Little five-year-old Rachel with pigtails flopping behind her bolts into her kindergarten classroom. She’s excited to color with her bright new crayons and listen to her teacher read a new story. Week one of school was everything Rachel hoped it would be!
Week six of school is a different story. Rachel has started complaining of stomach aches on school mornings, and her little pigtails are now dragging behind her. School, especially reading and independent work time, is a prison for Rachel.
Both Rachel’s teacher and her parents see her emotional deterioration along with her struggle to learn letter sounds and blend them into short words. Her teacher also notices that Rachel struggles with following oral directions and staying on task during seatwork time. Rachel’s parents are baffled! Why is their enthusiastic, “smart” child starting to fall behind in school?
All children are created by God with unique brains, but not all brains are created equal. Children are born with strengths and weaknesses that only appear once school starts. Sometimes specific weaknesses in the brain directly impact how a student performs academically and catch parents and teachers by surprise.
Cognitive Weaknesses at the Root:
Common learning disabilities include dyslexia, dyscalculia, dysgraphia, ADHD, and Auditory Processing Disorder. However, the root causes of these learning disabilities are often overlooked.
For example, one of dyslexia’s root causes is weakness in phonological awareness, or the ability of the brain to process speech sounds in a language. Rachel demonstrates what it may be like for a child with phonological awareness difficulties. Because she is not able to process the individual sounds or syllables in words, she is unable to blend sounds together fluently when it comes time to read. Orthographic awareness, the ability to process the written form of a language, can also result in dyslexia. Students with this cognitive weakness misread letters, struggle with spelling, and cannot quickly recall common words (Mather, Goldstein, & Eklund, 2015).
Visual and auditory memory, executive functioning, and fine motor skills all play a role in a child’s performance in school, and weaknesses in these cognitive functions may result in one or more learning disabilities.
Advice for Parents:
If your child sounds like Rachel and shows “‘unexpected’ underachievement’ (Mather, Goldstein, & Eklund, 2015, p. 207), you should take specific steps EARLY to make sure your child receives the help needed in school to avoid unnecessary setbacks academically or emotionally.
First, talk with your child’s teacher. Both you and the teacher have unique perspectives on your child. You need to voice your concerns about your child’s progress and also listen to what the teacher has observed. Ask the teacher or resource teacher for interventions, especially multisensory ones, that can be tried at home or at school to help your child with specific weaknesses.
Second, have your child tested by an educational psychologist. Educational psychologists have the qualifications to administer a variety of tests that measure achievement, aptitude, attention, and motor skills. The psychologist will then discuss results with parents and make recommendations to implement at home and school, including accommodations and modifications.
Third, discuss test findings with the classroom teacher and school resource personnel. The results and recommendations from the psychologist’s report will help both you and the school staff develop an appropriate plan to help your child. For example, the teacher may need to reduce spelling word lists or give tests orally. Your child may also need to be placed in a special math or reading class that uses different methods of teaching that are better suited to your child’s learning strengths and weaknesses.
Fourth, communicate with your child’s teachers throughout the school year. Whether you send an email or meet in person, your communication with the teacher and vice versa is imperative. Because your child has learning challenges, the teacher may need to make adjustments throughout the year. The teacher may also have recommendations for different things you can try at home. If your child is on medication for behavioral or cognitive issues, alerting the teacher to changes in dosage or frequency would help prevent possible behavioral issues and give you feedback on the effectiveness of the medication. Ideally, both you and the teacher work as a team to help your child progress at an appropriate rate.
Fifth, set your child up for success. Children with learning disabilities may experience emotional challenges as they face their weaknesses on a daily basis. As a parent. you have the job to encourage your child in his strengths and maintain realistic expectations. Also, a structured home life will help your child, especially if he has ADHD. Set a specific time and place for homework and set limits on what you will do to help your child. Your job is to be your child’s guide and advocate — not your child’s teacher. The biggest gift you can give your child is PATIENCE and INDEPENDENCE. Avoid the temptation to give up and do your child’s work for him. This robs the child of confidence and reinforces the idea that he cannot do it. If you find that you are becoming the teacher or your child is spending an exorbitant amount of time on homework, it may be time to contact the classroom teacher and discuss possible adjustments to the homework load or classroom instructional method (Smith & Strick, 2010).
Little Rachel will have challenges ahead of her, but with supportive parents and appropriate interventions, she will be on track to overcome them. If your child sounds a lot like Rachel, begin taking steps now to help her at school and at home. Below are a few additional resources that will equip you to be your child’s best advocate.
- International Dyslexia Association website
- Right Brain Teaching website
- LD Resources Foundation website
- ADHD Helps for School and Home article
- Free Learning Disability Workshops (virtual, recorded, or in person) ● Overcoming Dyslexia by Sally Shaywitz and Jonathan Shaywitz
- Learning Disabilities: A to Z by Corrine Smith and Lisa Strick
Mather, Nancy, et al. Learning Disabilities and Challenging Behaviors Using the Building Blocks Model to Guide Intervention and Classroom Management. Paul H. Brookes Publ., 2015.
Smith, Corinne Roth., and Lisa Strick. Learning Disabilities, A to Z: a Complete Guide to Learning Disabilities from Preschool to Adulthood. Free Press, 2010.