Beyond Okay: Overcoming Learning Differences

Learning how to learn when you are convinced you can't is empowering. Read Susan's inspiring story about overcoming her learning differences.


Can you remember your first day of school?  I do. I remember waiting for the bus so I could get to school and be just like my big sister and brother. I wanted to be a big kid, just like them!  I can remember my Kindergarten teacher.  I can remember my classroom and I also remember the faces of the kids in my class.  I also remember that I was home by noon and generally….I liked school.

But then something happened.  Grade One.  And this is when my school memories start to blur. Letters, words and numbers were coming at me at a rapid pace. Somehow I knew I was falling behind — I couldn’t do things the way others could do them—not as quickly or as confidently as they could.

You see the letters’ sounds were weird and they did NOT blend together for me.

The sounds were like wooden blocks stacked on top of each other—eventually they would all fall to the floor in a mess of so much gobbledigook.  The sounds were the same—they hardly ever came together.

But I could remember words on sight if I saw and heard the words over and over.  I didn’t understand why and no one really knew what I was dealing with.  And this was when my struggles with learning began. This led me to believe that the only option I had was to be invisible. Hoping that no one would see me or ask anything of me.

If I did build up enough courage to ask for help I was usually met with more questions or in the case of my peers possible rejection.  So, I chose to survive while others engaged in learning.  But there’s a price for surviving; my self esteem took a beating and I was starting to slowly reject myself—mostly because I didn’t understand myself and neither did anyone else.

I’m sure I had my teachers confused. Some things I could do easily (if I was taught a certain way) other times I had no idea. I was getting really good at surviving.

But then a shift happened …I moved to a new town.

The new gym teacher noticed my physical abilities and encouraged me.  It was the first time I had excelled at school.  I could run—cross country and track—and this strength allowed me to stay afloat at school. Socially.  Emotionally.  All the way through to the end of high school.

If I could go back I would tell my young self:

  • You can learn and you can learn well
  • The way you learn is the way you are supposed to—you need to have the right tools and approaches.
  • You are not alone—1 in 5 people learn like you (dyslexia, learning disability) You have more than one strength—you just need help to see them.

What did I do with my one ability after high school? I applied to college to be a fitness instructor and that’s where I ended up. But I still believed school was NOT for me.  And I still struggled with my learning and I had put limits on what I thought I could do.

But the fitness instructor program did allow me to tap into my strengths and for the first time in my life I had combined my interests and abilities with learning! This is when things changed for me, as it allowed me to make gains in my learning that I had not seen before.

On top of this, I started to figure out how I could learn as I was focused on studying something very visual—the human body. That was when I discovered that I need to learn visually!  And so I started developing visual maps (before there was a name for this). I used index cards and other new ways to tap into my way of learning. After one year of college—I knew I was heading on—for the first time I thought school was for me.

This was a turning point in my life but here’s the thing: 

  • I don’t want kids to wait until college to figure out that they can learn because only 10% make it to post secondary education.
  • I don’t want kids to hide in shame about how they learn and have their self esteem at all time lows.
  • I don’t want kids to decide what they will become based on limits they put on their life from others and more important …by them.

So when I realized I was capable of learning with the right tools,  I completed my fitness diploma. I was accepted into university and graduated with a degree in Occupational Therapy.  And two years later, I landed an OT position back in the school system—in the same school where it all started at age 6.

It was great to complete the assessments; get the percentages; whip up the recommendations.

But soon I saw the ‘mini versions of me’ in front of me.  The kids that were surviving.  The kids that could complete my tests with results that would not raise any flags of concern. But I knew that there was something to be concerned about.  So my assessments changed.  My approach changed.  My recommendations changed.

I wanted results.  I wanted kids who were learning differently to see progress—but I came up against misunderstanding that I couldn’t seem to break through. It was like one step forward and two steps back.  I could see the learning gaps getting bigger but I knew from my own experience that the child in front of me just needed the right tools to help them learn at the level they understood!

Soon something new came into the schools: software programs that would help kids to read and write.  This was what I was looking for all my life!

My mind exploded with possibilities! I could see the ability to learn skills when a child needed it. No more waiting!!  I could see how technology could close the learning gap that I had experienced. And this was BEFORE the iPad and apps.

I spent 15 plus years working with kids in the school—learning and watching.  I created my own business to use strategies and technology in a new way to support skill development. I completed my memoir about my learning journey as a person, Mom and a professional.

It’s been quite a ride!  Not just a cruise down the road but a full blown rollercoaster ride.

Only through grace was I able to create a new theory and program so Occupational therapists could be empowered to use technology to develop skills. I am now challenging how we presently support kids that have a learning difference to eliminate the learning gaps that are still happening. I’m stepping out to tell my own story in order to help eliminate the shame that still exists when it comes to learning differences (which may carry such titles as dyslexia, LD, ADHD)

I’m no longer invisible, as I’m working on accepting all parts of myself.  I NOW know that I learn the way I am suppose to learn and that I have many strengths that allow me to make a difference.  As Hedley says in their song, I’ve come a long long way …(and) I’m feelin’ invincible!

Susan Schenk is an Entrepreneur, Occupational Therapist, Speaker, Author and an advocate for Learning Differences. Susan’s OT business is called Technology & Tools for kids, and she works with parents and trains Occupational Therapists across the globe. Her book “Beyond Ok from Invisible to Invincible” is her story about her learning difference.  She now has a parent program called Invincible Mama to support parents and has stepped out to co-create the Shift Your Thinking; A Learning Difference Summit in Mississauga this November 5, 2016 which is a live and online event

Comments are closed.