Children’s Learning problems

It is natural for parents to worry when their child is ‘under-achieving’ or not advancing as quickly as his peers, either at school or in social circumstances. The cause may vary from an underlying emotional problem, to a specific learning disability (such as dyslexia), to something more ‘definable’, such as hearing or seeing difficulties caused, for example, by an ear blocked up with wax or by shortsightedness. The first step in solving a learning problem is to identify the root cause, and it helps enormously if parents and teachers communicate well and discuss the issues openly.

Some children switch off intellectually in unfavourable circumstances. A distaste for school may be short-lived, but children are sometimes put off permanently by early difficulties. Children should never be threatened with school, but encouraged to think of it as an interesting place. Every child is unique: the right school for one child may not suit another. Also, not every child is ready for school at the same age: some will benefit from it earlier than others. At home a child can have one-to-one attention for much more of his day and some children might enjoy school more later if they have been longer at home.

Emotional factors

A child’s relationship with his teacher determines to a large degree how well he takes to school. The gifted teacher makes learning a joy. The smaller the class, the easier it is for a teacher to help children individually, but a good teacher inspires interest in any conditions. Often young children are taught mostly by one teacher. So if a child does not get on with his teacher, his capacity for learning can be temporarily impaired. Many teachers can spot and smooth out trouble, but if parents are worried about the behaviour of their child, they should discuss the problem with the teacher or headteacher. Children learn more than reading, writing and arithmetic at school. They learn to co-operate with other people. Emotional and physical development are no less important than intellectual development: each contributes to the maturing of the child. A child with emotional and physical problems can be held back academically, and problems with schoolwork can lead to emotional problems. Conflict between one child and another can be a source of trouble. Teachers cannot always prevent teasing, bullying or unkind-ness, which can make a child’s life at school miserable. Discussions with the teacher and headteacher, and possibly with the other child’s parents, may help resolve the situation. Better still, parents can help their child cope with the predicament himself by showing him how to modify his behaviour, or by guiding his understanding of the other child’s apparently antisocial behaviour.

The hyperactive child

The ability to concentrate varies from child to child and increases with age. In a class of children the same age, some can benefit from concentrated teaching for longer than others. A few children are mentally and physically so active that they cannot concentrate on anything for long. They may have been labelled as hyperactive when younger. Experiments have shown that the cause can sometimes be found in artificial colouring and flavouring of foods, lemonades for instance. It is worthwhile for parents to try to delete these articles of food from the diet. In general, however, this measure does not have any effect on hyperactivity. Parents will probably have to accept that their child is just more active than others. Patience on the part of both teacher and parent can help find a learning method to match the hyperactive child’s attention span.

Specific problems

Dyslexic children have a specific reading difficulty rather than a general slowness in reading. Boys are more often effected than girls. Dyslexic children can be of any level of intelligence. They seem not to be able to recognize whole words even if they can identify individual letters. They read meal, for example, instead of male. Sometimes they may also form letters wrongly and write 4b’ when ld’ is meant. Emotional problems may result from frustration at not being able to achieve what is expected, which can in turn cause physical problems such as stomach ache and asthma. Many dyslexic children eventually learn to read fairly well. Assessment by a doctor or psychologist skilled in child development is essential before diagnosis because a confirmation of the disability needs to be handled with considerable tact. Identifying dyslexia as the problem at the root of their child’s learning difficulties may be a considerable relief to parents worried that their son or daughter was intellectually backward, but may lead to a loss of self-esteem on the part of the child faced with a confirmation of his ‘difference’ to the rest of the class. It may also happen that the parents, or in some case, the teacher, fail to push the child hard enough in deference to his dyslexia with the result that the child achieves nothing like his true potential.

A teacher specializing in dyslexia, or a school with a special dyslexia unit, will give a child with this disability the best chance.

Dyscalculia is the term sometimes applied to children who cannot cope with figures as well as their intelligence would suggest they could. Partial deafness – rather than complete deafness, which is easily identifiable at an extremely early age -is often the reason behind a child’s difficulty in keeping up with the rest of the class. Unable to clearly hear what the teacher is saying or asking him, he may clown around to divert attention away from his inability to comprehend the lesson, or he may appear sullen or slow. A hearing test should be performed whenever deafness is suspected.

A few children have serious difficulty in learning to write legibly. Most are normal physically and mentally, although a few have a recognizable medical problem, such as minimal brain dysfunction. This disorder may give a slight impairment of the fine movements of hands and fingers, causing writing difficulties.

Being especially bright can create problems at school as well. The gifted child often does well in every sphere of activity and may be held back by the rest of the class. Frustrated, he may not try as hard as he can, or he may develop behaviour problems. Special lessons and activities tailored to the gifted child’s needs should help him realize his full potential.

How to deal with learning problems

Whatever a child’s learning problem, it is the responsibility of the school and the parents to identify the cause of the trouble and work towards a solution. It is only to be expected that not every child fits into the school system. Enrolling a child with learning difficulties at a school with a special interest in helping each child learn at his own rate in his own way may be the best approach. Parents can also do much at home to help children enjoy learning, and extra tuition may be advisable.