Demystifying Learning Disabilities with Susan Howison
Demystification is a process that is an integral part of Churchill Center & School’s philosophy and teaching approach. Demystification helps students develop a deep understanding of their learning strengths, challenges, and how they learn.
We sat down with Susan Howison, Wilson® Partner Trainer and Tutorial Supervisor at Churchill, to talk about demystifying learning disabilities and how other schools and parents can implement this empowering process for their students.
Churchill: Why does Churchill feel that demystification is important?
Susan Howison: Demystification is taking the mystery out of the way we learn. Our students come to Churchill because they have struggled with learning. Because of their struggles they have been tested, they have worked with tutors and counselors, and now they are changing schools. Many of them could be feeling confused and nervous about their lack of success in school and fearful that they are not smart. They are asking themselves, “What’s wrong with me?” or, “Why am I not smart?”
Demystification puts the child’s learning into terms the student can understand and assures them that their weakness is not a roadblock — it’s just something they need to use their strategies and strengths to overcome. This critical process empowers students to recognize their abilities and strengths and have the confidence to take academic risks. The roots of such confidence and self-assurance have a strong, positive ripple effect into many areas of a child’s life.
“Demystification puts the child’s learning into terms the student can understand and assures them that their weakness is not a roadblock — it’s just something they need to use their strategies and strengths to overcome.”
Churchill: What are the immediate benefits of demystification?
SH: Often, you really see them perk up. They have this burst of empowerment, intrinsic motivation, and optimism, like, “Wow, I am smart.” They clearly label what’s hard for them, but equally important, what strategies help them. That gives them an ownership of their strategy and their learning — knowing what they’re doing and why they’re doing it. That’s what we call metacognition.
Churchill: How about the long-term? What skills or benefits does demystification offer in the years to come?
SH: Perseverance. Students see the benefit of hard work and that what was once hard for them is now easier. They start to realize that when something is hard, it doesn’t mean that they can’t do it; it just means they need to learn how to do it in a different way. They acquire the critical skill of self-advocating and employing their many strategies and strengths, and as a result, they obtain a self-awareness and confidence in communicating how they learn.
Churchill: Is demystification unique to Churchill?
SH: The term demystification was first coined by Dr. Mel Levine in his book, A Mind At A Time. We developed the program based on Levine’s work. I can’t emphatically say that the demystification philosophy is unique to Churchill, but we haven’t seen anyone doing it at the level we are, where it is woven into our curriculum and one-on-one tutorials.
Churchill: Can you describe how demystification is taught at Churchill?
SH: Demystification begins the moment the student walks into the building on their first tour and continues to be integrated throughout all of our classes, but the demystification curriculum is taught in a much more formal way in the individual tutorial. This ensures that the process is individualized and that each student follows a pattern of recognizing that they’re smart and they learn differently. Then we introduce strengths, an area of weakness, strategies to overcome, allies, and supports.
Demystification is also one of the components of our auditory visual curriculum. Here, they may use literature as a way to start class discussions about specific parts of the demystification process.
Churchill: What exactly is a demystification conference?
SH: It’s a student-led conference where the child has a short period to prepare a project explaining his or her strengths, weaknesses, strategies, allies, and supports. This may be a painting, a diorama, or a book, and they often use a theme as their vehicle. When it’s done, the individual tutorial teacher and student will invite their parents to come and they lead a conversation on their strengths, weaknesses, and strategies.
Speaking about your strengths and weaknesses is something that’s even hard for many adults to do. Our students get up and share it so confidently. It’s really intimate and lets the parent see their child speaking and sharing about how they learn. The conference shows the child in an empowering light, and it’s a great opportunity to see them shine.
Churchill: How can a school without a formal demystification program practice these principals?
SH: Even if a school is unable to have the individual tutorial on the magnitude that we do, they can still do it within their class and small groups to help students feel empowered.
You can always do it through literature. For example, if students are struggling with reading, read a chapter book about children with dyslexia. Students within the group slowly start to talk about it because it’s easier to talk about a fictional character’s feelings and experience than their own. There are lots of great books out there, like A Walk in the Rain with a Brain, which celebrates all different kinds of learners.
You could also lead a class discussion about arming yourself to get ready for a task. Talk about it with a theme — like putting on armor — to make the concept more concrete for students.
What we call the “bombardment of strengths” is also great. It’s a student-led discussion where everyone lists what they’re great at. That’s just another way to reprogram their internal script and show them what they’re good at.
Churchill: Tell us a little bit about Churchill’s demystification workshops. What can teachers and parents expect to learn at these events?
SH: We’ve done quite a few teacher workshops to teach other educators about the process of demystification and how they can implement it in their own classrooms. Most of our attendees are from other schools. We share the history of the program, how it works, and what a big difference demystification makes for children. Most educators are amazed by it.