Bright students who struggle in school are often described as having a learning difference or a learning disability. Conditions such as dyslexia, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADD), dyscalculia and dysgraphia present a challenge to children, their teachers and their parents. Children with learning differences may experience heightened challenges with reading, decoding, comprehension, computation or other tasks. With the proper teaching methods, however, most children with learning differences can be successful learners and even excel in school. These students need to be taught via alternative methods in order for them to fulfill their potential and succeed in school and ultimately in life.
Difference versus Disability
Although many use the terms “learning difference” and “learning disability” interchangeably, others are concerned about the implicit negative connotation of “learning disability.” They purport that the term fails to put those with a learning difference on the same plane as other people. Instead, it isolates them from their peers and decreases the perception of their intelligence, despite the fact that learning differences have no effect on intelligence – only on the ability to recognize or remember numbers and letters. Further, use of the term can fail to recognize the advantages that come with a learning difference. Individuals with dyslexia, for example, can better understand abstract information and demonstrate higher levels of creativity.
Dyslexia and Learning
Dyslexia is often called a language-based learning disorder. The student with dyslexia may have trouble with reading fluency and spelling. He or she may be unable to distinguish between letters like “b” and “d” or to sound out a word. A child with dyslexia often substitutes small words: “is” for “I” or “he” for “the.” Alternative learning strategies that may be successful include allowing use of a laptop rather than requiring hand-written essays, or assigning an oral report rather than a written book report. These children should be taught to use logic instead of relying on memory. Material should be presented in small units, with plenty of time provided to absorb the material. Also, audio books may be better a better option for such students than physical textbooks.
ADHD and Learning
ADHD makes it difficult for children to focus and concentrate. They are typically impulsive, easily distracted and restless. They may have behavioral outbursts (meltdowns) and can be disruptive in class and at home. Children with ADHD often do better in small groups (two or three students) or with one-on-one instruction. They typically learn better with simple, concrete instructions and short, focused lessons interspersed with physical activity. Although ADHD does affect focus, children with this learning disorder also have periods of very intense focus, during which time they can accomplish a great deal. If a teacher can recognize and tap into these phases, the child can make great strides.
Other Learning Difficulties
Dyscalculia, another learning disorder, affects a child’s ability to grasp mathematical concepts and perform such processes as addition, subtraction, multiplication and division. Like dyslexia, dyscalculia can affect memory, making it difficult to complete a math problem with multiple steps. Dysgraphia affects writing ability. Letters may be poorly formed or backwards, spelling suffers and the child finds it difficult to organize thoughts on paper. Much like with Dyslexia and ADHD, similar accommodations and alternative teaching methods could benefit students with such disorders.
Children with learning differences do best when they receive support and attention both at school and at home. Parents can partner with teachers to promote the learning strategies that are most helpful for the individual child. The focus for these students should be on providing a nurturing environment, appropriate teaching methods and support systems for both parents and children in order to help them reach their full potential.
Photo credit: Joe Shillington
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