools and One Note.
The DC Capital Area Branch of the International Dyslexia Association (DCIDA) serves dyslexic individuals, their families, the local community of educators and interventionists, and education policymakers.
WISER (Washington Independent Services for Educational Resources) is another area resource for students with learning differences. Their goals are to improve educational services and promote child advocacy by providing comprehensive resources to children and parents in the DMV area. They are the foremost referral resource for parents and professionals. Some services they provide include testing, tutoring, speech therapy, language therapy, and occupational therapy. They maintain member blogs, speaking events, and publications, which you may access through their website.
The Learning Disabilities Association of Montgomery County (LDAMC)’s mission is to promote awareness and provide support to maximize the quality of life for individuals and families affected by learning and other disabilities. provides resources for students who have learning disabilities. Access a list of their resources here.
The Exceptional Schools Fair showcases schools and programs that ensure every child receives an exceptional education. With offerings that range from private day schools to therapeutic services, they aim to equip families and educators with the supports and interventions students need to succeed. This FREE public event is on Sunday, November 17, 2019 from 11am-2pm at the Katzen Arts Center at American University. Visit their website to see the list of schools in attendance. The Siena School, who prepares bright, college-bound students with language-based learning differences, such as dyslexia, to become confident, curious learners who understand their personal strengths and gain the tools and strategies to excel, will be attending the Exceptional Schools Fair, so make sure to stop by the table and say hello!