Learning disabilities constitute an enormous challenge to students and teachers across the globe. Research suggests that one in five students struggle with a learning disability of some sort, and without proper intervention these learning disabilities can lead to pervasive problems throughout the student’s educational career and beyond.
The good news? By educating ourselves about the nature of these disabilities, and by implementing appropriate intervention methods in the classroom, the impact of these disabilities can be lessened and the challenges overcome.
What is a Learning Disability?
The root cause of learning disabilities is as yet unknown and remains a point of debate. Learning disabilities are not entirely physical in nature; a student with visual perceptual difficulties, for example, does not necessarily have something wrong with his or her eyes. Also, learning disabilities are not related to level of intelligence.
Children who struggle with learning disabilities are not less intelligent than other children; they simply need specific program modifications or teaching strategies implemented in order to be successful. There is often a large discrepancy between the student’s actual intellectual ability and his or her academic performance.
Learning disabilities are typically identified and diagnosed through a multi-test battery, generally administered by a child psychologist. The Wechsler Intelligence Scale for Children (WISC) measures children’s general cognitive abilities and IQ, and is commonly used to identify and diagnose learning disabilities.
By analyzing patterns in the student’s WISC subtest scores, practitioners can discover the areas in which the student needs the most help. By itself, however, the WISC test is not a reliable way to diagnose learning disabilities, and several different tests should be administered and analyzed before any conclusion is reached.
The Different Kinds of Learning Disabilities
There are several different categories of learning disabilities. These include:
Visual-Perceptual: Students who fall into this category of learning disability tend to exhibit deficits in the areas of reading and writing. For example, they may reverse or invert letters (b for d, m for w, and so on), or they may have trouble keeping their place when reading a page. They often find reasons to avoid reading; they may claim that their eyes hurt, for instance, or that they’re too tired. Hand-eye coordination and fine motor skills may also suffer. Students may find coloring in the lines overly difficult, and handwriting is often illegible.
Auditory-Perceptual: These students struggle with listening, following directions, and remembering oral instructions. They also have difficulty discriminating between similar sounds, and tend to need verbal instructions repeated slowly and clearly.
Spatial/Body Awareness: Students who struggle with this type of disability typically exhibit problems with directionality, and may even be rather clumsy. These students are easily disoriented and often lose their bearings, even in familiar places. They find it difficult to space letters and words properly, and have a hard time working with graphs, charts, or tables.
Conceptual: Students with conceptual learning disabilities struggle to make connections between similar ideas, concepts, and categories. They may know the answer to 5 + 7, but not the answer to 7 + 5. These students exhibit deficits in logical, sequential organization, and tend to lose track of the flow of thoughts and ideas. Concepts regarding time, numbers, and humor are difficult for them to grasp, and they typically need a good deal of clarification and individualized attention.
Memory: These students have trouble remembering things. They are slow to master basic vocabulary words, and their spelling is usually quite poor. Students with memory disabilities also struggle with following sequential directions, memorization, and learning from past mistakes.
Behavioral: For these students, sitting still is incredibly difficult and choices are often made impulsively, without regard to consequences. These students may also be highly defiant, hyperactive, and easily distractible. They tend to exhibit mood swings, and are often in conflict with their peers.
How We Can Help
There are many ways to help students with learning disabilities succeed, in school and throughout their adult life. Most importantly, teachers must use positive reinforcement and encouragement to create a classroom atmosphere which is positive and supportive, and which bolsters the children’s self-esteem.
Of course, every child is different, and every child will need different interventions. Peer mentoring, for example, can be a very effective way to support and reinforce classroom instruction, and to strengthen the student’s social support. However, a student may need just the opposite: a quiet area away from the group to focus and study (such as a study carrel). One-on-one attention from the teacher has shown to be highly effective, regardless of which learning disability the student struggles with.
If one in five students has a learning disability of some sort, it can be assumed that most classrooms have several students who struggle with a disability (and likely with different disabilities). For this reason, it is highly important for teachers to present their lessons in as many modalities as possible.
Visual aids are helpful for visual learners, songs and rhymes are helpful for auditory learners, movement and actions are helpful for kinetic learners, and so on. Students may also need to be tested in alternative ways (dictated, for instance). Additionally, teachers should keep their directions simple and straightforward, and be wary of giving the students too many directions at once.
Overall, the teacher must be cognizant of the student’s individual needs. If the student can only work for a short time before becoming emotional and defiant, for example, then the lesson can be modified to accommodate this.
The teacher can reduce working time and expectations, and then gradually raise them as the student grows and improves. In this way, every student gets an opportunity to succeed. Teaching students strategies for coping with their disability is key, and leads to far better outcomes than merely teaching facts.
Lastly, consistent communication between the school and home is crucial, and serves to inform parents of their child’s progress and how to be most supportive. The earlier a disability is detected, the better, but overcoming the challenges associated with learning disabilities will take time and patience.
Parents and teachers who show this patience and who help to boost the child’s self-esteem are the most important factor in overcoming learning disabilities.