meeting deadlines, allocating their time, and
knowing what to do when. Often they have problems dealing with
anything that is arranged in a sequence or particular order; so
they may struggle with the months of the year, with long
directions, and with multistep processes in mathematics.
Other students have problems organizing materials; they have
trouble keeping track of possessions, organizing a notebook, and
finding the implements they need to complete a task.
Other students contend with memory dysfunctions that become
increasingly troublesome as the memory demands in school grow
over the years. Some of these children are weak at filing new
facts or methods in memory, while others have a hard time
recalling quickly and easily what they seemingly have learned.
They may do poorly on tests, even when they understand the
material covered. Some students find it nearly impossible to
hold several different things in their minds at once while they
Many students have a terrible time getting ideas down on
paper. They have significant output problems. Despite having had
excellent things to say, they just can't transmit these thoughts
adequately in writing. These students may dread writing and
avoid homework, and sometimes even stop handing in any written
Some have subtle motor dysfunctions that make it hard for
their fingers to keep pace with the flow of language and ideas.
Others have trouble remembering and organizing all at once the
different parts of writing (such as spelling, letter formation,
grammar, punctuation, and idea development). Somehow their minds
feel overwhelmed and hopeless when they try to write.
Individuals with these varied output problems are tormented
by the contrasts between the excellent thoughts they are able to
think and the inferior thinking that is reflected on their
Are there many other kinds of differences in learning?
Yes, we could go on for dozens more pages and include
problems such as difficulty forming concepts, trouble using
strategies to make learning easier, language impairments, and,
of course the many kinds of learning difficulties that go along
with attention deficits.
How many children do you feel actually have these kinds
of differences in learning?
I believe that there are more students with these kinds of
problems than there are with the more widely recognized reading
disabilities or spelling problems. It may be as many as 30% of
all school-aged children. They exist in every classroom and
almost every family!
How can a parent recognize one of these "untraditional"
First, give your child the benefit of the doubt. All children
would like to be successful in school. Therefore, if your child
is doing poorly, start by assuming that the problem is not just
laziness, that there is something in the child's basic "wiring"
that is standing in the way of success.
Second, let the school know of your concern. Third, obtain a
professional consultation either within your child's school or
in the community. Often this is best done with a team of
professionals who can evaluate different aspects of your child's
functioning. Try to get an assessment that describes your child
and does not just provide a label, since many of the kinds of
difficulties I have described do not fit any labels (such as ADD
Finally, ask your child to tell you what she or he thinks is
going on. Kids have amazing insights into their problems; too
often we forget to ask them what the problem is!
Can these differences in learning be treated?
Definitely. Once we have assessed a child's difficulty, we
help that student understand his or her strengths and
weaknesses, a process called demystification (see the article on
Strengths and Weaknesses in this edition of Parent Journal).
Next, in close collaboration with the school and any consultants
we have used, we can develop appropriate bypass strategies,
which are techniques that can be used in the classroom to
circumvent or work around a child's weakness, so she can
continue to learn and progress academically.
We can also make use of what we call interventions at the
breakdown points; these techniques can be used (often at home)
to work with a child and help that student overcome the learning
disorder. Thus, we might intervene to improve a child's motor
function for writing, to enhance language ability, or to work on
specific aspects of weak attention or deficient memory.
We have a wide range of possible techniques available to us.
To implement them, however, there needs to be excellent
collaboration between the school and the home.
What can schools do to be better able to help these
children in need?
Most importantly, we need to help teachers become experts on
the development of school-aged children and the many differences
in learning that exist within a classroom. They need to know how
to observe, describe, and manage children with differences in
Communities must be committed to the ongoing professional
development of teachers, clinicians, and school administrators
so that we can have an educational system that is able to
nurture individuals with differences in learning.
Are children with these kinds of problems destined to
have trouble throughout their adult lives?
There is no reason to feel pessimistic. So many of these
students ultimately experience success in school and life. They
have a way of coming into their own, finding their very special
specialties, especially if they have not had to endure repeated
frustration and public humiliation during childhood. If we can
understand them well, protect them from embarrassment, keep
strengthening their strengths, and work to sustain their
self-esteem, such students are likely to improve dramatically,
finding their proper niches and overcoming the effects of their
learning disorders. We must never give up on them or allow them
to give up on themselves.
All contents and 1997, 1998, 1999 Schwab
Foundation for Learning
All Rights Reserved
Any interested person or organization may copy or reprint
portions of this article provided such copy may not be sold or
otherwise used for commercial purposes and any such copy must
contain the above stated copyright notice.