Learning Disability VS Learning Difficulty

DR.Jamila.k warrier,Consultant Psychologist, Kims, Trivandrum

“Sidharth is good in everything except studies. He is the one who helps me with complaints of my mobile phone; he can fix the problems of almost all the gadgets. If he is that intelligent why can’t he study? At home, he is able to answer all the questions when I ask, but I was shocked to see his answer paper, he has not written anything that he told me the previous day of the exams! Does he have some memory problems that he is forgetting everything? The teachers are also complaining that he is active in the class but when they evaluate his answer paper they are also surprised why the child is not performing well. The school has also given us the last warning. What should we do? Should we change the school, the syllabus, or should I quit my job and be with him?”

The perplexed parents usually try to solve the situation by sending the child to extra tuitions, restricting the play time and reducing the entertainment time and involving themselves more in teaching the child. But many a time these strategies also do not seems to work for long term, if the child is having a LEARNING DISABILITY.

What is Learning Disability?
Learning disabilities are neuro developmental disorder ie. it is present when the child is born and begins to get evident when tasks related to language and learning are required .Unlike other physical disabilities, learning disabilities are not obvious, the learning disabled child will look smart and active like any other child and hence often get unrecognized. As result child is often misunderstood as lazy or dump by parents and teachers.

A learning disability is not a problem with intelligence or motivation. These are children who are slow to learn despite normal to above average intelligence. It’s just that their brains are wired differently, that it affects the way they receive and process information. Children and adult with learning disabilities
may see, hear and understand things differently. It doesn’t mean that they have hearing or vision problems it’s because the way the brain processes the information is different. Processing deficits are problems with the processes of recognizing and interpreting information taken in through the senses. Most common processing difficulties associated with learning disability are auditory and visual processing. A child who writes sentences without spacing, a child who frequently confuses mathematical symbols, reversing and misreading letters and numbers for example, a child who reads “saw” as “was” or 13 as 31 might be having a visual perceptual difficulty. The problems with auditory processing will be manifested as having trouble in following directions, remembering details, repeating sentences understanding verbal instructions and difficulty in differentiating similar sounding letters. Because of these brain differences there will be a discrepancy between their potentials and academic performance. They may understand the concepts taught in the class, but may not be able to read the text fluently or express ides in written format. But many a times without recognizing these core deficits they are penalized leading to frustration, social withdrawal and lowered self esteem.

What causes Learning Disability?
The cause of Learning disability can be genetic, minimal brain damage during the prenatal or post natal periods or maturational delays. Many a times there is a strong family factors for learning disabilities that is, either of the parents or close relative may have had a history of learning disability. Boys are affected more than girls, the ratio being 3:1.The maturational delays and brain damages caused due to pre term delivery, maternal endocrine disorders , prolonged labour , seizures , hypoxia( a condition in which baby receives inadequate oxygen to its brain before , during or after delivery ) can all lead to learning disabilities.

How Is Learning disability identified?
Learning disability or Learning disorder is an umbrella term used to describe a collection of learning disorders like reading impairment (Dyslexia), impairment in ability for written expression (Dysgraphia), impairment in understanding mathematics (Dyscalculia). These disorders rarely appear in isolation but are seen to overlap and also co-exist with other conditions like ADHD.

Problems associated with Learning disabilities vary from child to child and from age to age. Some of the common characteristics of reading disorders are difficulty in blending sounds to make words, slow, effortful and inaccurate reading, substitutions in reading and tendency to guess words in reading and difficulty in comprehending. Frequent spelling errors, difficulties in writing sentences with proper grammar and organizations, slow writing rate, poor capitalizations, illegible writing and punctuations errors in writing are some of
the features of writing impairment. These children may be able to verbally tell the answers but when they try to write, they may not be able to express ideas in an organized way and will be full of spelling errors. Usually with constant training at home or tuitions they may be taught to learn question and answers by repeatedly writing which may be in their memory for a short span, so they may be able to write it immediately or the next day, but when they learn a new material these earlier learned material may fade out as they have not actually learned it and had just memorized it. Dyscalculia is a specific impairment in mastering number sense , tendency for finger counting for adding and subtracting, struggle memorizing multiplication tables , difficulties in calculations , poor mathematical reasoning, difficulties in understanding time , money , distance and quantities. These children may be able to cope with school level mathematics till class 3, but when there arise a need for abstract conceptualization, the problem may start becoming evident. These are some of the common signs of learning disability which parent and teachers can identify. Many of the above symptoms may be present in children without learning disorders also but it becomes a concern when there is a consistent unevenness in your child’s ability to master certain skills.

A proper diagnosis of learning disability can be made with a psycho educational assessment. In these types of testing the child’s intellectual functioning, achievement level and presence of any other emotional or behavioral problems are evaluated using standardized tests. These tests give the profile of child’s strength and weakness which help in developing interventions to help the child. Usually all the academic difficulties pop up by class three and this is the age for a proper psycho educational assessments and diagnosis of learning disorder. However children with academic difficulties can be evaluated as early as 3-4 years and given early interventions to compensate for their maturational delays and this may help them to outgrow their learning problems.

How to help children with learning disabilities?
Learning disabilities impact children in different ways according to its severity. Learning disorders can be categorized in a continuum from mild to severe. Early intervention is the key in helping children with learning disabilities. There is no cure for learning disabilities but it can be managed well with teaching compensatory strategies.

Remedial education therapy
The treatment for learning disorders is remedial education. Remedial Education Therapy is a form of therapy designed to remediate learning problems in children with learning disabilities. It uses a wide range of individualized interventions to strengthen the basic process needed for learning. It needs to be stressed that Remedial Education Therapy is different from tuitions. Remedial Education therapy do not focus on school learning materials, tests or class works but instead address the cause of academic struggle and help a child to be become an independent learner.

Remedial education is a systematic, individualized multisensory process of teaching children basic academic skills. It also helps children to learn compensatory strategies in their area of weakness. If the child has a reading difficulties he will be taught the letter -sound association, how to blend individual letters to words and how to read fluently and comprehend. Since these children don’t acquire the basic spelling skills automatically, they are taught basic spelling rules and sentence writing strategies. There are various systematic intervention programmes to help these children.

Mohammed was in grade 4 and he had failed in all the exams. The child used to write nonsense word or just copy the questions in the answer paper. He used to avoid all learning tasks and had school refusals. When he joined the remedial education therapy session he couldn’t read nor write a meaningful sentence. After few months of training his mother was amazed that the boy has started reading the name boards on the way, he has started liking story books which ,he never used to even touch, His confidence levels have improved and is more cooperative when called for learning .

Upon receiving the appropriate kind of interventions the child will begin to cope better with class room learning materials .But this is not a quick and easy step, the child has to undergo remedial session at least twice or thrice a week for at least 1-2 years according to the severity. If the child continues to have deficits associated with learning disorders in the high school level also, all the National Education Boards including ICSE, CBSE and State Boards have granted these children with many provisions like extra time, overlooking spelling errors, exemption of second language and many others according to the level of disability of the child. Timely diagnosis, training and accommodations are the basic keys in helping children with learning disorders.

LEARNING DIFFICULTIES

All learning problems are not learning disability. Many children are not able to perform well in school and are cause of concern for parents. So what can be reasons for these poor scholastic performances? Some of the common reasons are
Physical illness –seizures, hearing defects, vision problems, motor disorders, recurrent infections.

Emotional and Behaviour problems – separation anxiety, conduct disorder, anxiety, phobias, sibling rivalry, peer adjustment issues, intellectual disability or low IQ, strained relationship with teachers.

Environmental problems- parental conflicts, disruptive home environment, lack of stimulation, and training, irregular study habits , frequent school changes , unsympathetic teachers , high student – teacher ratio, fast paced teaching without evaluating mastery, prejudice to certain teachers etc can all affect the child’s motivation to learn.
Some other major issue that affects learning, that need a special mention is lack of elementary skills, Attention deficit Hyperactivity Disorder and Screen addiction.

Skill deficits

Recently there was a survey giving shocking statistics that a vast majority of children in class five is not even able to read the class two text books. It’s sometimes not an exaggeration; many of children are promoted to next level without acquiring the basics. A common complaint which I have often come across is the writing difficulties in kindergarten children. In my observation many a time children are forced to writing activities without acquiring the needed pre –skills. For instance there are different stages in writing development, beginning with free hand scribbling-coloring within the lines-tracing- joining doted lines- copying, and independent writing. Thus writing is a development tasks which is progressive in nature i.e., only after acquiring the preceding skill, the child will be able to successively achieve the next levels .If they don’t have the necessary skills then behavioral manifestations can be avoidance or rebelliousness.

Elementary education should give importance on basic reading, spelling and language skills rather than teaching of content of various lessons. The thrust of higher class education is learning of concepts and content of chapters for which efficient use of these basic skills is necessary. But now for majority of high school students, lack of adequate language to comprehend and express ideas, inadequate reading speed, low writing fluency and inefficient study methods are seen to be the major blocks in scholastic performance.

Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD)
Rahul is a very smart and energetic boy. But he is always restless and disturbs the class by talking and distracting other children. Teachers always have complaints about his impulsive behavior and lack of concentration. His notes are mostly incomplete and even there were instances that he didn’t take effort to complete exams.

In the above situation the child cannot sustain attention and concentration on a task, therefore he cannot learn. Here the reason for his poor performance can be due to ADHD (Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder). It is characterized by hyperactivity, impulsivity and inattention. Recently the incidents of hyperactivity are raising, due to factors like food habits, lack of physical activities, reduction in reading habits and environmental factors. Redirecting the excess energy in productive activities like sports and games can help in reducing the hyperactivity. Concentration exercises, regular scheduling of daily activities and food habit corrections can help reducing the impact of ADHD. Parental involvement, their patience and adherence to daily schedules is crucial in the treatment of ADHD. If ADHD is adversely affecting all the domain of child’s functioning, there are medicines that can effectively help the child.

Screen Addiction

Kids and adults are now hooked to screen than ever before. If earlier it was TV now all the gadgets like mobile phones, computers, tabs, keeps everyone busy. Children are the first to get addicted to these. Now kids are not able to entertain themselves for even a few minutes without screen. If in a car or waiting for few minutes, children resorts to screen which is eventually affecting their social life , cognitive skills and creativity . Even though there are many benefits from these, there are many repercussions created by the screen. Compromises made in study time, inability to focus on studies, fast and superficial learning are a few to name.

Prevention is better than cure, but for many children, parents themselves must have introduced computers and other gadgets to children as babysitters and when they once get glued to it they are frantic to get them out of it. If a sudden check is made in the screen time, that itself can lead to rebelliousness and behavioral issues, so by giving them equally entertaining options , by modeling to them by restricting your own gadget usage , by creating a contract on screen time and checking to its adherence and reinforcing can help in reducing screen addictions .

Whatever it may be learning disabilities or learning difficulties identifying, accepting and rectifying is vital. If it’s a learning disability it can be managed and if it’s a learning difficulty it can be corrected. Every child is unique, with their own strengths and weakness, unconditionally accepting the child with all their uniqueness and helping them to reach their potential should be our goal.

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