Don’t Count On School For Help With Learning Difficulties

February 17, 2016 by Jay Chalnick

Schools Instruct Rather The Resolve Learning Problems

The quickest way to resolve any problem is to target the cause.  This includes learning difficulties.  And yet, in most schools there is no investment in what could be the quickest way to get a child back on track, i.e., to address learning difficulties at their source, removing the impediments to progress.

Schools are all about instruction, coping with and working around the underlying impediments to learning.  They deal with the symptoms of learning difficulties by having struggling learners sit at the front of the class, by differentiating lesson plans so that some students receive material at a slower rate, by providing extra reading support and even by providing reader/writer support for exams.

These are all coping mechanisms that can help struggling learners day to day, but do nothing to address or resolve the underlying impediments to learning.  Consequently, because schools do not target learning difficulties many children with learning disabilities carry, those issues continue throughout their school career and into adulthood.

For students with learning disabilities, school can be a very tough place. Traditional instruction isn’t always enough to help students build new skills and develop mastery in the general curriculum. This is especially true as students advance through the elementary grades and are expected to learn the vast majority of new content through reading and taking notes during lectures.

The struggles result in an enormous about of extra special education intervention for many students, not to mention tremendous frustration and pain, confidence-sapping and self-esteem-eroding struggles that take a personal toll on each student and the families who love them.

The coping strategies at school are often supplemented with tutoring at home.  Years and years of extra time to learn, to study and to make the grade. Poor academic performance can lead some students to suffer low self-esteem. The low self-esteem then begins a destructive cycle in which students believe they are not smart or that they shouldn’t even try. Learning differences affect many bright and capable students.

You have to wonder why in this day and age of neuroscience and deep knowledge of the brain, schools are still operating as if learning disabilities are permanent and untreatable.  Many of the struggles students endure every day can be resolved in a relatively short period.  The brain is capable of amazing change when exercised appropriately.

Address Learning Difficulties At The Source

There is real value in investing time in identifying if there is indeed an underlying learning impediment.  Students who are not reading at grade level may have issues with decoding, fluency, or a poor working memory, all of which can lead to problems with reading comprehension.

Each of these areas has a different origin that must be examined. For example, poor decoding may be caused by a lack or phonemic awareness or a processing disorder. Students with inattentive ADD are often thought to have behavioral issues when they may simply be struggling to focus and pay attention to subjects they find boring or uninteresting. Dyslexia is often mistaken for ADD, ADHD or a visual disorder, when in fact, it is a challenge with processing written and spoken information.

For students with auditory processing disorder, it takes longer to process and organize spoken language. These students may have a hard time distinguishing between important sounds, such as the teacher’s voice, and unimportant sounds, such as a friend’s chair scraping against the floor. Many students with auditory processing disorder also struggle with following and remembering multi-step directions. These issues can sometimes be mistaken for inattentiveness or unwillingness to follow class rules.

There Are Good Reasons Schools Do Not Address The Underlying Problem

There are some practical hurdles for schools wanting to address learning difficulties head on.

First there is an institutional skepticism that learning treatments can make a difference, that anything can be done to change a a child’s learning trajectory. This is the learning-is-fixed school of thought, which is still pervasive, even though it has been shown to be out-dated thinking.  Neuroplasticity, brain change, is now established science — the brain is constantly changing. With the right promoting and exercise it can be guided to change in a way that improves learning and reading.

Sure, there is a lot of junk science out there, and brain training and other therapies that impact cognitive skills suffer from a suspect reputation in some quarters due to the existence of cheap apps that promise great rewards but fail to deliver.  The toughest part of using exercise to rewire learning is the regimen required — it must be consistent and intense for the few months it is in place, until the changes are cemented in and permanent.  The vast majority of apps are used at home infrequently and without supervision, virtually guaranteeing ineffectiveness.

However, where there is smoke there is fire.  The reason there has been a rise in brain training apps and software is that some of these programs work, namely the ones that have well thought out regimens with supervision — Fast ForWord, Cogmed and Learning RX lead the pack here.  All use oversight to promote frequency and intensity of exercise.

Secondly, some learning disorders can be hard to identify.  They can share several symptoms in common, so careful detective work is necessary to discover what’s really happening to develop the right solution.  While there are relatively straight forward ways to isolate auditory processing, phonemic awareness and working memory delays, some difficulties can only be uncovered in a professional evaluation–an expensive endeavor that may still come up empty.

Third, there is the lack of teacher time in an over-crowded curriculum.  While technology is broadening access for students with challenges such as dyslexia, auditory processing disorder (APD), and attention deficit disorder (ADD), there is still a significant gap in remediation for students with these and other learning differences. The demands of modern classrooms — ever-more crowded curriculums, ever-more testing and escalating pressure on non-curricular line items on the college application — mean that most teachers don’t have the resources or the time to adequately engage these students in their specific areas of difficulty.

Fourth, there is the risk and expense of intervention.  If a school were to embark on a remediation course to address learning difficulties, they would need the parents sign-off, and then the school may feel it is somewhat on the hook, to keep trying until there is success.  If the school does not at first succeed — and sometimes learning disabilities are entrenched and pervasive, beyond the scope of treatment — parents may have rights that force the school to keep pursuing a resolution.  Fear of this kind of outcome is part of what is driving an increasing reluctance of schools to recognize dyslexia for instance.

If Not The Schools, Then Who?

The short answer here is you, the parent. The school will instruct and help your child cope. However, if you want to try to change the storyline for your child, to accelerate his or her learning, you will need to find your own solution, outside the school.

Identifying the specific problem is half the battle, and it can be tempting to stop at the stage of providing strategies to help students overcome these challenges. However, the concept of neuroplasticity tells us that we can actually re-train the brain to form connections and pathways to get at the root causes of many learning difficulties.

The brain can be taught to focus, and the skills of listening and speaking can be strengthened by exercises, just as the body can be conditioned by working out in the weight room. The complex and varied nature of learning disabilities means there is no ‘one-size-fits-all’ educational approach that will help all students. However, there are research-based best practices that teachers and parents can use to help students become more effective readers, listeners and learners.

If a learning issue can be identified, a treatment regimen that targets that issue should be considered. All over the world, even year, thousands of children are benefitting from a range transformative treatments, transporting them out of a life of learning frustration and disappointment, to a better world were anything is possible.

While you can count on the school to instruct, you are on your own when it comes to breaking the cycle of learning frustration that is holding your child back.  There is a growing range of brain-based programs that can help. It’s just a matter of doing some research based on your child’s symptoms and then deciding which one or ones best fit your child.   In many cases, a few months of intervention can lead to a new life story, one where learning and reading is easier and where raised confidence and self-esteem help your child realize his full potential.