June 22, 2015
Jamie Kay, a psychologist and learning disability specialist, unravels the mysteries of raising a child with learning issues.
All parents want the best for their children: a loving family, good friends, great medical care, and the best possible education available, from Pre-K right through college. The education piece, particularly in NYC, can be filled with lots of hills and valleys, especially if learning issues are part of the picture
Learning differences, styles, disorders or what?
The terms used for learning disabilities (LD) have shifted back and forth and back again many times over the last couple of decades. Some people refer to learning differences, others to learning issues, disorders, or styles. Bottom line, all these terms address the same concern: your child is having way more trouble learning than the average kid and needs help.
What is a learning disability?
In technical terms, a learning disability is a neurological disorder. Skills related to reading, writing, spelling, analytical thinking, reasoning, and organization are among the most common areas where problems are identified. Learning disabilities (LD) can vary widely among children, sometimes affecting one primary skill, such as reading, or more often a broad range of areas combined, such as language, writing, comprehension, and math. The biggest misconception around learning issues is the relationship to effort and intelligence. Even in today’s world, people still think children with learning issues just don’t try hard enough at school or aren’t that smart. Simply not true. Many children with LD are working harder and longer on homework and have keen intellects. But their brains are wired a bit differently, making learning, accessing knowledge, and applying their abilities more difficult than those activities are for your average child.
What are the signs of a learning disability?
In general, learning problems show up in elementary school, where a child is expected to focus on a new range of tasks. Teachers are often the ones who will bring a problem to your attention, or you may notice things on your own. A teacher may see that your child is clearly bright and engaged, but is having trouble keeping up with reading or learning new information. As a parent, you may notice that your child is having trouble focusing, listening, or following directions at home. Maybe learning the alphabet at an appropriate age was difficult, or connecting letters and sounds. It’s worth noting, though, that lots of parents worry about learning problems before there is good reason, and that only complicates matters. When children have real learning disabilities, you are generally looking for a cluster of difficulties in multiple areas, such as reading and writing problems, language difficulties, poor comprehension, incorrect use of language, confusion regarding math symbols, or inability to start or finish an appropriate task.
When is the time to evaluate a child for learning difficulties?
Whether or not to have your child evaluated is a very personal decision. Evaluations are available through the NYC Board of Education (BOE), or you can have your child tested privately. The BOE evaluations are not as thorough or comprehensive. Private assessments can be costly, but the value of a private evaluation is often worth the extra expense. If your child is really struggling and efforts by the school or tutors to help have not worked out, it is probably a good idea to have your child tested. A neuropsychological evaluation, the gold standard for LD assessments, will provide a clear picture of what your child’s difficulties are and what steps to take in optimizing your child’s educational experience. Most often, a recommendation for a learning specialist or tutor will be made, as most schools do not provide the specialized assistance a child will most likely require. Some LD children need placement in a special needs school, while others will be able to continue in mainstream schools, with additional services provided. Regardless of what type of learning difficulty a child may be facing, a neuropsychological evaluation, by a highly trained pediatric neuropsychologist, will provide the most comprehensive overview of the specific types of learning issues a child is experiencing. The relationship between test results and determining next steps is key in providing the optimum educational and academic needs of a child. Tutors, learning specialists, and school accommodations are among the most common recommendations provided.
Is there a certain age that is ideal for testing a child?
When it comes to determining if a child has learning disabilities, finding out earlier is better than later. The sooner a parent understands the challenges a child is facing, the more quickly adequate measures to help can be taken. However, don’t move too fast! All children develop differently, and sometimes there is a lag in meeting certain developmental milestones, but children often catch up and do just fine. It’s often best to wait until a child is in kindergarten before having an evaluation completed. Testing a child too early can be premature, unnecessarily costly, and inaccurate due to still developing and emerging skills.
However, if there are serious developmental concerns, it’s always good to check in with your pediatrician.
How should I choose tutors?
If your child is diagnosed with a learning disorder, a tutor or learning specialist can be tremendously helpful, especially if your child is in a mainstream school setting, private or public. Finding the right person to work with your child is very important. A tutor’s training and credentials should be thoughtfully and thoroughly considered. Check in with other parents about their experiences with professionals. Ask your school if they can recommend someone familiar with your child’s school curriculum. And don’t be afraid to shop around. Speak candidly about your concerns and expectations. Ask professionals about their approach and experiences. And keep in mind that expensive doesn’t guarantee anything. New York is filled with wonderful specialists, but some are less great at their chosen field than others. It’s important to do your research and seek out the best person for the job.
How to help at home?
If your child has a learning disorder, here are some things to consider on the home front.
Patience: Think of what it would be like if your day were filled with challenges you couldn’t meet and you didn’t know how to make things better. That’s what it’s like for most kids with learning issues. Try to keep your frustrations in check. It’s good for you and it will be great for your kid.
Don’t panic or freak out: Happily there is help out there for you and for your child. Worrying too much will only result in anxiety, which hampers the process of learning, and that’s the last thing you want to have happen.
Praise: Let your child know when he or she has done something well. Don’t go overboard, which can result in unrealistic expectations in the future and a false sense of accomplishment. Just let your child know you noticed and praise the effort and success accordingly.
Build on strengths: Discover what your child enjoys doing and provide as many of those experiences as possible, without overloading your child’s schedule. Children with learning disabilities often excel in non-academic pursuits such as sports, music, or certain games, like chess. Sign up for a class and engage your child in the process. Make it fun. The main thing is to give your child as many opportunities as possible to build on his or her strengths.
There are some outstanding online resources for general information about learning issues. Below are a few that offer some great information: