If your child has been diagnosed with a learning disability, you may immediately begin thinking about school — homework, tests, projects — and wondering how your kid will get through. How can you make sure your child has the best chance to reach his or her full potential? If you slow down for a moment, you may realize that while academic success is important, what you really want for your child is a happy and fulfilling life. Your influence on your child outweighs that of any teacher, tutor, therapist or counselor. If your child has a learning disability, your love, encouragement, and support can make all the difference, helping him or her emerge with a strong sense of self-confidence and the determination to succeed.
What Are Learning Disabilities?
Interestingly, there is no clear and widely accepted definition of "learning disabilities." Because of the multidisciplinary nature of the field, there is ongoing debate on the issue of definition, and there are currently at least 12 definitions that appear in the professional literature. These disparate definitions do agree on certain factors:
- The learning disabled have difficulties with academic achievement and progress. Discrepancies exist between a person's potential for learning and what he actually learns.
- The learning disabled show an uneven pattern of development (language development, physical development, academic development and/or perceptual development).
- Learning problems are not due to environmental disadvantage.
- Learning problems are not due to mental retardation or emotional disturbance.
How prevalent are learning disabilities?
Experts estimate that 6 to 10 percent of the school-aged population in the United States is learning disabled. Nearly 40 percent of the children enrolled in the nation's special education classes suffer from a learning disability. The Foundation for Children With Learning Disabilities estimates that there are 6 million adults with learning disabilities as well.
What causes learning disabilities?
Little is currently known about the causes of learning disabilities. However, some general observations can be made:
- Some children develop and mature at a slower rate than others in the same age group.
- As a result, they may not be able to do the expected school work. This kind of learning disability is called "maturational lag."
- Some children with normal vision and hearing may misinterpret everyday sights and sounds because of some unexplained disorder of the nervous system.
Injuries before birth or in early childhood probably account for some later learning problems.
- Children born prematurely and children who had medical problems soon after birth sometimes have learning disabilities.
- Learning disabilities tend to run in families, so some learning disabilities may be inherited.
- Learning disabilities are more common in boys than girls, possibly because boys tend to mature more slowly.
- Some learning disabilities appear to be linked to the irregular spelling, pronunciation, and structure of the English language. The incidence of learning disabilities is lower in
- Spanish or Italian speaking countries.
What are the "early warning signs" of learning disabilities?
Children with learning disabilities exhibit a wide range of symptoms. These include problems with reading, mathematics, comprehension, writing, spoken language, or reasoning abilities. Hyperactivity, inattention and perceptual coordination may also be associated with learning disabilities but are not learning disabilities themselves. The primary characteristic of a learning disability is a significant difference between a child's achievement in some areas and his or her overall intelligence. Learning disabilities typically affect five general areas:
- Spoken language: delays, disorders, and deviations in listening and speaking.
- Written language: difficulties with reading, writing and spelling.
- Arithmetic: difficulty in performing arithmetic operations or in understanding basic concepts.
- Reasoning: difficulty in organizing and integrating thoughts.
- Memory: difficulty in remembering information and instructions.
Among the symptoms commonly related to learning disabilities are:
- poor performance on group tests
- difficulty discriminating size, shape, color
- difficulty with temporal (time) concepts
- distorted concept of body image
- reversals in writing and reading
- general awkwardness
- poor visual-motor coordination
- difficulty copying accurately from a model
- slowness in completing work
- poor organizational skills
- easily confused by instructions
- difficulty with abstract reasoning and/or problem solving
- disorganized thinking
- often obsesses on one topic or idea
- poor short-term or long-term memory
- impulsive behavior; lack of reflective thought prior to action
- low tolerance for frustration
- excessive movement during sleep
- poor peer relationships
- overly excitable during group play
- poor social judgment
- inappropriate, unselective, and often excessive display of affection
- lags in developmental milestones (e.g. motor, language)
- behavior often inappropriate for situation
- failure to see consequences for his actions
- overly gullible; easily led by peers
- excessive variation in mood and responsiveness
- poor adjustment to environmental changes
- overly distractible; difficulty concentrating
- difficulty making decisions
- lack of hand preference or mixed dominance
- difficulty with tasks requiring sequencing
When considering these symptoms, it is important to remain mindful of the following:
- No one will have all these symptoms.
- Among LD populations, some symptoms are more common than others.
- All people have at least two or three of these problems to some degree.
- The number of symptoms seen in a particular child does not give an indication as whether the disability is mild or severe. It is important to consider if the behaviors are chronic and appear in clusters.
What should a parent do if it is suspected that a child has a learning disability?
The parent should contact the child's school and arrange for testing and evaluation. Federal law requires that public school districts provide special education and related services to children who need them. If these tests indicate that the child requires special educational services, the school evaluation team (planning and placement team) will meet to develop an individual educational plan (IEP) geared to the child's needs. The IEP describes in detail an educational plan designed to remediate and compensate for the child's difficulties.
Simultaneously, the parent should take the child to the family pediatrician for a complete physical examination. The child should be examined for correctable problems (e.g. poor vision or hearing loss) that may cause difficulty in school.
How does a learning disability affect the parents of the child?
Research indicates that parental reaction to the diagnosis of learning disability is more pronounced than in any other area of exceptionality. Consider: if a child is severely retarded or physically handicapped, the parent becomes aware of the problem in the first few weeks of the child's life. However, the pre-school development of the learning disabled child is often uneventful and the parent does not suspect that a problem exists. When informed of the problem by elementary school personnel, a parent's first reaction is generally to deny the existence of a disability. This denial is, of course, unproductive. The father tends to remain in this stage for a prolonged period because he is not exposed to the child's day-to-day frustrations and failures.
Research conducted by Eleanor Whitehead suggests that the parent of an LD child goes through a series of emotions before truly accepting the child and his problem. These "stages" are totally unpredictable. A parent may move from stage-to-stage in random. Some parents skip over stages while others remain in one stage for an extended period. These stages are as follows:
DENIAL: "There is really nothing wrong!" "That's the way I was as a child--not to worry!" "He'll grow out of it!"
BLAME: "You baby him!" "You expect too much of him." "It's not from my side of the family."
FEAR: "Maybe they're not telling me the real problem!" "Is it worse than they say?" "Will he ever marry? go to college? graduate?"
ENVY: "Why can't he be like his sister or his cousins?"
MOURNING: "He could have been such a success, if not for the learning disability!"
BARGAINING: "Wait 'till next year!" "Maybe the problem will improve if we move! (or he goes to camp, etc.)."
ANGER: "The teachers don't know anything." "I hate this neighborhood, this school...this teacher."
GUILT: "My mother was right; I should have used cloth diapers when he was a baby." "I shouldn't have worked during his first year." "I am being punished for something and my child is suffering as a result."
ISOLATION: "Nobody else knows or cares about my child." "You and I against the world. No one else understands."
FLIGHT: "Let's try this new therapy--Donahue says it works!" "We are going to go from clinic to clinic until somebody tells me what I want to hear.!"
Again, the pattern of these reactions is totally unpredictable. This situation is worsened by the fact that frequently the mother and father may be involved in different and conflicting stages at the same time (e.g., blame vs. denial; anger vs. guilt). This can make communication very difficult.
The good news is that with proper help, most LD children can make excellent progress. There are many successful adults such as attorneys, business executives, physicians, teachers, etc. who had learning disabilities but overcame them and became successful. Now with special education and many special materials, LD children can be helped early.
Pointers for parents of children with learning disabilities:
- Take the time to listen to your children as much as you can (really try to get their "Message").
- Love them by touching them, hugging them, tickling them, wrestling with them (they need lots of physical contact).
- Look for and encourage their strengths, interests, and abilities. Help them to use these as compensations for any limitations or disabilities.
- Reward them with praise, good words, smiles, and pat on the back as often as you can.
- Accept them for what they are and for their human potential for growth and development.
- Be realistic in your expectations and demands.
- Involve them in establishing rules and regulations, schedules, and family activities.
- Tell them when they misbehave and explain how you feel about their behavior; then have them propose other more acceptable ways of behaving.
- Help them to correct their errors and mistakes by showing or demonstrating what they should do.
- Don't nag!
- Give them reasonable chores and a regular family work responsibility whenever possible.
- Give them an allowance as early as possible and then help them plan to spend within it.
- Provide toys, games, motor activities and opportunities that will stimulate them in their development.
- Read enjoyable stories to them and with them. Encourage them to ask questions, discuss stories, tell the story, and to reread stories.
- Further their ability to concentrate by reducing distracting aspects of their environment as much as possible (provide them with a place to work, study and play).
- Don't get hung up on traditional school grades! It is important that they progress at their own rates and be rewarded for doing so.
- Take them to libraries and encourage them to select and check out books of interest.
- Have them share their books with you.
- Provide stimulating books and reading material around the house.
- Help them to develop self-esteem and to compete with self rather than with others.
- Insist that they cooperate socially by playing, helping, and serving others in the family and the community.
- Serve as a model to them by reading and discussing material of personal interest. Share with them some of the things you are reading and doing.
- Don't hesitate to consult with teachers or other specialists whenever you feel it to be necessary in order to better understand what might be done to help your child learn.
The Survival Guide for Kids with LD*: *(Learning Differences)
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