Dealing with learning disabilities in children

Focus on the child’s strengths and help him or her develop and learn to use them

In Summary

• They struggle with directions, order, absorbing facts and remembering information

• Parental love and support, while acknowledging differences, sends a positive message

Psychologist Lucy Simiyu
Psychologist Lucy Simiyu

Parents need to come to terms with the fact that children learn at different speeds. For a child who is unable to keep up with his or her peers, it is important to find out why and how to help.

Learning disabilities describe a range of learning and thinking differences that can affect the way the brain takes in, uses, stores and sends out information. Some children have specific learning disabilities (also known as LDs), such as reading or math limitations. Others may have conditions that affect learning, such as attention deficit, or hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), and children can have more than one disability.

There are many reasons why a child may have difficulties learning. These include childhood illnesses, such as meningitis, poor growth in the uterus, exposure of the mother to alcohol and other drugs during pregnancy, premature birth and very low birth weight. Psychological trauma, or abuse in early childhood, may affect brain development and increase the risk of learning disorders. Head injuries, as well as nervous system infections, play a role in the development of learning disorders.

Although learning and thinking differences may not always be obvious, there are signs that signal the need for help for a child. For preschool children, delayed language development or speech difficulties after the age of two and a half years, should be discussed with the doctor.

By three years, a child should express themselves in a manner understood by adults. From five, a child should be able to button clothing, use scissors and hop. They should be able to copy a circle, square or triangle. A struggle with these tasks shows the child is having trouble with coordination. Between three to five years of age, a child should be able to sit still and listen to a short story.

School-aged children and teens with learning disabilities will experience trouble in understanding verbal directions, staying organised at home and school, absorbing facts and remembering information. Reading, spelling, or sounding words become challenging. Solving math calculations and word problems, concentration and completion of school work, self-expression through speech or writing also prove difficult.

Unfortunately, there is no "cure" for disabilities. Special education programmes can help children cope and compensate for these disorders, but the disability will last a lifetime.

A parent noticing a learning difficulty should liaise with the teacher and the child's doctor to seek assistance. A pediatrician can evaluate developmental delays and other conditions that may be contributing to learning difficulties. They can also refer the parent to specialists in neurodevelopmental disabilities, developmental and behavioural paediatrics, child neurology or child psychology. Special needs teachers can perform screening or evaluation tests to identify problems and determine if early interventions, or school-based support, can help.

For a child diagnosed with disability, it pays to focus on the child’s strengths and help him or her develop and learn to use them. Praise for the child reaching a milestone will go a long way in building confidence. There is a need for the child to develop social and emotional skills to prevent withdrawal or anger.

Provision of parental love and support, while acknowledging that learning is hard because a child learns in a different way, sends a positive message. Parents are encouraged to find clubs, teams and other activities that focus on friendship, fun and confidence-building.

Support groups for both the parents and children help better understand their situation. It is always comforting to know that you are not alone on this journey as a parent. With the right support, children who learn and think differently can thrive and grow into adults who contribute immensely to society. This can only be realised when both teachers and parents work together, exhibit shared optimism and lean on one another for strength and support.

Lucy Simiyu is a psychologist with the Crawford International School

Edited by T Jalio