Some children just process the information differently
By Rob Levey
According to experts, just because your child has a learning disability does not mean he/she cannot learn.
For Michael Middleton, PhD, associate professor of education at the University of New Hampshire (UNH), learning disabilities simply indicate “someone is receiving, processing, or analyzing information in an atypical manner.”
“Learning disabilities can be thought of as learning in a different way rather than a lack of ability for learning,” he said.
Citing that different disabilities affect different aspects of the cognitive process, Middleton said “there is no typical profile of learning styles for children with or without a learning disability.”
“For example, one disability may lead to difficulty attending to information or concentrating, whereas another may affect the processing of reading,” he added. “Those would have very different implications for learning styles.”
Mara Mallett, fourth-grade teacher at Woodman Park Elementary School in Dover, noted that all kids struggle in school at times.
“There are issues of innate intelligence in all of us,” Mallett said. “Some of us can learn a certain subject quickly, but put us in another and we would look like we were struggling. Innate intelligence, however, does not have anything to do with learning disabilities.”
For Jessica Dutille, executive director of the Pemi Youth Center, an after-school program in Plymouth, even labeling a child with a learning disability can be misleading.
“Regardless of any diagnosis, everyone learns differently,” said Dutille, also an adjunct faculty member at Plymouth State University. “I’m a huge believer in not labeling kids, because it can limit them. We want kids to define themselves.”
Does my child have a learning disability?
As for how parents might recognize if their child may have a learning disability, Jodie Lubarsky, Spectrum and Therapeutic mentoring team leader at Seacoast Mental Health Center in Portsmouth, cites the importance of looking for developmental milestones.
“It’s important to know at what point a child should be engaging in assisted walking, or talking, cooing, babbling or giving short phrases,” she said. “If you notice your child does not hit certain developmental milestones, then that’s where one of your first concerns should begin.”
Middleton said another indicator a child may have a learning disability is “a difference between a child’s perceived ability and his or her performance in school.”
“A child might have trouble concentrating or focusing, struggle with remembering letter sounds or spelling, make mistakes in comprehending when reading, fail to follow directions, organizing thoughts or their environment,” he said.
Acknowledging the general nature of these symptoms, he added it is crucial for any parent who has any concerns to consult a professional.
For children between the ages of 3 and 5, Georgia Kerns, PhD, associate professor of education at UNH, said parents can contact their local school system to gain access to a screening resource known as Child Find, which, according to childfindidea.org, has been “designed to locate, identify, and refer as early as possible all young children with disabilities.”
For children younger than 3, she suggests parents contact Early Supports & Services at any of the state’s ten area community mental health agencies.
Changing role of schools
In the past, schools segregated kids with different learning requirements from the general classroom. Kerns said the emphasis in the past 20 years has shifted to one of inclusion, which centers on the concept of treating children with learning differences as possessing “exceptional learning needs.”
“It’s special education in the broadest sense and applies to children whether they are gifted, on the autism spectrum or possess some other intellectual or developmental disability,” she said.
According to Kerns, one significant benefit to inclusion is that all kids gain access to the curriculum, which was not the case in the past.
“Exposure to the curriculum provides kids with constructive challenges and provides them with social skills and a sense of community,” Kerns said. “The greater opportunities these kids have, the better.”
Sandra Pierce-Jordan, PhD, BCBA, program director at The Birchtree Center in Portsmouth, also noted current teaching methods in schools have “dramatically improved their capacity to educate students with autism.”
“A teacher who is prepared to support visual learners and hands-on, experiential learners already has approaches in place that would increase the likelihood of success of a child with autism in that classroom,” Pierce-Jordan said.
According to Dutille, schools also play a pivotal role in building a child’s self-esteem.
Mallett agrees and said “being satisfied with what children are able to give you, reinforcing them where they are and pushing them to the next level is what teachers need to do.”
The parent’s role
Even with the movement toward inclusion in schools, Lubarsky said it is crucial parents act as advocates for their child.
“Parents have rights and should know their child’s educational rights, too,” she said. “They have a right to speak out.”
She said parents should also insist upon helping the school develop an Individualized Education Plan, which sets forth specific goals for a child’s education as well as any special supports needed to help achieve them.
However, Mallett said the role of a parent does not end once an IEP has been developed.
“Parents need to watch and be sure that the goals mentioned in the IEP are being worked on,” she said.
She said signs an IEP may not be working include a child’s escalating frustration with school or homework, as well as apparent laziness in his/her behavior, which may in fact be “a cover for being confused.”
“A child leveling out and not showing progress is a sign—whether the child is in regular education or special education,” she added.
The future of special education
Despite numerous advances, Kerns said significant challenges still exist.
“A concern on my part is the use of paraprofessionals in special education,” she said. “They have significant caseloads and I don’t think they’re preparing these people well.”
According to Kerns, difficulties also found in supervising paraprofessionals underscore a general lack of adequate resources in schools.
“It’s hard to find the balance where everyone can work together,” she said.
Echoing Kerns’ sentiments, Dutille said classes are getting larger while teachers are being asked to do more.
“With all the testing, too, there is a lot of pressure on teachers,” she added.
Despite these concerns, Lubarsky said she believes schools have begun to recognize their role as both an emotional and behavioral facility.
“Schools understand the mental health component and are making strong efforts to address all these concerns,” she said.
According to Middleton, the continued movement toward inclusion may also assist children without learning disabilities “learn to understand and appreciate differences in their peers.”
Dutille agrees, and said kids today are much more accepting of differences in their peers than in the past.
“Schools are celebrating our differences instead of pinpointing them,” she said. “The differences aren’t so exaggerated.”
As for what this all means for a parent, Kerns said the answer is simple.
“You must expect something out of your child everyday,” she said. “All kids can learn.”
Rob Levey is a development and communications associate at Seacoast Mental Health Center and a freelance writer.