Childhood Learning Differences, The Great Unknown
Something doesn’t seem quite right, but you’re not sure. You ask yourself… “ Is this typical, or could my child have a learning disability?”
Rule of thumb —- Go with your gut! You're the parent and you
know your child best!!!
Here I will lay out some simple truths that most professionals won’t say outright!!!
1. The brain is a very complicated organ. Doctors, (including neurologists), teachers, administrators, and therapists, are only beginning to scratch the surface with their knowledge and understanding of how it works!
2. If a child is diagnosed early and the proper interventions are put in place the brain can literally be re-trained so that the child can learn to capitalize on his individual learning style and experience academic success.
3. Many children go misdiagnosed or undiagnosed until middle or high school and, consequently, have a difficult time as they continually try to play “catch up.”
4. THE SAD TRUTH IS….. Until very recently, many university college education programs did not teach their education students about learning disabilities, how to teach a child with a learning disability, or even how to spot red flags in a student that may indicate a learning disabililty. In addition, some teachers and even some administrators are not informed about the services that are available in their own counties that learning disabled children could benefit from. As a parent of a learning disabled child the feelings of stress, frustration, heartbreak, and isolation can be overwhelming!!!! Not only do you become an investigator but also your child’s best advocate! Most professionals will not take you by the hand and explain the “big picture” and all of your options. Many times you have to figure it out on your own as you go. I hope the information I provide in this article will make the process much less painful for you and your child than it has been for others.
5. The professionals that seem to know best about what is available in the school systems are the county psychologists (they are usually the ones to administer the testing) and/or the Speech and Language Pathologists! Contrary to popular belief, the SLP’s (Speech and Language Pathologists) are trained to teach a student more than just proper speech and/or articulation! They are very knowledgeable as to the various learning styles and how to teach children with learning differences.
6. Many learning disabilities can cause a secondary learning challenge called a language disorder. This can show up in very subtle ways or in more severe ways. If it is subtle, the child can easily go undiagnosed and fall “between the cracks.” When this happens it’s heartbreaking because early interventions can actually re-train the brain while it’s still “mallable.” The SLP’s are trained to administer a comprehensive speech and language evaluation. This evaluation can accurately assess whether a child has a language disorder, and if so, to what degree. If a child qualifies for speech and language services, the SLP will teach the child by using various language activities that are specific to his individual learning style. SLP’s are also wonderful at teaching students life strategies that they can use to capitalize on their individual strengths.
7. The Special Education Umbrella includes the following categories; Autism, Cognitive Disability, Deaf-Blindness, Emotional Disability, Orthopedic Impairment, Other Health Impairment (OHI) – (ADHD can fall into this category), Specific Learning Disabilities (SLD), Multiple Disabilities, and Speech or Language Impairment. In addition, Related Services are sometimes provided in addition to Special Education Services for children who qualify for Special Education Services. Related Services include; speech-language pathology and audiology services, psychological services, physical and occupational therapy, recreation (including therapeutic recreation), social work services, counseling services (including rehabilitation counseling) orientation and mobility services, and medical services (diagnostic and evaluation purposes only).
8. There are several programs available through most school systems designed to help the learning disabled child. Some are pull out programs and others are inclusion or co-taught classes. There are also speech and language programs available as discussed above. Co-taught classes offer an option for the child to be in a regular class with an additional teacher available (called a co-teacher) to help any children that need additional help, directions repeated, etc. Your child, and just a handful of other children with learning differences, will be mainstreamed into this class and the other children will be unaware of who they are. The co-teacher will be available to help everyone, therefore, it is very discreet (this can be a very good option, especially as the child reaches middle and high school). In addition, most people are unaware that there are different levels of Special Education classes, with the highest, sometimes teaching children with processing type disorders and ADHD type disorders. These classes offer the student the same high school class credit as a regular class; the only difference is that the ratios are significantly lower and the teacher has the liberty to continually assess his students’ needs and to progress at a slower pace if need be. These classes are usually inclusion classes and can be a terrific option if the child functions better in smaller groups.
*****The following book is a must read if you suspect a learning challenge in your child. It is the most informative and comprehensive book I’ve found. It’s truly a wealth of information that all parents should know! Childhood Speech, Language and Listening Problems-3rd edition (What Every Parent Should Know) by Patricia McAleer Hamaguchi.
Red Flags that could indicate a learning disability (Some of these examples are from personal experience, some are from the above referenced book, and some are from a general gathering of knowledge and conversations with many therapists and professionals over the years).
***child avoids eye contact ***child has had recurrent ear infections ***child doesn’t grasp the concept of pointing (doesn’t understand to follow your finger in an imaginary line to the object you are pointing at) ***child has speech delay (however, a child can have a language disorder without speech delay) ***child walks on toes (could be a sign that something neurological is going on) **child has poor fine motor coordination usually showing up with messy and/or slow handwriting ***child has hypersensitivity to loud noises, smells, tastes, heights, intense movement (ie. spinning). textures (ie. slimy foods, scratchy clothes), etc. The child may also be under responsive to sensory stimuli (a sensory “seeker”), seeking movement, playing in mud, etc. These could all be signs of a Sensory Processing Disorder. An occupational therapist can couduct a sensory evaluation. A must read on this subject is The Out of Sync Child by Carol kranowitz and Lucy Jane Miller.
***child says “Huh,” or “what” often when spoken to (indicating a possible receptive language delay and/or auditory processing disorder) ***child doesn’t play with toys normally (ie. focuses on the wheels of a toy instead of pretending the car is moving while making car noises or lines up cars and toys over and over instead of playing with them using imagination.) ***child uses incorrect pronouns in speech (ie. “Him took the ball!”) ***child tunes out the teacher during group activities ***child overgeneralizes object names by using one word for all related items (ie. all drinks are called “juice”) ***child experiences difficulty with reading, writing, or spelling ***child has difficulty with reading comprehension and reading fluency (blends sentences together, and pauses in the wrong places – can affect meaning of text) ***child struggles with phonics, blending sounds, and rhyming concepts ***child has difficulty passing tests, even after studying ***child forgets the meaning of new words (has poor vocabulary despite exposure and repetition), probably due to receptive language deficiencies. This is a possible sign of an auditory processing disorder. Most professionals, excluding SLP’s know very little about APD disorders.
***child has difficulty putting thoughts into words (poor expressive language skills) and avoids in-depth conversations ***child is easily distracted ***child is animated at home, but extremely reserved or reluctant to talk in other settings outside of his comfort zone. ***child needs verbal directions repeated most of the time. ***child forgets or routinely confuses the names of familiar teachers, classmates, and family friends. ***child has difficulty following classroom routines despite repetition. ***child often says “I don’t know what I’m supposed to do” after listening to directions.
***child has difficulty summarizing. He uses vague language to retell a story or an event, leaving the listener confused. ***child has social awkwardness as a result of difficulty reading facial expressions, body language, and tone of voice. ***child jumps from topic to topic or makes unrelated comments during a conversation. ***child has a favorite topic and steers most conversations to it while ignoring any disinterest. ***child has difficulty “getting started” or answering at all when asked an open ended question such as “Can you tell me about the movie?”
***child speaks “around” things saying “Um” and “like” repeatedly when trying to communicate (may be a sign of a word retrieval problem). Child may even act “silly” or “immature” to take the attention away from his weak expressive language skills. ***Child often displays “class clown” type behaviors In school settings to cover up his inability to understand the question (this can be a definite sign of speech and language problems). ***child displays behavioral or social problems – plays alone or has very few interests shared by other children the same age (child often gravitates toward younger children because he is more comfortable playing with them. This is probably due to his delayed receptive and expressive language skills). ***child stutters
So what do I do first???
1. The First step should be to speak to your pediatrician and your principal.
2. The school will probably want to do some informal observations of your child first to determine if he/she is on task or not most of the time and if they feel they should proceed onto the next step. This step usually takes about 2 months.
3. At about this time you will probably meet with the student support team (SST). Usually all teachers that work with your child, the psychologist or any other specialists that have been informally assessing your child, and an administrator are present. Discussion will probably include observations of your child as well as any informal strategies that the school has implemented in an attempt to remediate the concerns. In addition, you may be asked to sign the necessary forms to allow a full evaluation to be done.
4. Each school system’s process in how they determine student eligibility may vary a bit. Usually, however, the next step is to place the child on the waiting list for testing by the child study team (usually the county psychologist). The wait for a testing slot could take a few months. If you want to expedite the process you have the option of doing private testing, however, the county psychologist can sometimes be a better resource because they are more familiar with the services the county has to offer and may request additional testing (ie. an OT exam or an SLP exam).
5. Once all evaluations have been completed the SST team will meet again to discuss the services your child qualifies for and decide what services and interventions the school system will provide. At this point, depending on what services your child qualifies for, and also depending upon your personal decision, the school will write up either a 504 plan or an IEP (Individualized Education Plan). The differences between the two options are subtle and may vary slightly from school system to school system. The main difference, however, is that for an IEP the child has to be qualified and labeled under the Special Education umbrella. This means that he/she is eligible to receive specialized instruction from special education teachers. Some parents are hesitant to accept such a label, and if the child only requires accommodations that can be implemented along with a regular classroom placement, a 504 plan may be a better option. You, as the parents, have the right to give your opinion as to what services your child receives, where and how often they occur, and what is taught. Accommodations are written into the IEP or 504 plan. Some common ones are; child sits at the front of the room, tests are altered to suit the child’s learning style, child is removed to a quiet room for testing and is allowed additional time.
Once the IEP or 504 plan is completed and signed it becomes a legally binding contract and the school system has to provide all services and accommodations stated for your child at all times. A quick note to our wonderful parents… As a parent of a learning disabled child the feelings of stress, frustration, heartbreak, and isolation can be overwhelming!!!! Not only do you become an investigator but also your child’s best advocate! Finally, try not to get frustrated and always remember… If a child is diagnosed correctly and interventions are put in place in a timely manner, the child can learn strategies that work best with his/her learning style and experience academic success.
I truly wish you and your child all my blessings and the best of luck as you navigate through this new world. Because every child is a miracle…