Learning setbacks, difficulties or disabilities?
March 11, 2015
Parents often ask me about this subject and in my capacity as a remedial teacher, I think it’s very important to explain the difference between these terms.
As parents, our children’s school debut is usually cause for enthusiasm. We do everything we can to encourage them, from setting up a stimulating environment for them to do their homework, to following their progress and taking part in parent-teacher meetings.
This goes smoothly in many families. For others, this experience may include a few setbacks along the way, and even if all goes relatively well, it may happen that a child will occasionally have temporary difficulties.
Here are a few factors that can lead to learning difficulties:
1) Your child is going through a tough time
The death of a family member, moving to a new city or an illness are all examples of situations that can lead to academic setbacks, as the child is less available to learn during such times (which can vary in their length).
2) The time of year your child was born
Your child could be less mature and have trouble learning at the same pace as the other children in his class based on the time of year he or she was born, especially children (particularly boys) born during the summer. The birthday cut-off dates for kindergarten entrance gave rise to this issue.
As an example, a little boy born in August could find himself in a class with peers who are 9, 10 or even 11 months his seniors. This constitutes and important difference, especially for boys (who usually develop their motor skills first) in kindergarten or grade 1.
Great news though, these differences in neurological development will be completely balanced out by the fourth grade, when a few months in age difference are no longer considered significant for either boys or girls.
3) Your child’s health in general
It may happen that your child is less physically or mentally healthy (cold/flu season, chronic infections, daydreaming for lack of sleep, etc.)
These three elements can cause setbacks (ranging in importance) in your child’s academic progress but are not symptomatic of learning disabilities. With a little help, your child will be able to catch up with the rest of the class because these situations are temporary. This is what we refer to as learning difficulties.
When the First Year of School Raises an Alarm...
Even with support and follow-ups, about 10% of children will manifest learning problems in the early stages of their education. This often represents two or three students per class.
The teacher will inform the child’s parents of the situation, offer extra study periods or recommend that the child be followed by a remedial teacher. Homework will seem to take forever and often become the source of tantrums. Tutoring will seem like a good option but prove to be fruitless and the child will become increasingly unmotivated. Despite all efforts, the difficulties will persist and continue to hinder the child’s academic progress.
Is it a Learning Disability?
Learning disabilities refer to disorders which may affect the brain’s acquisition, organization, retention, understanding or use of verbal or nonverbal information.
This has nothing to do with intelligence. People with learning disabilities have IQ’s that are often equal or superior to the average of their age-peers. These children are not destined for failure... far from it!
A learning disability affects the child’s capacity to acquire new knowledge. Thankfully, various specialists are available (remedial teachers, psychologists, etc.), as well as innovative methods and strategies to help overcome this handicap. Many adults have learning disabilities and have successful careers. It truely is an invisible handicap and is recognized as such by Quebec’s Commission des droits de la personne et des droits de la jeunesse.
Diagnosing a Learning Disability
For your child to receive the support and accommodation to which he or she is entitled in the case of a learning disability, it is essential to get a diagnosis. Several group insurance companies reimburse part or all the expenses for this type of psychological examination, which can often be costly (hundreds of dollars). Parents should check their insurance coverage regarding this subject.
We talk about learning disabilities when standardized tests (only a psychologist or neuropsychologist is qualified to administer) reveal in children a delay of at least two years from the expected results for their age-level. These tests evaluate the following important brain functions in terms of learning abilities to ensure these are intact: reasoning skills, logic and abstraction. Tests include in-depth analyses of short-term memory, sustained attention (selective or divided), organization, executive brain functions, information management and ultimately, reading, spelling and mathematics.
Your Next Step: A Response Plan
In the case of a positive diagnosis, children often feel relief. They know that they learn differently, but don’t understand why. A series of measures, varying greatly from one student to another, must be implemented according to the disorder itself and its intensity (as learning disabilities have many faces).
These adjustments, intended to promote the child’s success, will be selected and implemented during a meeting with the school to establish a customized response plan. These measures will be recorded in the response plan, which is reviewed at the end of each stage/term of the school year. The school’s administration, teachers and professionals in contact with the child, as well the parents and child (when old enough to do so) will play a part in the response plan.
A learning disability diagnosis and the implementation of an adequate response plan can turn a situation of academic failure into one with very satisfactory results.
To identify a learning disorder, the first step is to make sure the difficulties are not caused by psychological or social factors, or by the child’s general environment. Learning disabilities are due to genetic and/or neurobiological factors that alter brain functioning in a manner which affects one or more processes related to learning, such as receiving, storing and retrieving information.
Learning disabilities can be noticeable in:
- language processing;
- attention span;
- are not linked to an intellectual disability: any child, whatever his level of intelligence, can be affected by a learning disability;
- are invisible;
- come in different forms: based on the intensity and nature of the disability (since it is specific to the cognitive function affected);
- are persistent and resistant: in time and in the re-education process;
- constitute a lifelong handicap recognized both socially and by the Canadian Human Rights Act, and accordingly, entitle to academic accommodations.
Remember that in this day and age, children with learning disabilities and their families can have the highest of hopes!
My next articles will address a specific disorder, and then the more common ones. I will explain these separately, offer advice and inform you about the different resources available for each disorder.
- Dyslexia and dysorthography
- Dysexecutive syndrome (DES)
- Central Auditory Processing Disorder
Marielle Potvin, Remedial Teacher