Having a learning difficulty does not mean that your child is doomed to failure and misery for the rest of their life.
Temple Grandin was a late talker (she was almost aged four when she began to speak) and her doctors thought she should be institutionalized because of her autism. This did not keep her from being listed in the 2010 TIME 100 list of the most influential people, alongside Barack Obama and Lady Gaga.
Swimming helped Michael Phelps deal better with his ADHD. His condition did not stop him from winning the most Olympic gold medals ever won (23 gold medals).
Keanu Reaves became a big fan of Shakespeare despite his Dyslexia and Will.i.am, The Black Eyed Peas member, says his ADHD makes him more creative.
If your child has a learning difference or difficulty, it means that they learn differently. They may:
- Reach developmental milestones later (for instance, they may talk or read later than other kids)
- Find it difficult to focus
- Have a hard time keeping still
- Struggle with hyperactivity or hypersensitivity
- Have working memory issues
- Struggle to complete tasks
What does having a learning difficulty or a learning difference really mean?
Having a learning difficulty (sometimes referred to as a learning disability) has nothing to do with intelligence. If your child has a learning difficulty, it simply means that their brain does not receive and process information in the same way as other children. That is why it is harder for these children to learn in “traditional” learning systems. In other words, a child who has a learning difficulty will often require a different approach to learning, for example through the use of specific learning strategies or personalized lessons.
Learning difficulties are especially problematic in childhood because they affect how your child develops reading, writing and arithmetic skills, which are important skills upon which the development of later skills are based. In other words, if nothing is done to help a child experiencing difficulty reading in childhood, they could struggle with reading and spelling their entire life.
The most common types of learning difficulties
Determining whether a child has a learning difficulty or not is a difficult and tricky affair. While some children go un-diagnosed, others are misdiagnosed. Different practitioners – and even different countries – can have different perceptions of what may be defined as learning difficulties or disorders. The fact that two children with the same learning difficulty may have quite different symptoms also makes these difficulties harder to diagnose and therefore to address.
The degree, frequency and intensity of the difficulties experienced determine how your child is diagnosed. Not all learning difficulties warrant an official diagnosis, but an official clinical diagnosis is required to diagnose a child as having a “learning disorder”, meaning a problem with the development of specific skills.
Below are the most common learning difficulties and disorders that affect children and a few of the associated symptoms.
Attention deficit disorder (ADD) and Attention hyperactive deficit disorder (ADHD) are NOT learning disabilities, but they are a common factor among children experiencing learning difficulties. In other words, if a child is successfully treated for ADD or ADHD, then their learning difficulties may diminish or cease.
Common symptoms of ADD/ADHD that affect learning:
- High anxiety
- Poor capacity to process information
- Attention problems (unable to concentrate on lessons or on the tasks at hand)
It is thought that up to 15% of children have some form of dyslexia. If your child has dyslexia, they may find it difficult to distinguish the sounds that make up words. This condition often becomes apparent when your child starts learning to read.
Here are a few common symptoms of dyslexia:
- Difficulty reading
- Difficulty with spelling
- Mispronouncing words
- Difficult time learning new words
- Difficulty understanding what they are reading
3) Slow processing
If your child has a slow processing condition, they will have a harder time understanding and processing information. Here are some common symptoms you may observe:
- Difficulty understanding what they read
- Difficulty completing tasks
- Take longer to get started on tasks
While dyspraxia is not a learning disorder, it affects your child’s fine motor skills and therefore has an impact on their ability to learn. In other words, dyspraxia affects your child’s movement and coordination capacities. It is often associated with dyslexia. Common signs of dyspraxia include:
- Difficulty holding pen/pencil when writing
- Difficulty participating in activities that involve movement (hopping, running, kicking balls, etc)
- Unusual posture
- Difficulty with art activities
- Delayed developmental milestones (sitting up, lifting head, etc.)
- Difficulty dressing
Dysgraphia is a neurological disorder that impairs fine motor skills and leads to handwriting difficulties. Some of the common symptoms include:
- An awkward grip which may lead to a sore hand
- Unusual writing position
- Illegible handwriting
- Poor letter formation
Managing your child’s learning difficulties
Having a learning difficulty does not necessarily mean that your child has a learning disorder. Some children simply do not do well within traditional learning systems and require programs catered to their unique personalities. Also, it is not uncommon for children who are easily bored to be labeled as having learning difficulties, even though sometimes simply changing their environment or the teaching style can change how they learn.
While many children are often wrongly labeled as having learning differences, others genuine difficulties are overlooked, and others are accused of being unmotivated, careless, hypersensitive, hyperactive or just plain lazy.
Here are a few things that may help if you child has a learning difference.
- Trust your gut
Do you think your child has a learning difficulty? Or do you think that changing their learning environment can make it easier for them to learn?
One of the biggest problems with learning differences is that they are not always easy to diagnose, and it is not uncommon for practitioners to hold different opinions of your child’s condition (or even change their diagnosis). If you believe that your child has a learning difference, please seek help, and keep seeking help until you receive it. Research has shown that the earlier they are diagnosed and start receiving help, the easier it will be to help them deal with their condition.
Trusting your gut also means choosing the best intervention to help your child, but this is not always easy. While some parents are totally against medication, others cannot imagine living without it. What works best is often different for each individual and each family. Before deciding on the best option for your child, please get as much information as you can about the different intervention programs and talk to as many specialists as you need to make an informed decision.
2) Change how you see your child
There’s a difference between describing your child as “dyslexic” or as “a child with dyslexia”. The first describes your child’s condition as something permanent, an integral part of their nature. The second has a less negative connotation: Dyslexia DOES NOT define your child.
Rather than focusing on their diagnostic label, it is important to focus on what your child really needs. What will help them develop the skills they need? What practices will increase their concentration?
There are multiple sides to every situation, and each situation has its positive side. Talking about her husband, Tim Burton, in an interview, Helena Bonham Carter had this to say:
“Autistic people have application and dedication. You can say something to Tim when he’s working and he doesn’t hear you. But that quality also makes him a fantastic father; he has an amazing sense of humor and imagination. He sees things other people won’t see.”
Focusing on positive labels is a powerful strategy that can help you see your child in a more positive light. This means finding different positive labels to replace the negative ones you use, and making a conscious effort to unleash your child’s “superpowers”. If you are short on ideas, this guide will give you practical tips you can start using immediately.
3) Help your child see themselves as a successful person
The psychologist Gordon Allport once said that “one’s reputation, whether false or true, cannot be hammered, hammered, hammered, into one’s head without doing something to one’s character.”
What this means is that if you keeping sending your child the message that they are “not good enough” – consciously or unconsciously – they will learn to view themselves as incapable of success. That’s why it is important to help your child have a positive image of themselves, by constantly reminding them that they mean the world to you. Here is a free download of 100 words every kid needs to hear.
An easy way to help your child see themselves as a successful person is to encourage them to participate in age-appropriate chores. Experts says chores are great for kids. They make them learn about responsibility and independence, and show them that they have what it takes to successfully accomplish a task.
It is also important to praise your child’s efforts often.
4) Increase decision-making opportunities
Rather than overprotecting them, children with learning difficulties need to be encouraged to make decisions by themselves. This means proposing options whenever possible: “do you want to your shower now or immediately after your snack?” “When do you want to do your homework, now or …”.
It is also important to teach your child to make decisions about how to spend their time by themselves. “Play-planning” is a powerful strategy that can increase both your child’s decision-making capacities and their autonomy. The Nurturing Constructive Boredom Guide is a resource that will help even the youngest child to plan their day. Moreover, the over 100 activities proposed are designed to boost your child’s concentration and autonomy.
5) Work on the development of your child’s emotional intelligence
Emotions are crazy things. They make us say things we normally wouldn’t. They make kids do things or act in ways they themselves do not understand. Children who have not yet learned to manage big emotions have a harder time than other kids. They have more academic and social challenges, find it harder to make and to keep friends, struggle with issues such as anxiety or aggressive behavior, and have a higher chance of struggling with psychological issues in adolescence and beyond.
Every child benefits from learning about their emotions and those of others and from identifying coping mechanisms they can use to better deal with emotion-provoking situations. The good news is that age-appropriate resources can help you teach your child about emotions, about identifying their triggers, and about choosing appropriate ways to deal with big emotions.
6) Try different ways of learning
Children, irrespective of whether they have learning differences or not, learn in different ways. Fleming and Mills identified four major learning styles:
- Visual learners learn best when they are presented information graphically.
- Auditory learners prefer receiving information vocally and may even prefer not to take notes which they view as a distraction from their listening. These learners are also more likely to appreciate activities that require vocal interventions (for example group work or reading their work out loud).
- Reading/writing learners process information best when they interact with the written word. These are the learners who like taking notes, appreciate handouts, do well in exercises that require them to synthesize information, etc.
- Kinesthetic learners learn best when they are actively involved in the learning process. This means that they require “hand-on” approaches (for example participating in experiments, building things, etc.) – in other words, they prefer activities that make use of the sense of touch. Unfortunately, not all conventional learning environments propose interactive experiences, meaning that kinesthetic learners are among those that have the hardest time learning.
When dealing with a child with learning difficulties, it is important to identify their preferred learning style and to propose options that favor learning. This may mean teaching them how to count using LEGO, teaching them about nature by organizing a scavenger hunt, or teaching them about volume through a baking activity.
Trying alternate ways of learning can help you discover what works best for your child.
A child with a learning difficulty must be allowed to work at their own level of mastery. It is also important to break down learning into manageable portions because children with learning differences cannot process large amounts of information at a go. That is why it’s also important to keep learning/homework sessions short (for example no more than 20 minutes at a go). Helping your child adopt their own strategy to break down information is also a great way to help them manage their condition by themselves. For instance, when dealing with homework, you could help them break up the tasks they have to do:
- What will I do first?
- What will I do next?
- What will I finish with?
7) Let your child know that they can ask for your help
Children with a learning difference may find it difficult to ask for help for various reasons:
- They may feel ashamed or may want to protect their pride
- They may fear being ridiculed
- Their past experiences may have taught them to shy away for asking for help
It is important for your child to know that asking for help is a sign of strength, not weakness. That begins by teaching them that they are not responsible for their condition. Your child needs to understand that they may require more help than other children to understand some things, and that’s okay.
Ensuring that they know exactly what they are expected to do can also make learning easier. For example, before starting a task, you can:
- Ask them to read the instructions out loud and explain what they have understood
- Ask them to underline the exact question they need to respond to
- Ensure they have understood all the words in the instructions
- Help your child highlight the areas where the responses may be found (for example in a reading comprehension text)
8) Reducing your child’s level of stress may help them better deal with learning difficulties
A recent study was interested in understanding the impact of mindfulness meditation on children with learning difficulties. The study found that children with ADHD or learning disabilities who practiced mindfulness were more aware of the present moment and also had lower levels of hyperactivity and inattention. These children were also less stressed. Other studies also found that yoga, physical exercise and meditation were highly effective in reducing stress, improving attention and reducing hyperactivity.
Some parents have found that chewing has a calming effect, especially in children with ADHD or autism.
Knowing what to do when your child has a learning difficulty isn’t always easy, but the more you both see that difficulty as something that can be managed, the easier it will be to cope with.