How to support a child with learning difficulties in school
Despite the advancements in the quality of teaching and practical literacy, any classroom will always have a couple of students who struggle to keep up with their peers’ pace of learning and task completion.
Many children who have difficulties fulfilling their school obligations get labeled as lazy or not smart enough, which can poorly affect the development of the individual’s personality, while these children are often not aware that there is a certain kind of learning disability that keeps them from achieving the desired results. It is not rare to face this sort of difficulty – on the contrary, as many as 9% of children in US schools have a learning disability diagnosis.
Try to imagine what a child with dyslexia feels like when laughed at for having trouble reading aloud in class, or a child with dysgraphia trying to keep up with the pace of their peers’ note-taking. Or, how a child with ADHD feels when days of preparing for a test result in a low grade and they start questioning themselves and how smart they are. These sorts of mini traumas and disappointments can leave serious consequences during the development of an adolescent personality, which can reflect negatively on their entire subsequent life.
It is up to the teachers, as well as the parents, to help children who have a learning disability diagnosis by organizing their learning process so that it gets as psychologically bearable as possible, with the least possible amount of frustration. This article will provide some guidelines as to how to support and encourage a child during the emotionally challenging processes they will face when striving to meet their school obligations.
Tips for educators and parents on supporting children with learning difficulties
Each child is unique by their character, aspirations, shortcomings and virtues; when a disability is added to the mix, it becomes harder for teachers and parents to find the best approaches to facilitating the process of learning and completing school obligations/tasks. There are, however, certain supportive approaches that can be generally/comprehensively implemented with each individual child.
Establish a sincere relationship with the child: Try to explain to them what learning difficulty is
If you want to help a child who has a learning disability diagnosis, it is best to start with building a sincere relationship by explaining what exactly a learning disability entails. Therefore, depending on the child’s age, you need to explain that having some sort of learning disability is not a problem that makes them any less valuable – that they just need a bit different approach to learning that will help them reach the same results as their peers in class. Depending on the difficulty in question, the teacher can try out various approaches to learning and see what suits the child the best.
Focus on praising effort, not results
Bearing in mind that children with learning difficulties cannot always reach high grades, parents and teachers must explain to them that effort must always be above the result itself. By placing focus on the result, the children can easily get demotivated and disappointed, especially if they keep comparing their results to other children’s.
The key to success is in surpassing yourself and your abilities, and this is possible only through investing effort into mastering a certain skill or acquiring certain knowledge. When sufficient effort is invested, the desired result will surely be achieved; it is only a matter of time.
Concentrate on child’s strengths, not weaknesses
As Albert Einstein once quipped, “Everybody is a genius. But if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing that it is stupid.” This neatly sums up the multidimensional nature of intelligence in humans. Bearing this quote in mind, we are obliged to perceive the strengths of a child with a learning disability and, through dedication to cultivating these strengths, create exceptional skills that will enable the child to stand out among their peers.
For instance, if a child has a problem with dyscalculia, and the same child is talented for kinesthetic activities such as acting, we will strive for the best results through developing the kinesthetic activities such as rhetoric, reciting and dramaturgy. After all, one of the great advantages of living in these particular times is that everyone can find their place on the great global market, instead of fitting the general molds of traditional professions.
Provide them with role models
Every human being strives to realize their archetypes (12 universal archetypes according to Jung, in Jung, Carl Gustav, 1875–1961. The Archetypes and the Collective Unconscious. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1980.) and they usually do it through finding role models, often celebrities. By pointing out the examples of celebrities with similar or even the same learning difficulties, you will probably encourage them to stay motivated and move forward with the realization of their goals.
For instance, Albert Einstein was autistic, Leonardo da Vinci exhibited signs of dyslexia and ADHD, Richard Branson has dyslexia and considers it his “greatest strength”, while Michael Phelps was diagnosed with ADHD in fifth grade.
Motivate them and regularly assess their emotions
Children with learning difficulties often struggle both in the classroom and outside of it. It is, therefore, the teachers’ and parents’ duty to monitor the child’s emotional state. And the best way to motivate the child when their spirits are low is through talking to them. There are several ways to solve a problem the child is facing through conversation:
- Deconstruct the unpleasant situation into parts – This approach will allow you to perceive the main causes of the initial conflict, and understand what actually happened.
- Give them examples from your own life – Any advice is welcome, but it’s best when it comes from a person who has overcome a situation similar to what one’s going through. This is why it’s a good idea to see if you or someone from your circle of family and friends has experienced a similar situation and have them explain how it was overcome.
- Teach them to value themselves – This might be the most valuable way to overcome an unpleasant situation and prevent similar situations from occurring. By encouraging the child and pointing out the child’s comparative strengths and advantages, you help build a strong, healthy personality.
Nourish children’s intellectual curiosity
If you pay attention, you will notice that every child starts their life with a hefty dose of curiosity. However, as children get older, if they keep facing stern and negative responses from parents and teachers, this curiosity often gets suppressed. For children with learning disabilities, curiosity is one of the crucial factors when it comes to maintaining continuity in their activities and finding creative alternative solutions for problems.
So, don’t discourage children when they ask a lot of questions, but provide answers and refer them to materials where they can dive deeper into the subjects that they find interesting. Exploring the fields that the child is curious about is a good way to find the area in which they can achieve great results.
Teach the child to reach the flow state easier through play
Many view play as separate from learning, which is a part of the heritage of the strict traditional formal education. Playing used to be associated with being unstructured, whereas learning used to be perceived as a serious activity.
However, through the recent concept of flow state (the mental state where a person performs an activity fully immersed into a sense of focus, total dedication and joy of the activity) we learn that any strictness in learning diminishes the chances of proper concentration. Therefore, the child needs to learn to approach learning as a game, to study when it’s convenient and not worry how long the studying will take, following their own aspirations and pace instead.
Divide the task into smaller parts with clear instructions
This is valid advice for any child, but especially for children with ADHD. Namely, due to the deficit of attention, it would be best to divide a task into steps, where the child can look back at the completed part after each step and gradually perceive the bigger picture of the task. There are other benefits of splitting tasks into parts, primarily the regular secretion of the happiness hormone serotonin and decreasing the odds of giving up due to the scope of the task and the delayed gratification.
There are solutions for helping children with learning difficulties, you just need to implement them
Discovering the gifts of children with learning difficulties and adjusting those gifts to these general supportive approaches will help them avoid many unpleasant situations at school and elsewhere. Your job as a teacher or parent is to implement them and, after a while, see their positive effect on healthy psychological development and the realization of all their desired goals.