So what do I do if I think my child has a Learning Difficulty?
Observe your child
Gather information on:
• What they find hard and easy
• How they approach different tasks (what do they prioritise? What do they avoid? How do they tackle each task?)
• How they react emotionally to their school work (tiredness, avoidance, aggression, poor attention, etc.)
• His/her strengths (what are they good at? What strengths do they use to compensate for weaknesses?)
Talk to your child's teacher(s) and the school special education teacher
Tell them your concerns and get their opinions. They might suggest an evaluation by an educational psychologists or some in-school evaluation by the special education staff. Once this has been done and it is found that your child will need help, they will draw up an Individual Education Plan (IEP), setting out targets, objectives, testing criteria, accommodations to make life easier in class, and the most important teaching techniques. Most teachers are only too happy to work with you and let you know what you can do to help.
Seek an assessment with an educational psychologist
Many parents fear going to an ed psych because they don't want their child to be labelled or stand out from their friends. Other parents, meanwhile, want exactly the opposite: after years of nagging doubts and suspicions they are only too happy to have an authorative diagnosis! Which ever side of the divide you stand on, I've found that seeing an ed psych is an invaluable first step towards helping children overcome their LD. Not only does it tell us exactly what we're up against; it also gives a thorough analysis of reading, writing and spelling skills, as well as a detailed breakdown of the cognitive strengths and weaknesses behind them. In my experience this has proved indispensible in planning an effective remediation programme. In addition, most ed psychs give excellent practical teaching advice too! An educational psychology evaluation will usually include tests of intelligence, cognitive factors such as auditory processing, reading, spelling, maths and concentration. The ed psych will then discuss his/her findings with you. Then, with your permission, these can then be shared with the relevant teachers and an IEP drawn up. Finally an ed psych report is invaluable for helping older children with LDs qualify for accommodations such as extra time and lap top use in higher exams.
Explain to your child what is happening
Openness seems to be the best policy here. Most children I have worked with were incredibly relieved to know that they were not "dumb", "retarded" or "losers" but were suffering from a specific learning disorder that wasn't their fault! Just knowing too that teachers are aware of their difficulties and are on their side is a great relief to kids who are often too young to put their Concerns into words. You can reinforce the point that they really are clever kids who just do things a bit differently, go through the teaching programme with them and outline some of the techniques that will help them survive in class. This will often make them feel very grown up and more in charge of their destiny. Of course, I've also had children who find it a great burden to have a label hanging over them, so tact and encouragement are crucial when talking to them. However, there is no doubt that many children do come to terms quickly with the fact that they have an LD; they then get on with dealing with it!
Now you have a diagnosis and some sort of educational plan, you'll need to consider what kind of help your child needs. You are a vital part of the team and I've outlined below what you can do to help. Some children whose LDs are not too severe may be able to cope in class with only a certain amount of extra attention from their teacher and effective accommodations. Other children might need a full time assistant in class. Children may also benefit from lessons set aside with the school's special education teacher. He or she will work on the weaknesses outlined in the IEP. You might also consider an outside special education teacher such as myself. I work in close cooperation with schools and cover the same areas as the in-school SEN team. Have a look at my "Typical lesson" button to see what I do. For children with an LD such as dypsraxia, you might want to work with an occupational therapist who can strengthen your child's fine and gross motor skills. Finally, a speech and language therapist could help your child improve his verbal expression, vocabulary and word-finding abilities. There's someone out there for every difficulty! I've listed some names of people I've worked with in the "Useful links" area.
The internet has been a blessing for parents of LD children. Just type in "dyslexia" and see how much comes up. You can find out about not only symptoms, but also the latest research, techniques and IT programmes to help. You'll find a list of sites I've found useful on the "Useful links" button!
Networking – a problem shared is a problem halved...
I always remember when my wife was pregnant with our first child, Frank. I suddenly began noticing how many pregnant women and babies there were in our town. Well, it's the same with LD children! It can often feel as though you are alone in the world and that your son or daughter is the only special needs child in a school full of bright, go-ahead, successful students. However, once you have a diagnosis or confirmation of an LD, it's amazing how many other LD parents you start meeting. We're not all social beings, but it can be deeply reassuring to meet and chat with other parents, swapping ideas and information. Nearly all the big international schools in Switzerland have special education units now and there are a number of parents' organisations such as ASK (All Special Kids) who can give you information or provide an informal venue to meet other LD parents.
How can I help my child?
Parents are the main teachers in their children's lives and there are many things you can do at home to help your child. Firstly, smooth communication between parents and school is vital for success. This allows you to monitor your child's progress. Teachers are very busy people and, as I know from my classroom experience, it can be hard in a big class to keep tabs on every aspect of a LD child's classroom needs. Therefore, regular chats with your teacher will keep them on task, as will exchanging notes and observations in a homework diary. Many schools teachers now put their students' curriculums and assignments online on systems such as Managebac and Onenote, and allow parents access to keep abreast of what their children are covering in class. You can also check if the classroom accommodations are in place: is your child sitting near the front of the class, being given handouts instead of just "chalk and talk", receiving extra time for tests, etc. Teaching your child good organisational habits is a must. Encourage them to use their school timetable and to use and keep up to date a weekly planner. Make sure they have all the correct equipment and books for each day's work. Show them how to use a homework diary effectively. For older children, help them organise a folder and buy them a holepuncher so that all loose papers get filed away quickly. Reading is usually THE crucial weakness for many LD children. The problem is that teachers only have so much time to hear pupils read individually. That's where you come in! Apart from helping your child get through the reading programmes provided by the school, you can also try techniques such as "paired reading" to help them access books which they find interesting but too hard to read by themselves (see the "Paired Reading" button). You can also help them to read those tricky, irregular words which litter the English language (because, they, know, come, etc.). Learning to recognise these words automatically will really speed up reading (see the "Common Sight Words" button). You can point out words they see often in everyday life (shop signs, etc.) and common letter patterns ("th", "br", etc.) Finally, you can also get audio books - and just read to them! I'm sure you've noticed that homework is often a problem for children with an LD! Your child works hard at school and then gets hit with an hour or more of EXTRA work - life is not fair! Some children I've worked with have had difficulties so severe that I've had to negotiate a "homework moratorium" with their teachers. However, once they've been shown some useful techniques, most kids manage to get through it. First of all, make sure you have a fixed time and a comfortable, distraction free place to do homework. Some kids prefer to get the homework done asap; others prefer to have a snack first. Then decide what work is the most important and set some time limits. Help your child to decode the instructions and make plans. If the homework is taking too long – STOP! Working too late is counter-productive and a chat with the teacher about the quantity of work might be in order.
Finally, as someone who has been in the field of special education since 1993, I fully understand how tired and down both parents and children can get. It can seem never ending! Children do need regular encouragement, breaks and rewards. My wife has homeschooled 4 children, so we both know how draining it can be for parents. All I say is that I've seen so many children in early school years whom even I thought would never make it - only to see them graduating with excellent academic results 10 years later! If that's no consolation, I always remind myself that we are moving more and more towards a society where the "right brain" outlook of so many LD kids is becoming an asset rather than a weakness. Finally, it's worth bringing to mind such as people as Albert Einstein, Albert Schweitzer, Orlando Bloom, Leonardo da Vinci, Walt Disney and George Washington – LD sufferers one and all! And they didn't do to badly, did they?