Q&A with Michele Berg, Learning Disability Consultant
As founder of the Center for Learning Disabilities at Menninger Clinic, Michele Berg, PhD is a celebrated expert in learning disability diagnosis and intervention. In addition to her work with the Center for Learning Disabilities, Dr. Berg is a respected educational consultant who has worked with Churchill for nearly 30 years.
Dr. Berg recently traveled to Churchill to help us identify new and innovative ways to track individual student progress. We took this opportunity to talk with our friend and colleague about her long career in learning disability education and how parents can best help their students succeed.
Churchill: Can you describe your background and expertise in the area of learning disabilities?
Michele Berg: I was the founder of the Center for Learning Disabilities at Menninger Clinic, which is a big psychiatric training hospital. I ran that for about 30 years, and when Menninger moved to Texas, I moved the Center for Learning Disabilities to a place called Family Service and Guidance Center, where I did a lot of teacher training and had several Early Reading First grants and Reading First grants. I left Family Service thinking I was retiring, but now I have a small private practice where I do a lot of diagnostic work and consultations to public schools and private schools.
Churchill: Tell me a little bit about your role as an educational consultant to Churchill.
MB: I come to Churchill periodically when Sandi Gilligan, the head of Churchill, requests a specific consultation. I’ve come in the past to help Churchill decide what kind of reading program they should have, and one time we looked at the math program. Sometimes we look at teacher training issues — and all of that is really at Sandi’s discretion.
Churchill: Did you help Churchill select the Wilson Reading System®?
MB: Yes I did. The Wilson® program is wonderful. Years ago, Sandi called me because the staff was trying to decide what they needed to do with their reading program, and there were a lot of different perspectives about how that needed to go. I felt really strongly that they needed to go with something like Wilson® because, in the days before we had things like Wilson®, we had to create our own materials and our own scope and sequence. It was so labor intensive. And Wilson® did it beautifully.
Churchill: How long have you been working with Churchill? How did that introduction happen?
MB: Sandi and I were talking about this the other night. I think the first time I came was 1988 when I was in the process of establishing the Center for Learning Disabilities at the Menninger Clinic. I wanted to go visit other centers of excellence, and I knew Churchill was a school that was really well known, even though it hadn’t been established for that long. I contacted Sandi and she was so gracious. She invited me to come and I visited her, Deb, and Mary and looked at the program.
We always get together when we’re at the International Dyslexia Association Conference, so we’ve managed to stay in touch at least once a year in person.
Churchill: What makes Churchill and its approach effective for students with learning disabilities?
MB: There are a number of schools across the country that are private schools for students with learning disabilities, but the range of expertise in the staff in those schools varies greatly. Churchill is considered one of the leaders, not only in terms of the training of the staff, but the instructional strategies that are used in the school, the way the school works with the parents, and the identification process — how they identify who’s going to come here.
I think one of the things that really differentiates Churchill is that their goal is to get students out of here and back into the public school. Their goal is not to keep students here; their goal is to help the students either remediate their learning disorders or learn how to cope with it enough that they can go back to a mainstream setting. This is a school that’s not going to ask a student to leave before the student is ready, but they’re not going to hold onto them longer than they think they should.
“The main thing parents need to know is they have to have as good an understanding as possible of their child’s learning disabilities and strengths so they know when to help support learning, when not to push, and how to have expectations that support the child but don’t become overwhelming.”
Churchill: How can parents become strong partners in the learning process, particularly for students with dyslexia and other learning disabilities?
MB: It’s not an easy answer, but I think the main thing parents need to know is they have to have as good an understanding as possible of their child’s learning disabilities and strengths so they know when to help support learning, when not to push, and how to have expectations that support the child but don’t become overwhelming.
Oftentimes when you have a child with, say, dyslexia, the parent also has dyslexia. How do you teach your child to read if that’s a difficulty that you have? It’s about figuring out what you can realistically do as a parent and when you should have a tutor or somebody else helping.
Some parents may try to minimize the impact of the learning disability and say, “Oh, you can do anything you want. You can be anything you want.” Well that’s not true for most of us. For most of us, our task is to find our own personal strengths and then set goals for ourselves that are consistent with things we’re good at and that we enjoy.