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The Many Different Differences in Learning

Resource Type: Articles
Keywords: Education, Learning Disabilities,

From Parent Journal, Autumn 1996

Learning differences are often thought of simply as difficulties learning to read, write, or achieve in mathematics. Yet, there are many children with school problems whose daily academic struggles extend beyond the traditional "3 R's." While some of these students also have trouble learning the basic skills, others develop good skills but nevertheless get poor grades in school and, over time, lose their interest in learning.

These children often "fall between the cracks" as their differences in learning either are misunderstood or just plain missed. They are unjustly accused of being lazy or "not too bright." The result can be a needlessly unhappy and tragically unproductive childhood.

What are some examples of differences in learning?

They take many different forms. For example, there are many very bright and competent students who have disabling organizational problems. Some of them have agonizing difficulty understanding and managing time. They have trouble

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 are working.

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 products.

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 papers.

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" learning problems?

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 or dyslexia).

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 learning.

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
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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.

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