as featured in the Kuier Magazine

Written by Tamarin Epstein, Educational Psychologist from PsychMatters Family Therapy Centre, in Bedfordview, Johannesburg.

  1. What are the different types of learning disorders?A learning disorder is any difficulty which creates a barrier to learning. Learning disorders may be caused by any number of physical, neurological, cognitive, emotional, and psychosocial (environmental) factors. Learning disorders are identified and diagnosed by psychologists or psychiatrists, based on their symptoms. A child may present with one or more learning disorders, at a given time.

    Academic learning disorders include Reading Disorder, Mathematics Disorder, and Disorder of Written Expression. Academic learning disorders are identified, when a child’s academic skills are significantly below both age-appropriate levels and the child’s cognitive abilities. Other learning difficulties include motor skills disorders, communication disorders (e.g. Expressive Language Disorder and Stuttering), and attentional and behavioural disorders (e.g. oppositional defiant disorder (ODD) and attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (AD/HD). A child suffering from AD/HD presents either with mostly inattentive, or mostly hyperactive-impulsive symptoms, or – more commonly – with a combination of both (combined type).

    In some cases, a child may present with another psychological disorder – such as an eating, mood, tic, anxiety (e.g. separation anxiety), cognitive, or pervasive developmental disorder (e.g. autism), as their primary diagnosis. As children suffering from these disorders often have learning difficulties, one or more learning disorders may form a secondary diagnosis.

  2. How can parents or teachers recognize these difficulties at an early stage?Academic, attentional and behavioural learning difficulties are usually identified during a child’s pre-school/school years, when their development can be formally measured against that of their peers. Teachers are well positioned to identify children who are consistently performing below the level expected for their age and grade. The child may present as a poor learner, or display attentional or behavioural difficulties which are not developmentally appropriate.

    Attentional and behavioural difficulties may also come to the attention of parents. Some signs include distractibility, not finishing tasks, forgetfulness, disorganized behaviour, seeming not to hear instructions or to be “in a dwaal”, fidgety or over-active behaviour (child acts as if s/he is always on the go/driven by a motor), impulsivity, avoiding homework tasks or chores, disobedience, a “bad attitude”, a hot temper, argumentativeness, irritability, or antisocial behaviour (verbally or physical aggression, spitefulness, lying, stealing). Parents should only be concerned about signs like these, if it seems the child is often and overly so, compared to other children of their age.

    Motor skills and communication difficulties may also come to the attention of teachers, as they interfere with the learning process. These difficulties may also be noticed by parents, if they observe that the child seems to be clumsy, or has trouble with speaking or writing.

  3. Once it is recognized, how should parents address this?Once a learning difficulty is suspected, parents can approach an

    , to request a psycho-educational assessment for their child. By using standardised psychometric tests, the psychologist is able to objectively evaluate the child’s level of cognitive, emotional and educational functioning. Testing results are considered in the context of both parent and teacher reports and input. In this way, the psychologist is able to determine probable causes for the child’s difficulties, and evaluate whether the difficulties are significant.

    A psychological assessment generates a profile of the child’s strengths and weaknesses, and provides a formal diagnosis, if applicable. Based on the assessment findings, the psychologist is in an informed position to advise parents and teachers on appropriate, proactive ways to understand, assist and support the child, going forward. Recommendations may include referrals to other healthcare professionals (such as a doctor/paediatrician, neuropsychologist, psychiatrist, speech therapist, or occupational therapist), for further assessment in specific areas, or for treatment, where appropriate.

  4. Any practical tips or advice for parents of children with learning difficulties?Learning Disorders cause suffering for a child. Their self-esteem may suffer, and they may experience social or emotional difficulties. They may have to struggle to cope in a school environment which does not accommodate them.

    Parents may feel overwhelmed by their child’s diagnosis, and responsible for their difficulties. They may feel overburdened and emotionally drained by the practical and financial strain of having their child assessed, re-assessed, treated and remediated – by a host of healthcare and educational professionals. If there is more than one child in the home, parents may worry that the extra effort they spend on the child comes at the expense of their other children, and even of themselves at times. Sometimes, a parent may feel as if s/he is on a treadmill with no ‘off’ button!

    • Take stock:It may be useful to step back and take stock of things. When we feel overwhelmed, our anxiety and exhaustion prevent us from seeing the ‘big picture’. In this state, we may find ourselves putting off dealing with other, often much bigger, problems in our lives. By confronting and dealing with these problems, we free our emotional, cognitive and physical resources, energising ourselves. Somehow, the ‘big problem’ of coping with a child’s learning difficulties, seems smaller, and a lot more manageable.
    • Nurture yourself:Be mindful that your child will cope better, if you do. Strung-out parents often have strung-out children. Spend at least half-an-hour a day on ‘Me time’. This time may be spent doing a simple activity that you enjoy (chatting to a friend on the phone, having a relaxing bath, taking a walk, meditating, writing a journal, gardening, anything that ‘floats your boat’). ‘Me time’ doesn’t include TV time. TV time is TV time, and ‘Me time’ is extra!
    • Slow down, breathe:We all have problems. Your child’s problem just happens to be learning. But, the reality is that the responsibility for their academic (and other) achievements ultimately rests with the child. You cannot make them succeed, or do the work for them. Your role is to listen, understand, and provide the necessary support. Make sure your expectations of your child are realistic, and pick your battles. Family life shouldn’t be ruled by a child’s academic successes and failures. There’s more to life!
  5. How can parents make learning easier for the child?
    • Dedicated homework and connecting timeYour child will probably need your guidance and supervision, at homework time. This time needs to be one-on-one time alone with your child, to guide him/her. It is important to encourage, rather than push, and to provide support, rather than answers. When homework is done, spend the last ten minutes chatting and connecting with your child. In this way, homework time also becomes meaningful time. Be sure to give each child in your family their own ten minutes of alone time each day, to connect with you too!
    • Seek support
      Your child may benefit from the support of professionals, who have dedicated their life’s work to studying and practising in the fields of learning support and/or child development. An educational psychologist is well-positioned to advise and refer you, to appropriate sources of support.
  6. Where can parents go for help?
    • Contact an Educational Psychologist for a Psychological Assessment in your area or contact PsychMatters Family Therapy Centre, a Family Psychology Centre in Bedfordview Johannesburg to assist you and your child’s cognitive and emotional needs. www.psychmatters.co.za or 011-4503576.
    • Attention Deficit and Hyperactivity Support Group of Southern Africa (ADHASA) provide support and information for families, including counselling, guidance and referral services. www.psychmatters.co.za
    • Play Attention Therapy ® (Edu-Feedback Therapy) is a specialised programme, to help children improve their memory and concentration skills, ultimately enhancing their learning abilities. Contact Sandra Roberts at PsychMatters Family Therapy Centre, to book a free information and demonstration session. Tel: (011) 450-3576.
  7. Anything else important that you would like to add?Learning disorders may be mild, moderate, or severe. Their course is not always static, so a child suffering from a moderate learning disorder may have fewer or milder symptoms with time, once the problem is understood and treated, where appropriate. An assessment and diagnosis is an important stepping stone to diagnosis, and treatment options. Many learning disordered children go on to become very successful adults, in their careers and lives!

Contact details: info@psychmatters.co.za or www.psychmatters.co.za

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