As a teacher, it can be especially rewarding to work with students who have special needs. However, that can also mean we are thrown into a classroom with a big group of kids, many of whom have been diagnosed with learning disabilities we know very little about.
Because we often start the year scrambling to educate ourselves on our new students’ needs, I had hoped that Neurodevelopmental Disorders: A Definitive Guide for Educators would be a useful resource. Unfortunately, I did not come away from it with a better sense of how to help this student population.
Author Frank E. Vargo provides a breakdown of types of disorders, such as intellectual, motor, and communication, along with descriptions of specific learning disabilities in language arts and math. He also includes in-depth chapters on autism spectrum disorder and ADHD, both of which affect classroom learning. But while these sections are somewhat comprehensive, I had trouble following along with Vargo’s writing style.
On the one hand, Vargo gives us chapter outlines, elaborates on each subject as promised, and uses multiple case studies. He talks about IEPs. His strongest chapters, for me, were the ones on autism and ADHD, which provided a clear picture of how these disorders play out in the classroom.
But even then, I didn’t learn many new strategies for supporting these students, or ways to better empathize with their thinking processes so that I might adjust my teaching methods to meet their needs. The strategies Vargo gives are too general, and ones I was already familiar with. These include using small-group instruction, allowing extra time on tests and assignments, modifying expectations, and previewing lessons with key concepts.
Vargo also weighs down his writing with cumbersome vocabulary, copious citations, and bland case studies. As I read, I often wondered who the intended audience of this book might be — certainly not busy classroom teachers, who don’t have time to sit and muddle through a book like this.
In the hands of a gifted professor, this could be used as a college textbook for education students — a kind of preview of what they will experience in the future as classroom teachers. But education professionals who work solely with special needs students will already know much of what is in the book, and, meanwhile, parents would likely find it frustrating. Vargo does not provide enough detail for helping students with each type of disorder.
I once had an economics professor warn our class that we would be tempted to fall asleep during his lectures, as he had a monotone voice. This book reminded me often of that professor’s warning. No matter how much I wanted to learn the material, it was as if Vargo presented it in a monotone voice, thanks to the long, drawn-out sentences and lines full of citations. Here is a quote that shows his unengaging writing style:
Children with mild disability are usually able to have their needs met in general public school settings with varying and individualized levels of academic and remedial interventions and accommodations and educational mainstreaming with typically developing students determined as best appropriate for each child (Hazlett et al., 2011, Hodapp & Dykens, 2004, 2012; Mervis & John, 2010).
Yikes. Had Vargo more efficiently used citations, charts, graphs, and simpler language, his book may have been a much more helpful resource.
As educators, our intentions are usually good. Vargo’s book is a reminder that even if our information is accurate and thoroughly presented, it doesn’t mean that students — or in this case, readers like myself — are going to understand it after the lesson.
Neurodevelopmental Disorders: A Definitive Guide for Educators
W. W. Norton & Company, April 2015
Hardcover, 288 pages