Could Your Student Have NVLD?
What Teachers Should Know & How They Can Help
by Susan Micari, MS.Ed, BCET & Annalisa Perfetto, Ph.D.
Maybe you are surveying your class and notice one of your students, a boy or a girl, staring off into space, seeming to sit alone though surrounded by others. They are not quite up on the conversations swirling around them, and perhaps you notice that they drop things, bump into people or objects; for sure you’ve noticed that they have trouble with math. It isn’t so much that they can’t memorize facts, which is hard for them, but you’ve noticed that they can’t tell what pattern of problem they are dealing with, no matter how you try to break down the steps to recognizing and solving one.
These students may be part of 3-4% of the population that have non-verbal learning disabilities, or NVLD. You may be unsure that such a diagnosis exists. The student may have the label ADHD, but you notice that it isn’t quite attention that goes wrong, it’s also organization, it’s also knowing what to pay attention to on a map, graph, or even a book. They can be frustrated by having to make inferences; they are detail people. Their memories are fine, and their verbal skills are years beyond grade level, but they just can’t get their work done well enough. They test OK; anything in multiple choice format should suit them, but ask them to produce an essay on a theme and they fall apart, unless the task requires less analysis and more summary of details. Their friendships can be limited by a difficulty in following conversational jokes, and in knowing how to respond to friendly overtures from others.
No one can blame you for not recognizing this syndrome: it isn’t in the DMS-V and so you’ve never seen a code for it on a doctor’s or psychologist’s evaluation. Instead, ADHD may have been diagnosed along with math disability and poor handwriting. It is frustrating for those who cope with this disorder, as it can be for teachers. With such obvious verbal skills, how can learning and excelling be so difficult?
Well, at NVLD.org, researchers are trying to remedy that situation by using brain scans and other data to collect a set of parameters for NVLD, and to get it included in the Diagnostic Manual of Symptoms, so that it can stand alone as a recognizable learning disability.
But the next order of business is what to do about it? How do we help kids with this pattern of disability to cope with their uneven pattern of functioning in school and in the social world?
NVLD people respond to direct instruction in how to use a calendar, plan work, and execute it. Many need help developing strategies for how to begin an assignment once they recognize what is being asked of them. Following multi-step directions can be taught, too. Patiently, we can help these students understand the patterns of reading and writing that we expect from them. We can use audiobooks to help them listen for subtext and respond to it with deeper analysis. In these ways, we can help these students recognize what is being asked of them in their academic world, and one by one, to take on the complex interactions that other students engage in effortlessly.
Think about how it would be not to see meaning in math, not to see meaning in the subtle metaphors in a novel, not to see overtures of friendship. NVLD students can feel lonely and anxious. You, as their teacher, can help them.
When you think of breaking down an assignment into manageable parts for students, set aside time to explain the directions more than once, and to expect anxious reactions from your NVLD student. Expect to alert parents or learning specialists and educational therapists to the demands of a new problem set, like for instance, a new set of primary history documents, and know that the NVLD student may depend longer than others on the scaffolded supports or executive functioning demonstrations of adult helpers. They can and they will do their own work, and learn new subtle patterns of work. But they will make so- called “careless” mistakes on any work that requires good visual discrimination. They will need extra time and instruction to learn how to proofread their own work, and would do well to have an early due date from you for any draft so that you can help them learn how to spot their errors. They will benefit from apps that read their drafts to them, and from using google docs to share with you during the writing process.
They will need supports and check- ins that might seem unexpected for older students or for people of such high verbal acuity. This isn’t learned helplessness very often, as we often fear it may be. These students have genuine weaknesses in seeing the big picture and details of a project as part of a whole. They’ll need more scaffolding, practice, and drill before you can fade your support or expect fully independent work.
If you understand that they are truly challenged in visual perception, you may be able to extend extra time and extra checklists, extra graphic organizers, and more verbal remediation of instruction. These scaffolded supports are what they need, and when these students are better understood, you will find that they remain better cued-in to what’s going on in front of the classroom. In turn, they will also become better partners to their peers. The more they know and can say about their needs and differences, the more predictable their responses will be to you.
In these ways, you may become a hero in an NVLD student’s life. What can be explained can be changed, and in modeling how to solve new problems, you will help these students become part of the community in your classroom- no longer at the periphery- but acknowledged for the honesty, intelligence, memory for detail, and sweetness that many of them possess and are dying to have acknowledged. These students are capable, valuable people, who need help understanding themselves without judgment. With your leadership, they can make a unique contribution to an inclusive classroom.
Individuals with NVLD may display similar behaviors across a variety of situations. Some helpful examples of common identifying NVLD characteristics that can “pop up” in the classroom are:
- Visual-Spatial Skills: Poor visual-spatial skills paired with good language skills is the marker for an NVLD diagnosis.
Examples: difficulty with problem-solving, especially in novel situations; poor pattern recognition; difficulty organizing and/or categorizing thoughts; difficulty organizing materials; difficulty strategizing and breaking down tasks into manageable parts; difficulty understanding maps, graphs, directionality & orientation; difficulty learning to tell time; difficulty understanding part-whole or greater- than/ less-than relationships
- Social Skills/ Behavioral Issues: People with NVLD may have trouble interacting with their peers, experience difficulty interpreting nonverbal cues and social understanding, and may be sensitive to over- or under-stimulation.
Examples: difficulty processing social cues; difficulty interacting with peers; poor judgment of personal space; rigid body movements or posture; inability to form and maintain friendships; difficulty working efficiently and meaningfully in group learning situations;
- Processing/ Language Issues: NVLD can make it difficult to understand part-whole relationships, cause and effect relationships, and main ideas or “big picture” reasoning. People with NVLD may also have trouble understanding and appropriately using humor, or understanding nuanced, metaphoric, or non-literal language.
Examples: difficulty understanding and using humor and/or sarcasm; difficulty understanding literary devices such as tone, subtext, simile & metaphor; difficulty organizing thoughts coherently in writing; difficulty “getting to the point” when speaking; difficulty with verbal or written analysis (i.e., going beyond facts); difficulty with math (especially fractions and geometry, due to the visual-spatial element); difficulty with number concepts and estimation; but strong vocabulary; strong mental recall/ rote memorization capabilities; excellent phonemic awareness; strong auditory skills and receptive language skills.
- Motor Skills: Individuals with NVLD can have issues with both gross and fine motor skills, and poor coordination due to their difficulty in perception and understanding of physical space.
Examples: poor handwriting; difficulty tying shoes; difficulty with gross motor skills involving coordination, such as playing sports; difficulty with fine motor skills involving coordination, such as using scissors or other tools.
- Emotional Issues: NVLD often presents with many emotional/ mental health comorbidities, especially anxiety and panic disorders.
Supportive Classroom Strategies for Teachers of NVLD Learners:
- Believe and Be Accepting: Researchers at NVLD Project are working hard so that Nonverbal Learning Disability is recognized in the DMS. Until then, acknowledging that NVLD is very real is the first step you can take toward helping your students with NVLD.
- Get Educated: The more you know about NVLD and how to recognize it, the more you can use your pedagogical expertise and creativity to help your NVLD students become successful. Realizing that your student is exhibiting characteristics of NVLD and not “not trying hard enough” should help you to understand the types of differentiation, classroom strategies, and learning supports that each individual student needs.
- Create Routine: Routines are patterns, and new patterns are difficult for NVLD students- but patterns can be learned. When your students know what their routine looks and feels like and how a day or period in your classroom should proceed, it eliminates the stress that new patterns and situations can cause them. If there is a change in routine, be sure to be clear as to how and when these changes will occur.
- Be Specific and Explicit: It is important not to assume that NVLD students can apply directions from one classroom scenario onto a different situation. Remember that NVLD students have difficulty approaching new situations, and difficulty recognizing patterns. Explicitly teach the directions that you want your students to carry over to different situations over time- they need lots of practice to be able to do this!
- Model and Give (Lots of!) Examples: Multi-step directions can be hard for students with NVLD. Repeated modeling of what you expect in a variety of situations can help NVLD learners recognize and learn patterns, and the more examples (physical and verbal) you can give them, the better.
- Use Simple Visuals: There are so many ways that teachers can help make visuals that aid NVLD students, rather than cause them more trouble. Since visual perception is a challenge for NVLD students to perfect, simple visuals and graphic organizers are better for NVLD learners than complex ones, unless they are explicitly and repeatedly taught.
- Scaffold Your Supports: Scaffolding, or supporting a learner through a task or set of tasks until they can gradually begin to complete them independently, is extremely helpful for NVLD students. All classroom situations are “novel problems” until a student has encountered them multiple times, so scaffolded supports can help NVLD students to recognize situations and the patterns or paradigms needed to proceed. NVLD learners often can’t intuitively understand how to approach a given assignment or situation, so helping them by providing explicit instruction, identification of a problem, and how to strategize in order to achieve a solution can better prepare them to learn how to handle similar problems or situations in the future.
- Give Feedback: explicit, clear, and actionable feedback is crucial for NVLD learners. By providing this type of feedback (and providing it often), you can help your NVLD learners to understand what is expected from them in certain domains. The more practice they get, the less likely they are to be paralyzed by the “novel problem” issue that is so difficult for people with NVLD.
- Think of Social Interactions as a School Subject: NVLD people struggle with understanding social cues and how to interact. Repeated, explicit, and experiential teaching of social concepts in a variety of situations is helpful in teaching NVLD students how to interact with their peers and superiors, and can help to relieve the anxieties that social situations may cause them.
- Be Their Champion: NVLD can make school seem like a nightmare for some students, even though they can be very smart! Make sure that your NVLD student knows that you are a champion of his or her success, and commit to being the teacher that your student needs today.