09/08/2014 05:00 EDT | Updated 11/07/2014 05:59 EST

Seeking support early key to success for students with learning disabilities

TORONTO - Samuel Pereira was diagnosed with a learning disability when he was eight, but as he aged and his workload increased so, too, did his challenges in the classroom.

"One of my issues was processing," he recalled. "I have all of the information, I know what I want to put down on a piece of paper, but it takes twice as long to do that than, let's say, someone with a better brain that can just process things quicker.

"Come high school, I really started to struggle because I had to start writing essays and papers, and organization is another problem for me. So even just organizing things on paper, and getting my thoughts to the paper, it was really difficult."

Pereira recalled that his mother, who is a social worker, made an effort to place him in environments aimed at bolstering him as he struggled. He recalled attending "really good schools," including a private institution with smaller classroom sizes, and was also tutored outside of class.

Now a fourth-year radio and television arts student at Ryerson University in Toronto, the 26-year-old is resuming a mentorship role, part of a campus initiative to foster support for other students with disabilities.

Pereira was part of the successful six-month pilot project launched last year where 67 per cent of students identified as having non-visible disabilities (mental health, learning, medical) and 33 per cent reported having multiple disabilities.

The program has now expanded and evolved under the new name Access TMP (Tri-Mentoring Program) with plans for career and creative arts workshops and smaller events aimed at engaging participants in campus life and beyond.

Tri-Mentoring Program facilitator Mariam Hashemi said the pilot concept emerged after students attending a town hall identified the desire to have a dedicated space to build community for students with disabilities.

Hashemi said there are "universal challenges" faced by those transitioning to post-secondary life, from anxiety over attending a larger institution to living away from home. But those with learning disabilities should seek resources — along with support from parents and allies — to ease concerns about potential academic hurdles.

"Just because we're a little bit behind as a society in terms of recognizing all of these different ways of learning doesn't mean that it's lesser than. And I think that's a really empowering piece for students to recognize. 'I am whole in and of myself. I just learn differently,'" said Hashemi.

Theresa (Teddi) Doupe, associate director of specialized support and disability services at the University of Alberta, said learning disabilities cover a broad range, from issues with auditory or visual-spatial processing to challenges with sequential processing which affects the ability to smoothly go through math or chemistry questions. Add to that a significant adjustment for all university newcomers: an environment that is much more student-driven.

"You're not in class for six hours every day. You're in class for an hour," said Doupe. "What I usually tell students is that for every hour you're in a lecture, the average student needs to spend two hours to prep and study. And if you take an hour and a half or two hours for your exams, you better work that time factor into your time management plan around studying, too."

Among Doupe's suggestions for students with learning disabilities is to "come early, come often" in regard to contacting and visiting their school's accessibility or support services department to discuss potential accommodations.

"The structure changes, the demands change ... and if you know that in advance you can plan for it."

Pereira said he is allowed extra time on exams. But even with additional assistance, he acknowledged the onus is on him to voice concerns if he still faces difficulties.

"The support systems can only do so much for you," he said. "I've learned to really be proactive and self-advocate for myself in a lot of situations. Going to professors and talking to them and (saying): "... I'm struggling with this, I need help with this.'"

Bradley Bergey, post-doctoral fellow at Dalhousie University in Halifax, conducts research around learning and study strategies. He's part of a team working in collaboration with the Das Centre at the University of Alberta aimed at studying university students with a history of reading difficulty.

Bergey said in general, students who are more successful at university learn ways to actively engage with the material they're studying. That, in turn, keeps them interested and helps them internalize what they're learning, he noted.

"Whether that's putting things in their own words or thinking about analogies of how things relate to other things they know ... all of those strategies are associated with deeper learning or success in university."

Pereira said that he finds he works best in the morning, and aims to arrive at school early to complete readings. His study process also entails note-taking, drawing diagrams and rewriting sentences from texts to help with memory retention and organization.

Bergey said it's also key for individuals to assess which strategies help them learn specific materials.

"It might be different in their history class compared to their science class. But that said, what we've learned from the learning sciences and cognitive psychology is that there's actually principles that are applicable to all students as we're learning," he said.

One such example is rehearsing material as a way of building memory traces, he said.

"The more we encounter and go over material, the more likely we are to retain it."

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