The silver lining in students with learning difficulties


Parents worry when they find out that their children have learning difficulties. [Jonah Onyango, Standard]

Few things are more heart-wrenching to a parent than realising that their child has learning difficulties. Every parent wants and expects their child to be ‘normal’ if not above average.

Parents expect their children to achieve more than they did, or if it is ‘high-flying’ parents, to measure up to their achievement. So in the event that a parent notices that there are gaps in the cognitive development of their child, then they become distraught. In extreme cases, they are even considered an embarrassment to families and hid from the public.

Less informed educators may see them as bothersome and a nuisance, or ‘slow’ and ‘dense.’ Their peers may make them the target of mockery, if not bullying.

And although understandable for parents to feel distraught and worried, this should not be the case. This is because children with learning difficulties tend to exhibit special abilities that make-up for their shortcomings. The sad bit is that these special abilities do not seem to be tapped or exploited much, more like a disregarded silver-lining.

The onus is on the Ministry of Education to equip and/ or retool educators to enable them to not only bring out the best in these learners, but also educate families on how best to handle them, and defuse the tension and ominous feeling at home.

Let’s contextualise this: 

There are numerous defects, disabilities, mental, emotional and developmental disorders that affect children, some of which they were born with or may have acquired down their pathway. Children with such conditions affecting their academic, social and other aspects of their lives require individualised support across multiple environments to promote participation, quality of life and effective development.

Currently, educators, clinicians and parents encounter widespread difficulties in meeting children’s needs as there is lack of classification, clear strategies, and well-defined legal and policy framework functioning in our school environments.

Children with conditions such as anxiety, attention-deficit/ hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), autism, spectrum disorders, dyslexia, conduct disorder, depression, developmental disabilities, fragile X syndrome, hearing loss, haemophilia, intellectual disability, language disorders, learning disorders, obsessive-compulsive disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder, sickle cell disease and vision loss, require a specialised approach that will ensure inclusion and/ or integration in a school setting.  

These kids often times have special abilities that need to be identified and exploited to their fullest potential. Dyslexic kids, for instance, may have problems writing or expressing themselves verbally, but quite good in math and related subjects. Ignoring them only on account of their writing or speaking skills is doing them a great disservice. It is the height of unfairness. Even unprofessionalism.

Dyslexic kids may have problems writing or expressing themselves verbally. [Jonah Onyango, Standard]

A child with autism has difficulty with and a lack of interest in learning languages. An autistic child may respond to a question by repeating the question or might rarely speak. Such kids have difficulty reading social cues such as the meanings of non-verbal gestures. Autistic children exhibit poor social skills and are unable to communicate with others or empathise with them emotionally. They tend to prefer routines and patterns, and become upset when routines are altered.

For example, moving the furniture or changing the daily schedule can be very upsetting. However, they have unique abilities. Sometimes autistic children learn more difficult words before simple words, or complicated tasks before easier ones.

An autistic child views the world differently and learns differently than others. It is therefore incumbent upon the teacher to tailor-make the teaching and learning experiences/activities to suit this kind of learner.

ADHD, on the other hand, is one of the first things that is suspected when a child’s behavior in class, or performance in school work dwindles, or is inconsistent or outright poor. A child who cannot seem to sit still, who blurts out answers in class without raising their hand, who does not finish his homework, and who seems to be daydreaming when the teacher gives instructions is a prime candidate for this condition.

But an untrained eye will write them off as an indiscipline case. In all fairness, these could also be behaviors resulting from other factors; anxiety or trauma, or just being younger than most of the kids in the class, and hence a little less mature. Such kids tend to depict unconventional inattention, hyperactivity and impulsivity. These children are not an exception and they, too, have special capabilities.

A preliminary research was conducted between 2016 and 2018 in the US by Dr Alison Pritchard, an assistant professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, and The Krieger Institute on the effectiveness of neuropsychological assessment in the identification and treatment of children with ADHD.

The study observed that children with ADHD have their own unique capacities which tend to make them stand-out; divergent in thinking, creativity, generativity, flexibility of thought, movement and exploration. Children with ADHD tend to be way curious in comparison to their ‘normal’ peers.

The study found out that the ADHD brain to be hungrier for novelty and dynamic activity. It sees and tolerates/ appreciates new ideas, new movements, new visualisations and new concepts. Kids with ADHD often perceive (intuitively) connections or “flows” that are not appreciated by others. They often enjoy taking a “bird’s eye view” of things, and asking the “what-if” questions.

Yes, it is not all gloom with these conditions. 

Harnessing these special abilities

Many parents and teachers do not realise that a child can simultaneously have learning disabilities and be gifted, a combination called ‘twice exceptional’. Many of these children score off the charts in exam tests and are clearly smarter than their grades and conduct reports might suggest. Teaching and parenting these twice-exceptional (and easily bored) students takes insight, persistence and creativity, but the hard work is more worthwhile when their gifts are unlocked.

Twice-exceptional students need a programme that nurtures their talents. [Courtesy]

Twice-exceptional students need a programme that nurtures their talents while accommodating their weaknesses. Children with ADHD, for instance, need accelerated learning, even while they are working on the cognitive skills that will support the faster pace. They should have a differentiated approach, with options in what they learn and how they learn it.

Schools, teachers and parents should collaborate to ensure that a twice-exceptional student has the support skills to manage their tasks and to compensate for their weaker executive function. Some students with disorders need more time to complete tasks than other students. They might often benefit from using assistive technology, such as a portable word processor or a calculator.

Special education programmes for these students with wide range of disabilities is fundamental in unlocking their full potential. These students experience widely varying levels of regular classroom inclusion in their daily lives. They often vary depending on the disabilities represented among the students in the special education programme.

On the other hand, a child with a developmental or intellectual disability such as Down syndrome may have trouble keeping up in virtually all regular classes from a young age. He will need care and instruction more specific to his educational and social needs in individualised special education programmes.

The fact that these students have such a range of special learning disabilities and widely varying experiences with their education curriculum, shows how much emphasis we should put on strategies and policies for students who need extra support and should become much more successfully individualised.

Schools and learning institutions ought to design special education programmes for these students. These may include special education, where teachers use a special education curriculum for less than half of each day. Special-needs students spend the majority of the day ‘included’ in regular classrooms. Teachers and aides should be always available to sit with special-needs students and work with them as a part of the larger classroom. Special education teachers in schools with inclusion policies spend most of their time forming relationships with specific students, accompanying them to classes, and ensuring they are receiving adequate support and opportunity.

Mainstreaming special education students is another robust programme and is similar to inclusion, but has no requirement for time spent in regular classrooms. Often, mainstreaming of special education students into regular classrooms is done either in a limited number of classes in which the student excels, or as an opportunity to let the special education student socialise with the rest of the student body. Special education teachers in mainstreaming schools might co-teach with regular teachers, spend time aiding students in classrooms, and teach special education classes all in a single day.

In ‘self-contained’ special education programmes, students spend the majority if not all of the day in a ‘self-contained’ classroom for special education students. They can be located on the same campus or in an entirely different school from their typically developing peers. These special education programmes are often effective for students with more severe disabilities.

Schools can also offer other wide range of approaches and services to meet these students’ unique combination of needs, not just learning but also social and emotional needs. This may include employing specially trained teachers equipped with the ability to tutor and unlock special capabilities, having low teacher-to-student ratios and predominantly offering academic and psychological counselling.

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