How many words can you write in 10 seconds? Now, try the same activity with your non-dominant hand or without using any words containing the letter “n.”
This exercise conveys a sense of what completing a writing assignment can feel like for students struggling with transcription speed challenges, says Todd Cunningham, clinical and school psychologist and Program Chair of the School and Clinical Child Psychology Program at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education (OISE), University of Toronto. “When I ask educators to do this activity, they often look so frustrated you can almost see steam coming out of their ears.”
Writing skills allow students to demonstrate their ideas and thinking. That’s why a cognitive weakness – affecting the ability to form letters and numbers accurately and efficiently – can cause them to continue to lose ground over time.
“When you have to put so much concentration into figuring out how to write, your brain experiences a lot of stress, and this can have a lifelong impact,” says Dr. Cunningham. “We know that issues with reading and writing – which are considered foundational for life success – can lead to people being unemployed or underemployed, and result in poor physical and mental health.”
According to the Ontario Human Rights Commission’s recent Right to Read report, “more than 30 per cent of Ontario’s high school students graduate without meeting the provincial standards for literacy,” a number Dr. Cunningham and his colleagues at the OISE Psychology Clinic are hoping to change.
“We’re looking at different ways – from assessment to intervention – to help support kids who have learning challenges,” he says, adding that the clinic provides services to the community, especially in addressing the complex needs of individuals who would otherwise be difficult to reach and diagnose.
Research findings help to create awareness of – and support for – timely and effective interventions for students with learning challenges; for example, with assistive technology, says Dr. Cunningham. He spearheaded the development of an Assistive Technology Tool Selection Protocol, available through a free, open-access online portal, to help psychologists and partners identify the right technology, based on a student’s learning profile, environmental factors and specific learning challenges.
The clinic’s groundbreaking research includes assessing culturally and linguistically diverse students; for example, “refugees who experience complex challenges due to trauma or loss of schooling,” he says. “We’re able to look at the underlying profile and tailor the interventions to support the individual.”
Another initiative with a big impact is the OISE Telepsychology Program, which started about a decade ago, when in-person consultations with students, teachers and elders in remote northern Indigenous communities were deemed too costly to deliver with the necessary frequency. The program initially focused on equipping teachers in these communities with the knowledge and resources needed to support students with academic skill deficits and mental health and behavioural problems.
“The elders encouraged us to develop a remote assessment and practice model, where we can connect with teachers weekly rather than parachuting in once a year,” says Dr. Cunningham. “When COVID came, we already had the research, training and support network that enabled us to pivot quickly and start providing these services across Ontario.”
Such services are currently in high demand, since the pandemic has caused much disruption in learning and social interaction, he adds. “Studies show that mental health challenges like anxiety and depression are rising. And telepsychology enhances our ability to reach marginalized populations.”
Noticing emerging challenges “in real time” at the psychology clinic and feeding them into research allows OISE to be “at the edge of the field and train next-generation leaders and thinkers in psychology,” says Dr. Cunningham.
And, in addition to helping create an education system where no one is left behind, OISE Psychology Clinic team members are making a difference in the day-to-day lives of the children, families and educators they work with.
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