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Child Learning Difficulties – Important Advice And Tips For Parents

Up to 25% of students have a learning difficulty and, unfortunately, these students are often unable to receive the additional support they need in a normal classroom situation.

What are some common causes of learning difficulties?

Learning difficulties can be related to:

  • Developmental delay – for example, children who learn to speak at a later age may continue to have communication problems at school;
  • Motor difficulties – for example, fine motor issues affecting the child’s writing skills;
  • Emotional disturbance or trauma –the experience of natural disasters, death or separation in the family can affect a child’s learning;
  • Lack of appropriate home environment–family financial difficulties, family health or mental health issues, inadequate nutrition or resources at home can all affect a child’s learning;
  • Lack of appropriate school environment –teaching style, class size, bullying or other social issues can prevent a child from learning at the appropriate level;
  • Interrupted schooling family relocation or interrupted schooling to health issues can commonly cause children to fall behind;
  • Health issues – illness may mean the child is fatigued, distracted or does not have the adequate tools to focus on their schoolwork;
  • And… for some children an underlying LEARNING DISORDER is the cause of underachievement at school. Learning disorders are often genetic and are best described as a neurodevelopmental dysfunction.

What is a learning disorder and how is it different from a learning difficulty?

Learning disorders affect a child’s academic achievement and often also their daily life skills. A learning disorder is diagnosed when there is a significant impairment in a core academic domain that cannot be explained by any of the factors discussed above.

Learning disorders are found in these areas:

  • Reading
  • Written Expression
  • Maths
  • Working Memory
  • Sensory areas (eg. Auditory Processing)

Children can have difficulty in one area but be performing at the expected level in other areas. Sometimes there are overlapping areas of difficulty.

How do I know if my child might have a learning difficulty or disorder?

Some of the common signs that your child may have a learning difficulty or disorder are:

  • Memory problems;
  • Organisational difficulties, difficulties with self-management;
  • Reversals of numbers or letters;
  • Poor/messy writing or appearing clumsy or uncoordinated;
  • Difficulty following instructions;
  • Taking a long time to complete tasks;
  • Communication problems;
  • Short-attention span;
  • Behavioural or social issues.

These signs can give a clue about learning difficulties or disorders, but we need more information!

If you have noticed any of the behaviours above and suspect your child might be having difficulty learning, further investigation is recommended. You can’t help them achieve if you don’t know where the problems lie.

The best way to find out where the difficulties lie is to arrange a learning difficulty assessment.

What does a learning difficulty assessment involve?

Assessment should not be too overwhelming or scary and it should:

  • be conducted by a fully trained Psychologist, and preferably one with a background in Educational and Developmental Psychology;
  • involve parents and teachers – this can be achieved through a clinical interview with parents and via questionnaires which help to capture behavioural or social issues that may be occurring at home or school;
  • not involve sessions that are no longer than 90 minutes in length (often 2 sessions are required);
  • be conducted in rooms that are professional but not intimidating, they should be places with little distracting background noise, a comfortable temperature and a child-friendly setting;
  • take into account the child’s motivation, persistence and attention as these can all affect their performance during an educational assessment and when learning at school.

Learning difficulty assessment usually involves cognitive ability testing and academic achievement testing.

A child’s cognitive ability (or learning potential) can be broken up into the four areas of Verbal Comprehension, Perceptual Reasoning, Working Memory and Processing Speed, as well as giving an overall IQ score.

The academic assessment – that is, how the child actually performs in school-related areas – will usually look at their skills in Reading, Mathematics and Written Language.

Comparison between the cognitive ability testing and the academic achievement testing can often give vital clues about Specific Learning Disorders or areas where your child may not be working to their potential.

How do I arrange a learning difficulty assessment?

The good news is that you don’t need a doctor referral for a learning difficulty assessment. Most referrals come from teachers or parents. Sometimes parents just want to find out their child’s strengths and weaknesses to understand better why their child is struggling at school. Some parents have a specific problem or learning disorder that they wish to investigate.

What happens after assessment?

After assessment, you should receive a detailed report about your child’s results. There are certain aspects of the report that are technical in nature but, in general, it should be easily read and understood by parents and teachers alike.

It’s important to have a feedback session with the psychologist who conducted the assessment so that a full explanation of the results can be given and so that you have the opportunity to ask questions.

The results should include a learning profile of strengths and weaknesses and a comparison between the child’s cognitive abilities and academic achievement.

For example, you may discover that your child learns better visually than verbally, or that their slow working speed may be holding them back, or that their poor memory for instructions is preventing them from learning effectively.

Or you may find that your child has issues with their writing or fine motor skills but that they are able to express themselves well orally.

Most importantly, the report should outline specific recommendations for interventions to help your child learn more effectively at school and home.

Whether or not your child has a learning disorder, early intervention is very important.

Why is early intervention important?

If learning difficulties go untreated your child can experience a range of associated problems. These can include social problems, such as bullying or isolation or behavioural problems, such as becoming aggressive or acting the class clown.

Emotional issues are also commonly found in children with learning problems, and can include low self-esteem, depression and anxiety.

What kinds of recommendations or strategies will I be given?

The report should give recommendations which are broken down into those which can be implemented at home and those which are appropriate for school. These can include:

  • environmental strategies, such as ensuring there is a quiet area for learning and working that is away from distractions;
  • the way the material is presented – visually or verbally, in small units,  how information is chunked ;
  • adjusting workloads and time frames to ensure children have adequate time to absorb information;
  • adjusting assessment formats, such as oral examinations;
  • use of assistive technology;
  • personal development – promoting motivation & persistence;
  • development of non-academic areas, such as sports, art or music  – this will provide the individual with a feeling of competence and promote self-esteem;
  • targeting non-academic difficulties such as disruptive behaviour, social difficulties or emotional problems.

You should be wary of interventions that lack evidence. There are a number of treatments for learning disorders that are claimed to be effective but have no research evidence supporting them

You should receive practical tools and tips to help your child that can be easily implemented. These can include specific programs or tutoring agencies to use, computer learning tools and apps, as well as books and activities.

School Psychology Services offers a range of intervention programs tailored for different kinds of learning problems. We can also help children and adolescents improve study skills, prepare for VCE and navigate study and career-choices.

You are welcome to contact us to discuss your child’s learning or developmental needs.