for parents of children with learning difficulties

Schools can bring in literacy and numeracy support teachers into classrooms to help children with learning difficulties. Picture: Thinkstock
Schools can bring in literacy and numeracy support teachers into classrooms to help children with learning difficulties. Picture: Thinkstock

Davina SharryEXPERT advice on how to help your child during their school life

Timetables and classes can be adjusted to help children with learning difficulties. Picture: Thinkstock
Timetables and classes can be adjusted to help children with learning difficulties. Picture: Thinkstock

Davina Sharry, director of Powerful Parenting Australia and a senior teacher, has 20 years' experience teaching children with learning difficulties. She answers the most important questions.

What are learning difficulties?

Children with learning difficulties are usually significantly underachieving, especially in reading and maths, despite an apparent ‚Äėnormal' level of intelligence. Sometimes they can develop strong coping strategies so they are not easy to spot.

Learning difficulties are found in the significant gap between a person's intelligence and the skills a child has to learn and achieve. They are different from intellectual disabilities.

It is a permanent information processing deficit that affects the manner in which a child learns. The brain works, or is structured, differently.

"Learning difficulties can affect a person's ability to speak, listen, read, write, spell, reason, recall, organise information, and calculate," Ms Sharry says.

These limitations can show up in many ways. For example, as the inability to understand or use spoken and written language, do mathematical calculations, coordination, selfcontrol or concentration.

What are the main learning difficulties?

Learning difficulties are not a single disorder, but a term referring to various disorders.

It can range from mild to severe, and can include such conditions as:

Perceptual disabilities

Brain dysfunction

Dyspraxia: A motor learning difficulty that can affect planning of movements and coordination

Dyslexia: A distinct learning disability ‚Äď a specific language-based disorder characterised by difficulties in single word decoding, reflecting insufficient processing of sounds

Brain injury and Developmental Aphasia: A severe language disorder that is thought to be due to brain injury

Dyscalculia and Math Disorders: Profound difficulties in learning concepts in maths despite instruction, good intelligence and sound sensory functioning. For example, the child does not remember and/or solve maths facts; has difficulties in language processing that may affect the ability to complete maths problem solving.

Dysgraphia: A neurological disorder that is characterised by writing disabilities and difficulty with the mechanics of writing. It is a form of dyspraxia or motor clumsiness. The cause of the disorder is unknown.

Learning disabilities are not the same as autism, hearing or visual impairments, physical disabilities or emotional disorders.

The areas in which children may experience difficulties

They include motor skills, communication, perception, attention, impulsivity, hyperactivity, conservatism and social skills.

However, all children exhibit some of these behaviours.

The presence of one or more may not be significant, but several of these behaviours requires further assessment. No two children with learning difficulties are the same and should not be compared.

With the right support, children with learning difficulties can go far in their academic careers. Picture: Thinkstock
With the right support, children with learning difficulties can go far in their academic careers. Picture: Thinkstock

Are the numbers of children with learning difficulties growing?

There is no official national data base and no government statistics for children with learning difficulties.

While the numbers of children diagnosed with a difficulty seems to have got higher over the last five -10 years, it could be because awareness of learning difficulties has become a lot higher among teachers and parents so a struggling child is easier to spot.

Approximately 20 per cent of students are generally considered to have learning difficulties in one or more areas of learning, Learning Difficulties Australia says. Most learning difficulties (approximately 80 per cent) are in the area of reading.

What should parents do?

A learning difficulty is not a disease so there is no ‚Äėcure', but there are ways to overcome some of the challenges through identification and special programmes catering to a child's individual needs.

"A learning difficulty will be diagnosed after classroom observation, assessments for vision and hearing are tested and sensory impairment can be ruled out, and diagnostic and cognitive assessments and all other possible factors that might have caused the learning problems are eliminated," says Ms Sharry.

Is school the best place to get help?

Ms Sharry says yes. A school will bring in a STLaN (Support Teacher Literacy and Numeracy) to your child's classroom to help scaffold their learning once a learning support programme has been set up.

The kind of things they will aim to do are:

  • 1. Providing a quiet area for learning and working that is away from distractions
  • 2. Getting children to present their work in small units (having been differentiated to the child's level)
  • 3. Teachers will try to make activities and tasks highly motivating by aiming them at the child's level of interest and understanding
  • 4. For learning difficulties affecting reading and spelling, systematic training in phonics (linking letters with sounds which has been shown to be essential to learning how to read) will be given
  • 5. Where possible, timetables and lessons can be adjusted to allow children to read at their own pace and ensure they have adequate time to spend on any written activities
  • 6. Schools can allow alternative forms of presenting work such as verbal presentations or oral examinations, or even have a learning support teacher read the questions to a child and then record the child's answer

If older children are having problems with reading or spelling they can be encouraged to use an educational spell check or to have a ‚Äėhelper' read through any written work.

If parents do not feel they are getting the support they need from their school, they need to consider moving their child.

Some questions parents might like to ask

How will I be informed about the adjustments being made for my child?

Who will be providing advice to the class teacher about appropriate adjustments?

What additional support will be provided?

Will my child participate in standardised assessment?

Will any of the adjustments affect which certificates my child will be eligible for at end of schooling? (The answer to this should be no).

Considering private programmes

Programmes do exist such as ‚ÄėUnderstanding Minds' with Dr Craig Wright or the Learning Difficulties Support Group but parents must check they are dealing with a licensed professional using standardised tests that compare the child's level of ability to what is ‚Äėconsidered' ‚Äėnormal development' for that age and intelligence.

Private companies and organisations can provide support to families:

Telephone Help Lines

Information on local services, education programs, therapists, schools and special needs classes

Support and advocacy for children and their families

Workshops for parents and children

An extensive library of books, audio and videos

Resources for teachers

Things to beware of

Psychologists test and assess for thousands of dollars but rarely teach children with learning difficulties or offer programs to help. Parents end up paying a small fortune to find out what the school told them.

Not-for-profits are sometimes commercial businesses and not genuine not-for-profits; other places can have agendas.

Learning difficulty Vs Delayed Learning

Not all learning problems are necessarily learning difficulties. Many children are simply slower in developing certain skills so what might appear as a learning difficulty may a delay in maturation.

For early childhood students, a two-year delay may be what we are dealing with, whereas older students might require more than a two-year delay

In conclusion

Children with learning disabilities are not ‚Äúlazy‚ÄĚ or ‚Äúdumb.‚ÄĚ Learning disabilities are not the same as low intelligence. In fact, they usually have average or above average intelligence. They can even fall within the range of gifted. Their brains just process information differently.

As a consequence of learning difficulties, a child may be develop low self-esteem and lack self-confidence.

Children with learning difficulties can achieve. Programmes do help some children with learning difficulties grow up to be doctors, surgeons and academics.

A positive outlook by parents is essential.

View the original article at