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Volume 2, Number 1, Winter 2000 - Summer 2001

Creating a Safe Environment for Students with Learning Disabilities on Study Abroad Programs

by Eve Leons
Landmark College


Working with students with learning disabilities (LDs) is a complex task, because of the multi-faceted issues students face. Students with learning disabilities are often steered away from study abroad opportunities, just as many are steered away from foreign language classes. Indeed, it has been primarily within the last four years that Landmark College (LMC) began to explore the option of having students study abroad accompanied by LMC faculty. However, the study abroad experience is one in which many students with LDs, when given the appropriate support, will flourish, adjusting to many aspects of living and learning in a foreign culture. Moreover, they may potentially do better academically in an experiential program than they ever have in a traditional school. This article will outline the basic challenges that students with LDs often face on study abroad programs. While I tend to use examples primarily from the Spain program I led for two summers, I will also integrate examples from LMC's other 6 week programs in England, Greece, India, and Italy.

Theme of "safety" has been broadly interpreted to include a variety of factors that may contribute to the likelihood of a student with a learning disability having an unsafe experience abroad. Specifically, I have chosen to include discussion of academic and physical safety, as well as a discussion of social skills, life skills, and emotional responses, which may interfere with the study abroad experience and potentially cause students to find themselves in unsafe positions. Please note that while I use the term "learning disabilities," I do so because it is a legal term. I find that working with students with "LDs," teaching and learning occurs not within a context of disability, but rather one of mutual respect where together the teacher and the student discover that "necessary new way" to work with and make information learnable.

Click here for definitions of:

Academic Safety and Program Design

For many students with LDs, the classroom is not perceived to be a safe place. Instead, it is a place of academic failure and humiliation in front of peers. The first year that Landmark sent a group to Spain it was through another US organization that facilitated enrollment into a Spanish university's program for international students. My role was to act as a support person for the LMC students within this larger program. Classes were taught in a fairly traditional manner, at a rapid pace, to students with a wide range of language levels, in classes that did not allow for individual instruction. What I found was that my students, all of whom I had taught and found to be fully capable of learning Spanish, struggled academically. In effect, they were forced to change their goal from learning Spanish, to essentially surviving the experience with their self-esteem in tact and a passing grade. Although I was tutoring them and speaking with their teachers, there was very little I could do to improve their learning experience. The problems were embedded in the very design of the program. For some students the stress of the classroom spilled over to other parts of their life abroad, making their overall experience more difficult for them to manage.

What is the appropriate design of a study abroad program for students with LDs? There is no one answer, although learning-by-doing is often best for students with or without LDs. Naturally, study abroad lends itself well to this. When choosing or designing a study abroad program for students with LDs, strive to provide students with opportunities to travel, do projects, field studies, site visits, role plays, conduct interviews, meet with language partners, volunteer, attend plays, and take cooking and dance classes. In terms of the more traditional academic component of the program, a number of models are possible. In fact, there is much variation within the Landmark programs. For example, the classes on the India program are taught primarily by Landmark instructors with outside lecturers hired as needed, which allows the instructors to help students synthesize the material they are learning. On the Italy & Greece programs, Landmark teachers attend classes with students, take notes, and set up study sessions. In England, where students take classes at a local university, students are steered into classes where the teachers are known to work well with all kinds of learners. The common threads evident in all of these programs are small class size (preferably a ratio of approximately 8-1) and tutorial support, provided by a faculty member who knows the student and is familiar with that student's needs. The amount of tutorial support ranges from five times a week for an hour to one hour once a week. Support is varied according to the need of the individual.

For a person with a language-based learning disability, learning a second language can be challenging. After my first year accompanying students to Spain, I created a program designed to increase the likelihood of my students having a positive language learning experience. Instead of working with a university with a student/teacher ratio of 18-1, I chose a small language institute, where I could contract for classes at appropriate language proficiency levels and with a class size of no more than four. Small class size allowed the language teachers, in a short amount of time, to begin to see the difficulties of the students, and to work to meet their needs. As the academic leader of the program, I was also able to give the teachers the authority to slow the rate of instruction when needed to allow students additional practice time. One-on-one time with a conversation partner can also be extremely beneficial.

A percentage of students with LDs have time management, organization, and sleep issues as part of their profile, making them prime candidates for missing classes, deadlines, and flights. Special support at the program design level may need to be built in to strengthen the likelihood of these students attending classes or other events and doing so in a timely manner.

Failure to build in this support can quickly lead to academic problems for the student. To address this issue, some Landmark programs have students live together in a dormitory or in close proximity to allow for supervision and create a support-network. Creating a clear attendance policy for all classes and giving students timely feedback if they begin to miss classes and/or come late can be critical. Pairing students who have attendance/time management issues with those who do not also has the potential to increase student attendance.

Information on learning disabilities in other countries can be scarce. The following principles and strategies may be welcomed by instructors on your study abroad programs.

Principles and Strategies for Teaching Students with Learning Disabilities


  1. Teach diagnostically - Avoid making assumptions about what your student knows or doesn't know. Begin instruction at the point where a student's skills break down (point zero). Sequence instruction according to the student's rate of progress and mastery of skills. Assess student performance diagnostically, focusing on the factors underlying breakdowns.
  2. Micro-unit instruction - Break tasks, skills, and processes into their components and teach these explicitly.
  3. Have students regularly practice and review skills they have already learned.
  4. Spiral back to previously learned material - Place each newly introduced skill into the context of previous learning.
  5. Use a multi-sensory approach - Integrate instruction in all four language areas (listening, speaking, reading, and writing.) Incorporate visual and kinesthetic elements into instruction. Provide students with strategies that allow them to use non-verbal strengths.
  6. Diversify the set - Present the same material in a number of different ways. Always look for the necessary new way that may be required to reach your student.
  7. Model for the student - Students may have difficulty interpreting oral/written directions.
  8. Teach to mastery - Give students ample time and opportunity to practice/work with a given skill or task. Have students practice until the skill or task becomes automatic.
  9. Hold students accountable - Once you know you have met your full obligation as a teacher in terms of instruction and clarity, hold students accountable for meeting deadlines and turning in work.
  10. Foster metacognition - Help students to become aware of their strengths and weaknesses as learners. Take a collaborative approach to determining what strategies work best for a specific student.


  1. Provide a detailed syllabus with deadlines listed for major assignments. Make the syllabus available to LD students in advance.
  2. Make sure that all expectations for the course, as well as for individual appointments, are clear.
  3. Teach students how to use textbook(s); tailor textbook aids to fit your course.
  4. Break assignments down into logical steps, establish a clear timetable and deadline for each step.
  5. Provide handouts often; make sure they are well-organized and legible.
  6. Use role-playing, demonstration and simulation techniques.
  7. Ask questions, encourage students to ask questions.
  8. Ask students to re-verbalize information.
  9. Evaluate students' learning frequently; give weekly quizzes or assign weekly summaries.
  10. Organize lectures well. Provide lecture outlines and notes when needed.
  11. Preview information at the beginning and summarize at the end.
  12. Keep student's attention.
  13. Encourage small group discussions and study groups.
  14. Use examples, illustrations, and practical applications.
  15. Emphasize definitions and key terms.
  16. Help students prepare for tests. Provide examples of tests or test items; give practice tests. Extend time limits. Offer students an alternative test environment or alternative methods of evaluation.
  17. Give frequent and explicit feedback on student's work.
  18. Talk to students. They will teach you how to teach them.

Landmark College Handout - References:

College students with Learning Disabilities
Association for Children with Learning Disabilities, University of Wisconsin Board of Regents

College and the Learning Disabled Student: Program Development, Implementation and Selection
C. Mangrum, S Strichart, Grune & Statton (1998)

J. Baucom (11/90). Landmark College

Physical Safety

All students benefit from the academic principles and strategies listed above, just as all students benefit from the safety measures found on the pages of the SAFETI website. However, for the student with a learning disability, having these academic supports can be the difference between success and failure. While few of the aforementioned principles and strategies would be considered "new" to a seasoned teacher, most teachers do not systematically apply all of them, all the time. When working with students with LDs one learns to use all of these principles and strategies consistently. Failure to do so can create difficult situations, which could have been avoided. The same is true for the traditional safety issues on study abroad. As a leader of a group that contains some students with LDs, you will need to rely more often on the core structure of support that your institution has established. It is in the interest of all study abroad organizations to have well thought out plans designed to insure the physical safety of its program participants.

Students with LDs face the same kinds of problems that all students do, although, perhaps, some may tend to push the boundaries a bit more. They may engage in risky behaviors, such as substance abuse, or participate in high-risk activities. For this reason it is important to have a continuum of support systems in place ranging from a good orientation program to a solid insurance plan and relationships with local health care professionals. Remember, it is often personal connections that directors forge with host country nationals that create a good in-country safety net.

If there is a particular threat to safety in the country in which you are working, present that information as vividly and explicitly as possible. Use analogies, examples, practical applications, and personal experiences to promote understanding. At a recent workshop I gave, one leader of a program in Australia mentioned how students did not have the necessary respect and fear of crocodiles. As a precautionary measure, he began to take students to a crocodile farm where they could see the power of the reptiles close-up, but still at a safe distance. In any event, have a good first-aid kit, be familiar with the insurance policy carried by the program as well as the availability and quality of local health services.

Whenever possible, review the medical histories of your students. Regrettably, disclosure in the area of medical/mental health history can be spotty. Individuals frequently minimize prior mental health concerns. Become familiar with what medications, if any, they regularly take. Remind them that they may not be able to get more of certain medications abroad, such as those routinely prescribed for AD/HD in the US, and should therefore consider packing extra.

As mentioned earlier, some students with LDs may have difficulty with time management and organization. It follows that they may also have difficulty keeping track of immunizations, many of which need to be administered weeks before your program begins. Do not rely on a handout to convey this critical information. Make personal contact with students, discuss the need for immunizations and how they should go about getting them. Check in frequently to see if they are following through on scheduling the necessary appointments and receiving the necessary immunizations. Program leaders may consider offering to hold essentials, such as an extra pair of contact lenses, for a particularly disorganized student.

Do not be afraid to state the obvious. During his discussion of safety, the LMC London program director gave the example of telling students to look both ways before they crossing the street. Not only did he mention this in the orientation session, he also repeated the message throughout the program when students approached intersections. All directors mentioned the need to cover what many of us would think of as basic "city smarts," for example, how much money to carry at any given time, how to use the local transportation system, and unsafe times to walk alone. Provide students with opportunities to role play as needed.

Pragmatics, Social Skills, Life Skills, and Emotional Issues

Aside from the traditional health and safety issues, a segment of the population of students with learning disabilities do bring a unique set of issues such as difficulties with pragmatics and social skills, life skills for independent living, and emotional issues. Knowing about these problems in advance aids in finding appropriate solutions more quickly. While these issues in and of themselves are not necessarily "safety" issues, many of them can easily lead to unsafe situations. For example, imagine how a student with difficulty reading the subtleties of social communication in her own culture could find herself in an unsafe situation with men abroad.

Consider a student who gets ill abroad but who does not consistently take his medication and becomes more ill. A student with organizational issues who loses her documents, money, or a key to her residence at an inopportune time can quickly find herself in a sticky situation.

Issues with Pragmatics and Social Skills That May Lead to Cultural Adjustment Difficulties

  1. Student may not understand or may miss non-verbal communication cues.
  2. Student may have difficulty understanding and adapting behavior and language to be appropriate to the situation, for example, appropriate clothing for the context.
  3. Student may not intuitively understand otherís points of view and empathize.
  4. Student may understand and express feelings in an inappropriate way.
  5. Student may not recognize or confront unhealthy feelings and patterns, such as frustration or procrastination before they become serious.
  6. Student may not establish helpful and healthy relationships with peers, faculty, advisors or others and may not recognize or respect the different roles of these people.
  7. Student may have difficulty problem solving, negotiating, and resolving conflicts in a social setting.
  8. Student may need assistance identifying and utilizing resources and taking advantage of opportunities.

Cultural Adjustment Strategies

Strategies for Helping Students Develop Appropriate Pragmatics and Social Skills

  1. Make what is implicit, explicit to the student. Explain non-verbal communication to your students.
  2. Provide students with a safe place to talk about cross-cultural adjustment issues, to analyze "critical incidents," build understanding, and discuss culturally appropriate strategies for the future.
  3. Use clear communication that is observational and non-judgmental; tell students what they are not seeing.
  4. Ask students leading questions so they can discover what they are thinking or feeling or what they need to do.
  5. Clearly state your expectations for their actions in several ways and ask students to restate what you have covered with them so that you are sure they understand it. You may need to say something that seems obvious, but that the student is evidently missing. Do not make assumptions about what a student does or does not know.
  6. Students may need facilitation or mediation assistance with conflict resolution and identifying any support systems that they need. Provide support as necessary.
  7. Speak directly with the student about her or his behavior, describing the difficulty and your intention to collaborate on a strategy. Ask them to identify strategies that have worked in the past (which they may be forgetting for the moment,) and remind them that they may be able to use them now.

Difficulties with Life Skills for Independent Living

  1. Students may not establish a regular healthy living routine in-country including, eating, sleeping, taking medication, and stress relief.
  2. Students may not be able to manage, organize and plan time, materials, space (room), understand maps and directions and budget money.
  3. Students may not make healthy choices (sexual relationships), show independence or self-control without direct support.

Strategies for Supporting Life Skills for Independent Living in the Host Country

  1. If you determine that a student has difficulty with establishing a regular living routine, intervene immediately. Discuss different strategies such as asking a homestay sibling to wake them if they are having waking difficulties; discuss culturally appropriate ways to get regular exercise and to relieve stress; suggest a shower routine or food recommendations for good health.
  2. When choosing a hotel for the program, select one centrally located so those students with spatial difficulties are less likely to become disoriented. Be aware that some students may suffer from left/right confusion.
  3. Students with difficulty with directions may not be able to read the maps you provide, or to remember the directions you give. Students may need training in map reading and may need to use a buddy system. Be sure to point out relevant landmarks whenever possible. Upon arrival, provide emergency cards with several emergency phone numbers.
  4. Offer students the option of budgeting their money for the program with your assistance. They may also benefit from having time to practice monetary conversions in a structured environment. Foreign currency can seem like play money until itís gone!
  5. Since students have difficulty keeping track of their materials, you may choose to hold their passports, plane tickets and traveler's check numbers. At minimum you should have a photocopy of all-important documents. Consider providing students with an around the wrist or neck key chain instead of providing them with only a single key.
  6. Students that fall ill may need to be accompanied to the doctor several times. They may also need assistance or reminders to take the necessary medication on a regular schedule.
  7. Review safe sex practices, provide condoms, and be explicit about appropriate sexual behavior in the host country. Let students know if they are behaving inappropriately with peers or with host country nationals.
  8. Students who have learning disabilities and also use alcohol and other drugs are at a high risk for abusing rather than using the substances. Some students may be on medications that will interact negatively with alcohol and drugs. Actively use the drug and alcohol policies that you have in place; however, you may need to intervene with these students earlier.
  9. Students may not be able to organize their rooms and will need periodic supervised organizing instructions. In addition, students may not be able to gauge how much they are buying and may wind up with more possessions than they have given thought to bringing home. Give feedback and comments as you see this. Mailing suggestions and help with packing may be required.
  10. Be aware that some students with LDs have difficulty telling time on a clock face. They may also never have been taught how to interpret military time often used outside of the US on bus schedules and plane tickets. Students may feel embarrassed about this and not ask for help. Knowing this might be a problem allows you as a program leader to give students additional support.

Potential Unhealthy Emotional Responses to Living with a Learning Disability

  1. Low or fragile self-esteem/ fear of failure/ learned helplessness/ anxiety
  2. Dependence
  3. Withdrawal/ avoidance
  4. Defensive behavior such as blaming and negativity

*Student may or may not have a clear understanding of his or her learning disability.

Strategies for Supporting Emotional Responses to Living with a Learning Disability

  1. For students with low self-esteem, structure activities for success and allow students to see for themselves that they are capable of being successful in this new situation. Offer praise, yet not hollow praise, and address strengths in relation to other areas. If a student is anxious, work with him/her to identify the cause of the anxiety and discuss ways to improve the situation.
  2. For students who are extremely dependent, provide accommodations, support, and structure. Be explicit about what you expect the student to do independently in time. Continually monitor the abilities of the student compared to your and their expectations and adjust accordingly. Give more appropriate support if necessary. Develop a dialog with the student to create strategies to help the student meet goals.
  3. Some students may begin to withdraw from the program socially and academically or may "disappear." When a student begins to fail and reacts by hiding, withdrawing, denying, or avoiding you or the work that is required, it is important for you to intervene in a planned manner immediately. It is essential to keep regular contact with the student.
  4. Externalizing, blaming, and negativity towards you, the program, or the host country are all common responses and coping mechanisms which allow the individual to maintain a sense of "self." However, they are not the most advantageous coping mechanisms for overall success. Maintain your professional objectivity. Refrain from reacting emotionally. Work with the student to develop more effective problem solving strategies.
  5. As mentioned above, the student may or may not have a clear understanding of his or her learning disability. The degree of metacognition or self-awareness is vital to assuming some measure of personal control. Ask students to describe their understanding of their learning difference or AD/HD and how it affects their life. You will find their responses revealing.

J. Bolaski/ L. Hill/ E. Leons, August 2000


While it is useful to talk about general strategies and principles for working to maintain a safe academic and physical environment for students, oftentimes the actual solutions to problems that students are facing will be particular to that student's needs. Regular communication with your students throughout the program is essential. As a program leader, you must know what learning difficulties your students are facing in order to put in place (with the individual student) appropriate support structures in a timely manner.

As this article has been written for the SAFETI newsletter, the content has necessarily focused on difficulties students with LDs face in the study abroad environment. However, as educators interested in study abroad, you also know the power of the experience. Don't lose sight of the fact that students with LDs are, in fact, often highly motivated, mature students with a bounty of gifts to share. A well designed study abroad program structured for success, will afford all of your students the opportunity to share those gifts in ways that they had never imagined possible.

Acknowledgements:The content of this article was created with Leslie Hill, colleague and leader of the India program for a presentation for the academic directors of the School for International Training's College Semester Abroad programs, August 2000. Special thanks to the other leaders of Landmark's study abroad programs who contributed their expertise.

What is a Learning Disability?

The term "children with specific learning disabilities" means those children who have a disorder in one or more of the basic psychological processes involved in understanding or in using language spoken or written, which may manifest itself in an imperfect ability to listen, think, speak, read, write, spell, or do mathematical calculations. The term includes such conditions as perceptual handicaps, brain injury, minimal brain dysfunction, dyslexia, and developmental aphasia. The term does not include children who have learning problems, which are primarily the result of visual, hearing, or motor handicaps, of environmental, cultural, or economic disadvantage.

Source: Public Law 101-476,The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), 1990.

What is Dyslexia?

Dyslexia is a neurologically based, often familial, disorder, which interferes with the acquisition and processing of language. Varying in degrees of severity, it is manifested by difficulties in receptive and expressive language, including phonological processing, in reading, writing, spelling, handwriting, and sometimes in arithmetic. Dyslexia is not a result of lack of motivation, sensory impairment, inadequate instructional or environmental opportunities, or other limiting conditions, but may occur together with these conditions. Although dyslexia is life-long, individuals with dyslexia frequently respond successfully to timely and appropriate intervention.

Source: Orton Dyslexia Society, November, 1994

What is Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder?

The essential feature of Attention-Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder is a persistent pattern of inattention and/or hyperactivity-impulsivity that is more frequent and severe than is typically observed in individuals at a comparable level of development (Criterion A). Some hyperactive-impulsive or inattentive symptoms that cause impairment must have been present before age 7 years, although many individuals are diagnosed after the symptoms have been present for a number of years (Criterion B). Some impairment from the symptoms must be present in at least two settings (e.g. at home and at school or work) (Criterion C). There must be clear evidence of interference with developmentally appropriate social, academic, or occupational functioning (Criterion D). The disturbance does not occur exclusively during the course of a Pervasive Developmental Disorder, Schizophrenia or other Psychotic Disorder and is not better accounted for by another mental disorder (e.g. a Mood Disorder, Anxiety Disorder, Dissociative Disorder, or Personality Disorder) (Criterion E).

Eve Leons currently works at Landmark College, the only fully accredited college in the country designed exclusively for students of average to superior intellectual potential with dyslexia, attention deficit disorder, or specific learning disabilities. She created Landmark's Spanish program and was the primary teacher/researcher for the FIPSE funded foreign language project, "Best Practices in Teaching Foreign Languages to Students with Learning Differences." In addition, she was the faculty leader for Landmark's first study abroad trips to Spain. Prior to becoming a language teacher at Landmark, Eve worked with the School for International Training's College Semester Abroad programs. Feel free to contact Eve with questions about study abroad or foreign language learning at