What happens when your child finds learning difficult, or frightening, or simply inaccessible? Ciska Thurman highlights learning disorders, with the help of an occupational therapist
The years between toddlerdom and formal schooling are diverse in terms of development – kids progress on their own terms, in a variety of areas. Parents are often quick to compare, though, and wonder whether their young Einstein is behind or ahead of the curve. And if they are behind, why are they? Could there be a bigger problem, and when should we seek intervention?
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Problems with learning should always be contextualised within the ‘global’ picture of a child. ‘A child who has a chronic middle ear infection will have to concentrate that much harder to hear the teacher. A child who hasn’t had an adequate breakfast or enough sleep may also be unable to focus or learn. Emotional difficulties can have a huge impact on learning. And being in an overcrowded classroom may lead to inadequate exposure to a certain learning area,’ says mother of two and occupational therapist Nicola Ross-Thompson, who emphasises just how important it is to take all these factors into account before diagnosing a difficulty with learning.
‘A specific learning disorder or SLD is a type of developmental disorder that affects learning or academic skills such as reading, writing and numeracy. These used to be referred to as dyslexia, dysgraphia or dyscalculia. In SLDs, the learning difficulties are unexpected and appear without problems in other areas of development,’ explains Nicola. ‘Other neuro-developmental disorders that affect learning are intellectual disability, autism spectrum disorder, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) as well as communication and motor disorders. However, for a child to be identified as having an SLD, all of these have to be ruled out – as do any lingering auditory or visual problems, other mental or neurological disorders, and adverse conditions, which include psychosocial problems and cases of second-language learning, as well as inadequate instruction (not enough teachers for the number of children in a class, not enough resources and unskilled or inexperienced teachers).’ In other words, a child with a specific learning disorder is usually of average to above-average intelligence, but does not learn effectively through conventional methods – instead he/she struggles with a specific aspect of learning.
‘Early signs of SLDs can start appearing in preschool (the child may struggle to learn the names of letters or have some difficulties when counting), but an SLD diagnosis can only be made after starting formal education. Other problems affecting learning can be spotted earlier. For example, a child who fails to meet some of their developmental milestones within the normal range may be showing signs of one of the other disorders that affect learning. An experienced teacher or therapist would be able to notice a problem and, as a parent, you should never underestimate your gut instincts when it comes to your child,’ urges Nicola. ‘In SA, we have such a contrast between over-diagnosis and referral to the various therapies in the private and more privileged schools, and lack of diagnosis and failure to intervene in the less-privileged schools. Teachers faced with large classes don’t always notice problems, and students who don’t want to stand out often hide their problems.’ Children develop at different rates, but those who are constantly falling behind their peers may be cause for concern.
Usually a teacher will identify specific areas. It is then up to the parent to act. ‘The earlier you get help for your child, the better,’ urges Nicola. The specialist or therapist you see will usually start with an assessment of your child’s strengths and areas of difficulty. ‘Professionals who can help are speech and language therapists, occupational therapists, educational psychologists, paediatric neurologists, physiotherapists and psychiatrists. It’s ideal to select a practice that uses a multidisciplinary approach to ensure nothing is overlooked. Once you are armed with an assessment, a correct diagnosis can be made, so that you can decide on the best treatment or plan.’ Most importantly, get to know your child. What are their interests? How do they best tackle problems? What environmental dynamics are distracting or enabling them? Without appropriate support, many learners eventually drop out of school. Along the way, they may battle with low self-esteem and/or emotional and behavioural issues too – all of these are entirely avoidable with your love