Dealing With Learning Disabilities
by Debbie Cybulski
Determining whether a child’s development is typical can be a daunting task for even the most experienced and skilled parent. Children vary in their development so it is natural for parents to experience uncertainty when confronted by the possibility of their child having a learning disability (LD).
Learning disabilities, by their very nature, are confusing! According to Learning Disabilities of Canada, LD can be defined as “A number of disorders which may affect the acquisition, organization, retention, understanding or use of verbal or nonverbal information. These disorders affect learning in individuals who otherwise demonstrate at least average abilities essential for thinking and/or reasoning.
Learning disabilities result from impairments in one or more processes related to perceiving, thinking, remembering or learning. These include, but are not limited to: language processing; phonological processing; visual spatial processing; processing speed; memory and attention; and executive functions (e.g. planning and decision-making).”Possible Signs of Learning Disabilities
Learning disabilities manifest differently in each person who has them. Children who have LD may exhibit some of the following signs.
• Difficulty seeing the difference in size, shape and colour
• Difficulty rhyming words
• Reversals in reading and writing
• Loses place when reading, skips or substitutes words
• Squints or complains of headaches and tiredness while reading or writing
• Awkward pencil grip
• Clumsiness and prone to accidents
• Difficulty making the connection between letters and sounds
• Poor visual-motor coordination
• Confuses arithmetic signs
• Poor organization and planning skills
• Confused by instructions
• Disorganized thinking patterns
• Poor short-term or long-term memory
• Difficulty learning how to tell time
• Difficulty expressing themselves verbally or in print/writing
• Relies on memorization rather than understanding
• Lags in developmental milestones (speech, motor coordination)
It is not surprising that children who have learning disabilities may also exhibit low tolerance for frustration, anxiety and other behavioral challenges. Imagine what it would be like to have well-meaning people “help” you by encouraging you to try harder, try again, or by telling you that you are smart and you can do it, when you simply cannot. When you can’t do something and people continue to encourage you, it actually backfires and creates anxiety, not the determination to try harder.
One or more of the above signs can be seen in children at some stage or age, but this can be typical of development and should not be considered a sign of a learning disability.When to Seek an Assessment
If a parent is concerned about a child’s learning and/or development, it is important to seek out the help of professionals. Parents often know their child has problems at an early age. They need to follow their intuition and seek assistance if they have concerns.
Before considering a formal assessment for LD, a child should have a complete medical check up, eye exam and hearing tests to rule out medical or physical causes. Parents can discuss their concerns with their family doctor or child’s pediatrician to identify other possible causes and potential referrals for further assessments.
Childcare professionals and teachers who know your child can also provide helpful feedback. Parents can ask about their child’s social, emotional and learning behaviour in these environments to help them assess whether to pursue a formal assessment for LD. Schools can also initiate school-based assessments when warranted.If Your Child is Assessed With an LD
The good news is there is a lot we can do to support individuals with LD. They will require early identification and timely assessments and supports involving home, school, community and workplace settings. The plan needs to be appropriate for each individual’s learning disability and, at a minimum, include the provision of:
• Specific skill instruction
• Compensatory strategies
• Self-advocacy skills
Longitudinal studies show that the following characteristics and skills can positively impact the lives of those with LD and they need our awareness and support to develop:
• Self awareness. An understanding of their strengths and weaknesses (we all have them!). Helping people with LD to recognize their strengths and providing accommodations for their challenges is important for their learning, self-worth and overall well-being.
• The ability to compartmentalize their disability. They see their disability as one aspect of themselves. Think about your own strengths and weaknesses. Now imagine if your identity was largely based on what you can’t do.
• The ability to make mistakes. Successful learners are willing to try new things and problem solve. It is crucial that children are taught by example that mistakes are an opportunity to learn, not a sign of failure.
• Tolerance for frustration—the ability to set goals and stick to it despite setbacks. Learning can be fun and it can be challenging at times.
• Presence of a support network. Never assume a child knows who they can talk to if they need help. Talk with your child about who they can go to for help in their care facilities and schools.
• Emotional coping strategies. As with anyone who is experiencing difficulty, children with LD require knowledge and skills to cope with anxiety and frustration and reduce the impact of stress.
Also, scientists are continuing to learn more about the brain and research is showing support for programs that assist with developing learning skills. This research and the knowledge provided will continue to ensure that people with learning disabilities have options to assist them to learn and reach their potential.Debbie Cybulski is the Executive Director of the Learning Disabilities Association of BC South Vancouver Island Chapter. For more information contact the Centre at 250-370-9513 or visit www.ldasvi.bc.ca.