Discovering and Supporting Learning Differences
Q: I noticed over the elementary school years, that my son struggled with reading. As he seemed to be getting worse, his pediatrician did a trial on some ADD medications. It helped; in fact my son said the letters quit moving all over the page. However, it didn’t turn things around. He gets along well at home and school, but schoolwork still is hard for him. What else can I do?
A: Your first step is to find out more about how your son learns. Since many of us learn visually while others process information better through sound, realize there might be more solutions to your son’s problems. Many kids with ADD or ADHD also can have additional learning differences that need attention. This includes a full learning assessment. Many parents use their school system to complete one; others prefer to us psychologists with specialties in working with learning disabilities, also referred to as learning differences, either through a clinic or individual learning specialist.
Part of any assessment includes the full participation of teachers, parents and the student. Do not be surprised if there are many people who need to complete survey instruments as part of the assessment. This may also include checking vision, writing, reading, mathematic reasoning, social interactions and problem-solving skills.
You may learn that your son has verbal or non-verbal learning differences. The verbal ones may relate to his speaking and reading abilities while the non-verbal ones will relate to interpreting the meaning of signs and cues. Understand that through this process you will learn how best to communicate with your son’s teachers, coaches, friends, siblings as well as other family members.
Other family members within your family or your son’s father’s family may have had the same issues. Just as we learn men and women have different ways of processing information and feelings, you may notice more similarities between your son and some of your family members. Our feelings can be hurt if we think someone is being intentionally hurtful. Understanding that your son may miss some non-verbal cues might help you and others not take things the wrong way and get upset by what he has said.
A 20-year study by the Frostig Center points a direction for all parents of children with learning disabilities (differences). The study supports additional research showing that having a close, supportive relationship with family is a critical component to your son’s success. He needs you to become knowledgeable about him and his learning style as well as to be an active ally for him to have the best opportunity for lifelong success. Be aware of the six lifelong attributes that your son needs to incorporate into his life. We all need to be self-aware, proactive, and diligent, focused on our goals, connected to our family and community, and actively use coping skills.
First, you want your son to be self-aware. This means not only aware of what he needs, but also how he interacts with others and their response to him. This is a basic element not only to interacting with peers, being able to get jobs in the future, but being able to understand what others need from him, whether it is schoolwork or being part of your family at home. Model the behavior yourself, but also make sure that you point out when he is doing an excellent job. We always do better by seeing ourselves as capable and competent rather than missing the mark.
The second thing that he may or may not need help with is planning ahead. Just as you are proactive in planning a monthly budget, your son may need assistance at establishing the routines and habits that help him stay on top of his daily schedule and responsibilities. Some people are naturally great at this; others are not. If this isn’t your strong suit, find someone who is good at it and let that person be his mentor.
The third attribute is perseverance. Both of you need to know how to keep making things work and how to keep from giving up too easily. Hopefully you have already discovered that one of the main tasks of parenting is cheerleading. Where many people give up, as parents, we learn that we can’t give up and need to support our kids as they learn what following through looks like. You can help by noticing things that your son is doing to move toward his goals and supporting the areas where he succeeds. As you don’t give up, make sure your son understands he doesn’t give up either. Remember, if you start running out of steam, allow yourself to ask for help as you keep your focus and energy on helping your child make it through tough times. Friends, family, and professionals can be there for you.
The fourth task is goal setting. Goals change throughout our lifetime. Some families use New Year’s Eve; some use the beginning of a school year; and others use a family crisis as an opportunity to review life priorities. You may have a habit of setting new family expectations each year to re-focus everyone’s attention on the school year ahead. It is an opportunity to acknowledge the growing maturity of your children as well as preparing them for taking on additional self-care tasks (like laundry and cooking). Writing these goals down and acknowledging the times they are achieved is critical.
The fifth attribute includes our connections to community and family support systems. We often hear that it takes a village to raise a child. Many families receive support through family members. Others reach out to their faith communities. Scouting, sports, schools and neighborhoods also create opportunities to build mini-support groups. Both parents and kids need help as we navigate our lives. It is in sharing our lives that we learn and feel more connected. Difficulties are easier when shared by friends.
The sixth attribute includes developing emotional coping strategies. Life (interactions with others plus TV shows and movies) gives us myriad of opportunities to observe. It is from these observations we see how others cope. Help the entire family develop the habit of observing and sharing how others handle life’s challenges. At the same time, help everyone understand that setbacks, failures and disappointments are normal in many ways.
You are on a path to discover more about your son and how he learns. This is just one of the many steps we share with our children. It is just a critical one on the road to giving him the skills he needs to succeed in life. Good luck as you all learn from one another through this process.