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The Informed Parent

School Age Children and Learning Disability

As a regular reader of THE INFORMED PARENT, you know that during the past two months my articles have focused on learning disability. By now you may be thinking there isn’t much more to know about the disorder. It’s true that lots of information has been provided. In the first article learning disability was described as the "hidden handicap". Possible causes for learning disability and the prognosis for children diagnosed with a learning disability were offered. Last month’s article focused on five areas of development in the preschool child and the developmental milestones expected in each area.

This third, and last, article looks at learning disability in school age children. While the disorder becomes more apparent in this age group, learning disability tends to be elusive. Children with an undiagnosed learning disability may be considered lazy or not caring. They are frequently accused of not trying. They may even be thought of as slow.

The earlier in a child’s school career a learning disability is recognized, clearly diagnosed, and effectively addressed, the greater opportunity the child has for social, emotional, and academic success.

Clues To Look For

The child with a learning disability is often the one with whom a "wait and see" approach is taken. He is the kindergartner the school wants to retain or the first grader who isn’t reading at grade level, but seems bright. She is the child who learned successfully through second grade and has difficulty understanding the material in third grade. He is the child labeled as being immature. She is the child who doesn’t seem to be learning in quite the expected manner yet no one knows why. Children who just don’t seem to fit into the traditional academic programs may be the ones with a learning disability.

Informed parents seek professional advice when they have concerns about their child’s development. There are clues to look for that can alert you to the possibility of a learning disability.

  1. One of the most puzzling aspects of children with a learning disability is their inconsistency in or unpredictability of their abilities. You may work with your child on his spelling words all week long. On Thursday evening he writes them accurately as you dictate them. On Friday’s spelling test, he misses more that half the words. He feels hurt and confused. "I really studied," he says. Teacher and parents don’t understand and may be impatient.

    This inconsistency, a common trait among the learning disabled, causes frustration in learners and can result in a lack of desire to put forth effort. "Oh, why bother. I can’t do it anyway", is a common lament.

  2. Children with learning disabilities often exhibit impulsivity. "Why don’t you just stop and think before barging into something", you say to your fourth grader. You know that if your child were to slow down, she might do better at the attempted task. Such impulsivity leads to poor academic performance.
  3. Some children with learning disabilities exhibit hyperactivity and distractibility. Others are hypoactive or quiet and aloof. While these behaviors mimic a neurological attention deficit disorder, the inability to attend results from a learning problem.

    Children with a learning disability may have a neurological attention deficit disorder along with their learning disability; however, many learning-disabled children exhibit attention problems that are learning based, and they will not respond to the medications used for the medical disorder. As the learning problem is addressed, and as focusing skills are taught, attention will begin to increase.

  4. Children with learning disabilities tend to be immature or dependent. They rely on you or a sibling to do tasks for them that they are capable of doing by themselves. These children do not trust their abilities. Too often what they attempt does not work out for them. Their fear of failure makes them unwilling to engage in new and different activities or even the most familiar jobs.
  5. Many learning-disabled children show rigidity in their thinking and in their behavior. They are unaware of the choices available to them and of the numerous ways situations can be approached and handled. Their mental flexibility or ability to shift gears in thinking is not well developed. This poses a problem for them both academically and in their social relationships.

    This rigidity can drive you crazy because you see how it interferes with your child’s success. One evening your son’s homework assignment includes writing a one-page paper. As you look over his work, you notice that he has not divided the paper into paragraphs. When you point this out to him, he says, "My teacher just said to write a one-page paper. She didn’t say we had to make it into paragraphs."

    Nothing you say will convince him that paragraphs are an essential part of writing a paper of any length. Your son had focused on the words "one-page paper", and that is where he stayed stuck. His rigidity frustrates you and his teachers. He does not see how he is interfering with his own success.

  6. Learning disabled children often have unsuccessful social relationships. Many have not developed the skills necessary for making and keeping friends. Sometimes other students ostracize them because of their maladaptive behaviors.

    Children who exhibit inconsistency in their academic skills may show the same tendency in games and sports. Children who don’t focus in class may forget planned times with friends. They may lose their place in board games or not attend during PE. These traits irritate their peers.

    Few children like other children who hang around the teacher or are afraid to leave their parent. They may be called babies, or scaredy cats, or teacher’s pets. Rigid children may demand their own way in games and in play. If they can’t do the activity their way, they don’t want to do it at all. This inability to shift into a give and take mode doesn’t make them fun playmates.

Steps To Take

Often parents feel sad when they read these clues. They recognize the traits, and they hurt for their child. They know that their child is not happy. They know that he is frustrated, angry, confused, sad, and doesn’t know why life doesn’t work for him. They believe he is bright. He seems smart in everything except school. Their efforts to help have failed.

If your child doesn’t succeed in school and exhibits the above traits, now is the time to take the steps necessary in determining whether a learning disability exists. Talk to the pediatrician. Let him or her know your concerns. Ask for referrals and resources. Talk to the teacher and school counselor or school psychologist. Share what you see. Ask if an evaluation by the school study team is warranted. If the teacher and support staff believe there is reason for concern, a team meeting will be scheduled. An evaluation may follow. Unfortunately, many schools don’t have the resources necessary for following up on all but the severest cases. You may need to seek assistance with a private practitioner. Your pediatrician or the school can give you referrals.

Plan For Success

Children with learning disabilities rest in good company. Leonardo da Vinci had a learning disability. So did Michelangelo, Albert Einstein, and Thomas Edison. Tom Cruise, Cher, and Robin Williams exhibit learning disabilities.

Learning disabilities cannot be cured. They can be remediated. This means that when a child’s learning difficulty is addressed with an educational program that meets her needs, when a behavior management program is developed to assist in managing inappropriate behaviors, and when social skills are taught, success can be expected.

Success does not mean that children with learning disabilities will learn as easily as those without a disability. It does not mean that the path toward becoming an effective learner will be easy. It does mean that children with learning disabilities can learn to learn and have a rich, rewarding academic and social/emotional life.

As the parent of a learning disabled child, your job of providing structure and consistency in the life of the family is highly important. Your child will need support and acknowledgment. Perhaps more structure, consistency, support, and acknowledgment than your other children do.




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