Photo: SHARON MCCUTCHEON/PEXELS

Understanding learning difficulties

All children from pre-school to those in their last year of school will, by now, have completed their first half of the Autumn Term. This will have been a smooth process for many, however, for children with learning difficulties, this initial period may have been a challenge, and many parents will only now be aware of their child having specific learning needs.

Special educational needs can affect the ability to learn in a range of diverse ways. They may be moderate, which is normally only diagnosed once a child begins school, or more extreme, diagnosed at birth or when a child does not achieve the expected developmental goals or when certain types of behaviour are questioned or exhibited.

A child with special educational needs can exhibit this trait in many diverse ways. They may demonstrate irrational behaviour, or struggle to socialise and make friends, show reluctance to learn to read, not understand, have a low level of concentration or not be as physically able as other children.

Special needs are normally categorised as follows:

Medical issues – including serious illnesses and chronic conditions like asthma, diabetes, cerebral palsy, dwarfism, and severe food allergies. The term special needs, however, does encompass an array of diagnoses, from those that will affect everyday life forever to those that are deemed mild to extreme needs.

Behaviour issues – Children with behavioural issues may not respond as expected to traditional disciplinary methods and require specialised strategies specific to each individual. Children with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) or Tourettes syndrome can be a challenge both at school and in the home. Schools, parents and specialists should work together to establish strategies that work for the individual child.

Developmental issues – Diagnoses like autism, Down Syndrome, and intellectual disabilities often cause children a wide range of challenges at school. It is vital that children with these types of issues are included in positive and supportive educational environments.

Mental health issues – depression, anxiety attachment difficulties.

Learning issues – most commonly diagnosed once a child begins school and their learning journey. Dyslexia, dyscalculia, dysgraphia, auditory processing disorder (APD), language processing disorder, non-verbal learning disabilities and visual perceptual/visual motor deficit.

▪ Dyslexia – a language processing disorder that affects the ability to learn to read, reading aloud, writing, and general comprehension.

▪ Dysgraphia – the difficulty of converting thoughts into writing or pictures. Illegible handwriting is one of the biggest indicators of dysgraphia.

▪ Dyscalculia – this relates to learning difficulties regarding mathematics. Children with dyscalculia struggle with mathematical concepts, numbers, and reasoning.

▪ Auditory Processing Disorder – this condition is diagnosed when children have difficulties processing sounds. In APD, the brain misinterprets the information received and processed from the ear.

▪ Language Processing Disorder – this relates to an individual who has difficulty processing spoken language.

▪ Nonverbal learning difficulties – NVLD sufferers struggle with understanding body language, facial expressions and tone of voice, or other nonverbal aspects of communication.

▪ Visual Perceptual/Visual Motor Deficit – Individuals with visual perceptual/visual motor deficit exhibit poor hand-eye coordination, often lose their place when reading, and have difficulty with pencils, crayons, glue, scissors, and other fine motor activities.

When a child begins their school journey, if a special educational need/learning difficulty is detected by a teacher or parent, it is extremely important to obtain an accurate diagnosis at an early stage, in order that the school and parents can work together to put into place strategies to help optimise learning and development to take place.

Working closely with the special education needs co-ordinator at your child’s school and class teacher is essential.

Outstanding schools will have an educational psychologist that they work with who will co-ordinate an educational plan involving the school, parents, and psychologist. The strategy will list and document a wide range of methods to help your child’s learning journey, which must then be actioned.

I know, from personal experience, that no two parents of children with special needs react the same way to a diagnosis, be it from a teacher, psychologist, or paediatrician. For some parents, it is a light bulb moment and a relief to know that there is a specific difficulty to address; others find it devasting to know that their child has a learning difficulty.

It is important to place everything into context and to speak with the school, obtain a professional opinion and to work in unison with all those involved in the child’s education and development.

One must never forget that there is always help available, and a vast range of learning strategies and aids that can and should be used to ensure that every child can feel secure and supported in their learning journey and enabled to make positive progress.

‘Everybody is a genius. But if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing it is stupid!’

Albert Einstein.

By Penelope Best, Head of School,
Eupheus International School, Loulé