Exposing Myths About Learning Difficulties in Children
Being a parent is hard enough, let alone having to figure out how to help a child with possible learning difficulties. Making the right choices for your child requires, among other things, knowledge of possible symptoms of learning difficulty, normal tracks for speech and reading, and the difference between unusual hyperactivity and 5-year-old-itis!
A good starting point though is being aware of the common misconceptions parents have about learning.
Myth #1: Most Kids Eventually Figure It Out
It is true that there are development spurts and brain growth throughout childhood — especially in the early teen years – and some children really are late developers, and do crack the code in reading and learning in their teenage years.
This however is not the norm. In fact, in most cases the opposite is true. Lagging students not only do not catch up, despite all the added attention they typically receive at school and/or with tutors at home, they fall further behind. This is called the Matthew Effect, as first described by Keith Stonovich. The Matthew Effect notes that success in acquiring reading skills usually leads to later successes in reading as the learner grows, while failing to learn to read before the third or fourth year of schooling may be indicative of life-long problems in learning new skills.
Learning is sequential, where the ultimate reading skill, reading with metacognition, requires a great deal of practice. While there is a possibility that learning difficulties will resolve themselves, this is a risky parenting approach that is fighting the odds. If problems persist into the teenage years, learning confidence and independence will erode and it may then be too late to be proactive.
Bottom line: with learning difficulties, the approach should be to err on the side of caution. Panic early!
Myth #2. My Kid Is Just Lazy
This is almost definitely not true. Children are born pleasers.
In his famous book, The Myth of Laziness, learning expert, Dr. Mel Levine outlines the more likely scenarios. Dr. Levine maintains that the desire to be productive is universal – that drive can often be frustrated by learning issues that obstruct output or productivity. A struggling reader my choose to try to avoid reading rather than go through the humiliation of reading out loud or the toil and struggle of making sense of a text that is beyond his or her reading skill level.
This is not laziness, it’s self protection.
A brain’s first job is survival. And survival means to save face. Your child may act out to avoid his homework. That is a lot easier on his brain than showing himself, and you, he can’t do it. Worse than that, your child’s brain is losing hope of ever succeeding in school. This opt out is how his brain deals with the daily shame he feels. Your child can’t enjoy feeling smart, like his classmates or make you proud, like his brother or sister.
Bottom line: If you wonder if your child is lazy, consider it a gift. Your child is more than likely signalling to you a learning difficulty. With a little bit of detective work you should be able to isolate the underlying difficulty, and identify courses of action.
Myth #3: My K, 1st, 2nd or 3rd Grader Is A Reading Whiz!
This might be true, but a child is not a certified skilled reader until he or she is reading comfortably at a middle school level. Reading at this level requires automatic decoding (reading fluency) and reading comprehension that is able to draw the main themes from a text, relate to existing knowledge, make inferences and read with metacognition — self correct while reading.
Too often, a child starts off with a love of books and reading pre-school and in early grades, only to run into reading comprehension issues in 3rd, 4th or 5th grade. A flawed reading style is exposed by the expansion of vocabulary and increased complexity of the text. Many children are able to fool (or better said, please!) their parents and teachers in lower grades using word memorization and good word guesses using picture or context clues. All this, without sound decoding skills.
Bottom line: If your child has any at risk reading symptoms — family history of dyslexia, speech dealys, ear infections, rhyming difficulties in early life — stay vigilant until your child is in middle school. In particular, in the early grade “reading skills” are better defined by phonics, decoding skills and fluency, as opposed to reading comprehension.
Myth #4: It’s Too Late To Do Anything
A particularly stubborn myth is that learning is fixed after the first 3-4 years of life. Despite all of the miraculous work we see in brain injury victims (like Senator Gabrielle Gifford) and stroke victims who regain function, the schools have many parents persuaded that learning is fixed, that every child learns differently, and that they can teach to learner.
They could not be more wrong. Right now there is an explosion in brain based treatments taking advantage of life long brain plasticity, the ability of the brain to rewire and self improve. These kinds of treatments, which includes our program, Fast ForWord, represent an important new resource for parents in the 21st century.
Bottom line: It’s not too late, biologically, to rewire the brain. There is a practical side however. Any kind of worthwhile brain training regimen requires frequency and intensity — typically a 3-5 day a week for 30-60 minutes a day. This is a much more viable routine for an elementary and middle school age child where rewards and/or parental direction works. There is a period of years where a teenager may not engage (unless the frustration is severe), followed by a later period where SAT or ACT exams or college work may encourage a teenager to make the necessary investment.