“Mum, I don’t want to go to school. I can’t read and everyone else already can. I feel stupid”, screamed Ricky, throwing himself on his bed in tears. Unbeknown to Ricky and his Mum, he had an undiagnosed learning disorder.
School can be particularly hard for kids with a diagnosis of a “Specific Learning Disorder” (SLD). These kids have had the same opportunity to learn as their friends and have received similar support from their teachers, but still can’t acquire academic skills as fast as their peers. In fact, they are likely to be “well below average” compared to their class mates in one (or more) of the following areas:
Despite this, these kids usually have average intelligence and individual strengths. One boy I know had a SLD in writing but had still self-published a novel by the age of 9. Another 8 year old girl with a reading disorder had a special talent for sport and maths. Nevertheless, both of these kids needed support in school to keep up with their classmates so that they could reach their full potential.
Learning disorders are widely misunderstood, with some claiming that they do not exist. Others blame learning difficulties on a poor diet, ineffective teaching, bad parenting or plain lazy kids. This article aims to dispel the myths and clarify what learning disorders are.
How do I know if my child has a learning disorder?
The process of learning a school-based task (like reading) requires explicit instruction from teachers or parents. As a result, teachers are often the first to notice if a child is not picking up things in the classroom in the same way as others. If learning problems persist for more than 6 months, testing can be conducted by a psychologist to assess your child’s intelligence (IQ) and academic achievement. If there is a big difference between IQ and academic skills, then a specific learning disorder can be diagnosed.
Should I just wait and see as they might just catch up?
Research indicates that early intervention is the best, so if a problem is suspected, it is best to investigate it straight away so that your child can be supported in a way that will best support their learning. The brain is more malleable when kids are young, with new connections forming every minute of every day (known as “brain plasticity”), so it’s a perfect time to start interventions. As your child proceeds through school, each lesson is a building block for the next lesson. Therefore, it’s important to get the foundations right as doing so will make the rest of their schooling much easier for them. Just as it’s important to lay good foundations when building a house, it’s also important for foundational learning to be mastered before moving on to more complex learning tasks.
If my child has a diagnosis of a specific learning disorder, what support will my child be able to get at school?
With a diagnosis, your school will be able to adapt learning to best suit the needs of your child. The strategies that your psychologist recommends will be determined by your child’s individual learning profile. For example, some kids benefit from one on one instruction in classes, small group support, scribes, extra time, quieter working spaces, computer or iPad support, multi sensory learning (MSL), speech pathology interventions, occupational therapy, and so on. Importantly, psychological test results will also identify your child’s strengths. Parents and teachers can support the development of their child’s strengths by providing opportunities for them to practice and demonstrate their knowledge and ability. Doing so can help to bolster self-esteem, which can sometimes be negatively affected if kids start thinking they are dumb.
What support can my child access outside of school?
With an appropriate and qualified provider, this is an excellent form of outside support for students with a SLD who:
- are slightly behind in a specific area
- have had time away from school
- have come from a different learning background
- do not have consistent support at home to complete their homework and assignment tasks
- lack confidence in learning
- have an interest in a particular area such as a second language, technology or drama
Very often when a child has been diagnosed with a learning difficulty their sense of academic self-esteem has been knocked around – they often do not feel that they are good at anything, they do not feel that they are making progress in learning and quite frequently, they do not want to go to school. For these children it is essential to find a strength or interest so that deliberate measures can be made for them to succeed. A recent example of this occurred when a young girl who was diagnosed with attention control difficulties and dyslexia commenced circus training in out-of-school time. This gave her the chance to burn energy and gave her the satisfaction of success and enjoyment of doing something that she was good at. Her teacher also gave her the opportunity to share this success with her class.
Positive family routines
Read, Read, Read!
- Support your child to always have a book to read and the next one planned
- Don’t just read the book … discuss the pictures, ask what they expect will happen next, spend some time helping kids to understand unfamiliar words, check that they understand the story (comprehension) by asking questions
- Join the council library and make regular visits
- Let your children see you reading
- Share your favourite books from childhood
- Listen to your child read aloud all through primary school
- Make sure that your child reads a variety of books – fiction and non-fiction
- Share interesting articles from the internet, newspapers and magazines
- Play word games and do puzzles
Homework- some but not too much!
- Supporting your child to do a small amount of homework each day will not only strengthen their ability to develop their own routines, it will lead to better learning outcomes. The child who does a small amount of reading and homework each day will make better progress than the child who does it all in one long sitting.
- Take some time to plan the week with your child so that they are aware of what days and times of their commitments and when they will have some down time.
- Try to make homework fun. For example, read while sitting on a picnic rug, practice writing in sand or on a white board, play snap or scrabble together as a family.
- Make sure that homework is balanced with plenty of unstructured, outdoors play. Rest, recreation and sleep are essential for brain development.
-Dr Amy Kelly, Child Psychologist, Whole Heart Psychology.