School is a place of learning – reading, writing, numbers, maths and more. Most children will progress well, at the level expected by their teachers and as appropriate for their developmental age.
However a small proportion will find school work a real struggle despite attending school regularly. These children might have a learning disability or disorder.
Learning disorders are an important health topic because they have a huge impact on the child’s self-esteem and mental health. It is estimated that 3-5% of Australian students might have a learning disorder.
It is important for parents to be aware of the signs and to seek further advice if they suspect their child is struggling at school. It can be confusing to know where to start to get help. This article explains the learning disorders revolving around reading, writing and maths as well as offering advice on where to get help for your child.
What are specific learning disorders?
A child with a specific learning disorder is one who continues to struggle despite ongoing support (for greater than 6 months). It stems from a neurodevelopmental problem which may have originated from one or more of genetic, cognitive or environmental factors. It is important to note that specific learning disorders are not intellectual impairments. Whilst a child with a specific learning disorder may have significant difficulty in one or more academic areas, at the same time they cope very well, or even excel, in other areas of academic, sporting or artistic achievement. A diagnosis of “specific learning disorder” is based on criteria within the DSM-5 (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders – don’t be put off by the name, it sounds worse than it is).
What is dyslexia?
Dyslexia is a specific learning disorder with difficulty in reading. You have probably heard of dyslexia before and it is thought that 10-20% of Australians may be affected (source: Australian Dyslexia Association). It can be hereditary in some cases. It is a neurological problem and stems from a phonological impairment. That means that it is difficult for the child to link the sounds in a word with the letters that make up those sounds. Both converting a sound into it’s written symbol (spelling/encoding) and converting groups of letters into sounds (decoding) are impaired. For a child with dyslexia, it requires a lot of effort to read, and in addition there may not be a full understanding of the meaning of what is read.
Myth: Dyslexia is when someone sees letters and words backwards.
Fact: Dyslexia is not a problem with vision; it is an issue with processing and manipulating language.
Myth: Dyslexia is helped by using different coloured paper.
Fact: Dyslexia is not a problem of vision or colours.
What is dysgraphia?
Dysgraphia is a specific learning disorder with difficulty in written expression. In particular it is characterised by difficulties with spelling and written expression such as grammar, punctuation, lack of written clarity of ideas, and poor paragraph organisation. It may or may not include an impairment in handwriting. It is a neurological problem resulting from a combination of deficits in the phonological component of language (awareness of sounds), orthographic processing (awareness of written language) and working memory (the memory space we use to hold small amounts of information while we manipulate it). For example, in primary school it may present as very poor spelling, or very slow and laborious writing. The child also may have difficulty tieing shoelaces, using buttons or zippers.
Myth: Dysgraphia is purely a problem with handwriting.
Fact: Dysgraphia may include handwriting problems but in particular is an impairment of the components of writing correct English.
What is dyscalculia?
Dyscalculia is a specific learning disorder with difficulty in mathematics. Children with dyscalculia have trouble understanding numbers, how to use numbers, and learning mathematical facts. For example, telling the time, understanding money, or learning times tables might be a particular struggle.
Myth: People with dyscalculia are lazy and should spend more time learning their times tables.
Fact: Dyscalculia brains work harder than others to do the same task.
Where can I get help if I think my child might have a learning disorder?
In the first instance, talk to your child’s classroom teacher to discuss your concerns. Trust your instinct. If you think there might be a problem, you can also contact SPELD for advice (SPELD = specific learning disorder). There is an Australia-wide association, plus an association for each state: AUSPELD The Australian Federation of SPELD Associations, SPELD Qld, SPELD NSW, SPELD SA, SPELD Victoria, Dyslexia – SPELD Foundation Literacy and Clinical Services (WA).
You should also see your GP. You may need a referral to a psychologist, educational psychologist, or pediatrician to get a diagnosis. A GP can complete a GP Management Plan (GPMP) and Team Care Arrangements Plan. As part of this, you can access up to five medicare rebates for a service (eg occupational therapy) where a child needs treatment from several health professionals. The condition needs to have been present for 6 months or longer, and the referral is a “chronic disease management” plan. Referrals are valid for 12 months and must be in place before the therapy begins in order to claim.
How can I help my child who has a learning disorder?
There are various steps that you can take to put a scaffold of support in place for your child. Which particular steps you take will depend on your situation with regards time and money. You should certainly contact your school’s Learning Support Team. This process can be slow, so keep in mind that you need to be strong and keep advocating for your child. The school can put in place an Individualised Learning Plan (ILP) also known as Individualised Education Plan (IEP). There may be a speech pathologist or occupational therapist that works at your school who can help your child. If you are financially in a position to get help outside of the school this can be a quicker process. For example you could make use of an occupational therapist or personal tutor. Within the classroom, various accomodations can be made. The teacher should think “how could I achieve this task if I couldn’t write/read etc”.
- Teach the student using multi-sensory techniques
- Allow extra time to finish tasks
- Offer alternative modes of assessment eg via video or voice recording
- Provide one-to-one assistance and small group learning
- Present tasks in small, manageable chunks or steps
- Introduce and teach the use of assistive technology (eg speech to text, use of a C-pen for dyslexia, use of a laptop for dysgraphia)
- Provide frequent positive reinforcement through praise and rewards
For children with specific learning disorders, early intervention is vitally important. In many cases, clues tend to emerge around Year 1 when children have spent some time already beginning to learn the fundamentals of reading, writing and numbers. As a parent, you know your child best and so you are their best advocate to seek advice from teachers and other professionals if you suspect there may be a problem. There are plenty of options out there for getting help. Knowing what they are is the hardest part! I hope this article has been useful for you to gain that broad base knowledge so that you can help your child as fully as they need.
Written by Lowenna Holt, PhD
Disclaimer: The information provided in this blog is intended as a general educational aid. It should not replace advice given by a qualified healthcare provider in relation to your own unique circumstances and those of your family. Always consult your doctor regarding medical or mental health concerns that you or your family may have.