Dealing with children with learning disability

Published On: February 16, 2020 11:44 AM NPT By: Usha Pokharel

Significant majority of children with learning disabilities have problems with reading. With earlier interventions, most of these children become skilled and independent readers

A few years ago, during an interaction with school children, I noticed a few children behaving differently. I thought they were just shy, but there was one hyperactive child.  I asked the teacher’s permission to interact closely with the child.  I suspected learning disabilities in the child. Initially, they were reluctant to acknowledge it, but later, they agreed with me. This is just one example.

I am sure you have heard many parents complain about their children’s problems in school.  Not all children have a learning disorder.  Then again, this is something that often passes by unidentified.  Unfortunately, instead of helping them, we label struggling children as stupid or dumb, and resort to scolding and punishing them in school and at home. Their only crime is not being able to copy a simple sentence from the board or to keep up with the class. They also have problems differentiating between b and d, n and u, and w and m. If you notice your child struggling with all these symptoms, you become concerned.  

Come parent-teacher meeting you voice your concerns regarding your child to the teacher. “My child can’t read! S/he works so hard, but it just never gets easier. S/he knows s/he is smart, so why can’t s/he read like other kids? Why can’t s/he write properly?”  Instead of answering your questions directly, the teacher says: “We have noticed s/he does not put in any effort to learn. S/he does not want to study. S/he does not pay attention in class. We think your child has a learning disorder.”

You are shocked.  You feel like you have fallen from the sky. You have no clue what exactly a learning disorder is and would appreciate knowing about it so you can handle your child accordingly. So what exactly is learning disorder?  In simple terms, learning disability results, when a person’s brain is wired differently than that of others.  It is more of a neurological disorder. 

Know the types 
Generally speaking, there are three common types of learning disorders.

First is dyslexia.  It is a language-based disability. A person with dyslexia has trouble understanding written words. It is a reading disability.  Second is dyscalculia, a mathematical disability. A person with dyscalculia has trouble understanding math concepts and solving mathematical problems. The third is dysgraphia, a writing disability.  A person with dysgraphia has trouble forming letters and writing within a defined space.  Apart from these, there are some uncommon learning disorders as well.

 First of these is auditory discrimination, a person’s difficulty in perceiving the differences between speech sounds and sequencing these sounds into words. Next is visual perception, a person’s inability to notice important details, and assign meaning to a visual presentation. Then there is dyspraxia (apraxia), an inability to coordinate appropriate body movements by a person.  I am not trying to scare you. I am only stating the facts.   

Although this cannot be cured, with the right support and intervention, children with learning disorders, can overcome it, and succeed, both in school and life.  They can become successful and follow distinguished careers later in life because children with learning disorders are as smart and sometimes smarter than their peers.  Still, they will have difficulty following in class with other students. They may have difficulty in reading, writing, spelling, reasoning, recalling and organizing information, if they are left to figure out things by themselves, or taught in conventional ways. Understanding learning disabilities helps you to better handle homework at home. At the same time, you are more concerned about your child making through elementary school, middle school, and high school.  Along with your child, you are also struggling to deal with the newfound knowledge regarding your child’s learning disability.  It is neither your fault nor your child’s. Learning disability can sometimes be a hereditary.

Admit the fact 
My advice to parents is not to go into a denial mode when your child’s teacher tells you about his/her learning disability.  Be receptive to the information provided to you and seek help. Any delay in addressing the problem can mean a difference between success and failure for your child in school and in life later on.  According to research, a significant majority of children with learning disabilities have problems with reading.  With earlier interventions, most of these children become skilled and independent readers.  I know it is difficult to change gears from the version of your child you expect to the one you have at hand. I can even understand a parent’s frustration at their past reaction to their child’s inability to read and write like others in his/her class, though s/he is just as intelligent.

So you must be thinking how we should respond to this situation.  It is always a good idea to first understand that this is not the end of the world. Your child might have a deficiency, but s/he might be highly intelligent and possess leadership skills or even be very good in music, arts, and sports or other creative areas.  You might want to acknowledge those traits, and instead of focusing on your child’s shortcomings, emphasize their strengths while encouraging them to excel in the areas of their interest. Then talk to your child’s pediatrician.  They can refer you to resources that provide educational assistance.

Under such circumstances, parents need to support and assure their children constantly.  Show your child you love him/her for what s/he is and that you have confidence in him/her.  Assure him/her that you will help them to meet challenges they might face to achieve their goal and finally succeed. Teach them to continue to work hard while focusing on their strength areas and talents.  This will give them a good feeling and motivate them to keep working on their weaker aspects. 

You might want to talk to your child’s teacher to explore the possibility of changing classroom routines to help your child by reading written information aloud, allowing a little extra time to complete their exams and allowing the usage of technology to complete their assignments.   Just remember, any delay in helping your child will only make it harder for him/her to catch up with the class.  Seeking help early saves your child from the agony of frustration, when they fail to excel in school, despite their hard work.  To top it, they don’t understand the reason for their failure. At this point, you need to help your child understand that s/he is not dumb or stupid, and that s/he learns differently.

Help your child   
Help your child organize homework materials before the beginning of school.  Also, establish a regular time with your child to do homework. At the same time, encourage your child to ask questions and search for answers and not be shy of taking the time to figure out correct answers. Make habit of practicing school-taught skills at home.  Make an effort to relate homework to your child’s everyday life. For instance, teach fractions and measurements as you prepare a favorite food together.  Be a role model. Take the opportunity to read a book or newspaper or write a letter while your child studies. Praise your child for both the small steps and big leaps in the right direction.

The other thing to do is to meet regularly with your child’s teacher, to understand his/her performance level and their attitude in school. You might also want to keep a closer eye on your child’s ability to study, complete homework, and complete tasks that you assign him/her at home. If your child understands, talk to him/her about learning disability.  Assure them that having learning disability does not mean they are dumb or lazy.  It is just that their minds process words or information differently.  Explain to them that though they might struggle with learning, they can still learn. 

Finally, helping your child to understand that they learn differently is the best option. Assure them that they are not the only ones with learning disabilities.  Tell them about Albert Einstein who could not read until he was nine. Similarly, Walt Disney, General George Patton and Nelson Rockefeller all had trouble reading all their lives. Whoopi Goldberg, Charles Schwab and many others have learning disabilities but that has not stopped them from succeeding in life. Given the opportunity, neither will it stop your child from achieving success in life.  

Pokharel is an educationist and author of several children’s books


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