Helping Parents Understand Learning Disabilities
A funny, curious little guy I love very much has a learning disability. Although I remind myself that each challenge in life brings its own blessings, my heart aches for him. My heart also suffers for his parents who care deeply and have already taken many steps to help him succeed.
I write this message for all parents who have been told their child has a learning disability. Although either gender can be affected, I will use the masculine pronoun. Most of all, I want parents to understand that a learning disability does not relate to a lack of intelligence, laziness, or attitude. You might prefer to think that your child does not work hard, plays too much, or doesn’t care. Your child may even pretend not to care. He cares. As a former special education teacher, I do not believe young children do not care about learning. Only if your child gives up will he stop caring.
So, what is a learning disability? When one or more of the central nervous system processes do not work properly, we apply the term learning disability. According to the U.S. Department of Education, the disorder manifests in one of the following areas: attention, reasoning, processing, memory, communication, reading, writing, spelling, calculation, coordination, social competence, and emotional maturity.
Your child with learning disabilities does not lack the ability to learn and must be taught concepts at his thinking ability instead of his reading level. Although conventional teaching methods often do not work, by using accommodations, your child can succeed — even through college. Without appropriate adaptations, your child may face a very painful educational experience.
What is the bad news? learning disabilities do not vanish with maturity. However, research assures you that your child can be successful and can improve. Just as a blind child can learn to read by using large print or braille, a child with a learning disability can learn to read, write, and do math by using accommodations. You may wonder, “What do you mean by accommodations? Does this mean watering down the curriculum? Dumbing down my child?” Let’s explore these questions.
Accommodations change how your child learns the same material as his peers. Often, parents and teachers find out what works by trying various ideas.
One way to accommodate learning involves changing the pace or timing. Students often feel relieved to know they can use additional time, take breaks, omit some items, or vary their activities. Would slowing the pace or extending the time provide some relief for your child?
Learning the same material as everyone else can be made possible by listening to an audio recording, a video, a computer adaptation, or someone else reading. All of these adaptations provide respected methods of learning. The level of difficulty does not change; only the presentation. Keep in mind that the goal is to master learning concepts. Presentation only defines the method of getting information into your child’s brain.
Altering the environment provides a different way to accommodate learning. For example, the child may leave the room to get tutoring or may be seated close to a teacher who can provide assistance as needed.
Materials can be adapted by tape recording information, highlighting important parts of reading material, allowing the child to type answers into a word processor, using colored overlays, enlarging the size of the print, or using a calculator. All special equipment and technology fall into the category of accommodating materials. As a parent, you can help assess which, if any of these ideas help.
Some children benefit when teachers change the sensory presentation of materials by emphasizing visual, auditory, tactile, or by using all senses at the same time, which we call a multi-sensory approach. A change in the sensory presentation might provide materials to manipulate. Even teaching individually or in small groups can make a significant difference without reducing the learning expectation.
Modifications involve altering the difficulty of the material. The curriculum can be written at an easier level using a simplified vocabulary. Tests can be modified by reducing difficulty as well as the number of questions. In addition, test scores can be interpreted differently.
Years ago, a classroom teacher stated that she did not believe in providing accommodations. She expected children with disabilities to struggle until they overcame learning challenges. What a cruel attitude this teacher demonstrated. Would the teacher expect a blind child to try harder to see by refusing to allow the child to use braille? Should we ask a deaf child to work harder at hearing without supplying a hearing aid? Parents and teachers who tell a child with learning disabilities to work hard without making adaptations seem equally senseless and cruel.
Take heart. With regular use of accommodations along with the possibility of modifications, your precious child can learn. With your help, your child will succeed in school and in life. The really good news is that in almost every case, a child who struggles with print has amazing talents. Finding and emphasizing your child’s talents and loves will also make enormous progress toward success.