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home | Sample Articles | Help! My Child Has Just Been Diagnos . . .

Help! My Child Has Just Been Diagnosed With Learning Disabilities. Tell Me What That Means. Where Can I Get Help? What Should I Do?
Jill Stowell, M.S.
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After years of punishing my son for being lazy and not following directions, I just found out that he actually has an auditory processing problem—a learning disability that makes it hard for him to get all of the information when listening. No wonder he's so anxious and has trouble paying attention! He feels a little bit lost all of the time... Parent of 11th grade student

What exactly is a learning disability?
By definition, a student who has a learning disability has at least average to above average intelligence, so even though your struggling student may not feel very smart right now, rest assured that he (or she) is.

Academic and social success depends upon a solid foundation of cognitive learning skills. If you think about these skills like a ladder or a continuum, academics and school subjects are at the very top. Many other skills must be in place in order to learn easily at the top of the ladder. When the underlying skills, or skills lower on the continuum are weak, they may keep children and adults from learning and functioning as well and as independently as they should.

Some students with these challenges never get diagnosed as having a learning disability in spite of their struggles, but about 5-9% do get officially diagnosed because the discrepancy between their potential, or intelligence, and their actual performance is so great.

The Learning Skills Continuum - Jill Stowell
   The Learning Skills Continuum - Jill Stowell

Could it be ADHD?
Using the ladder example, think about trying to do a job at the top of a ladder, but the rungs underneath are wobbly and unstable. How much attention are you going to be able to put on the job you are supposed to be doing?

When underlying learning skills are weak or not supporting the learner well enough, the student's attention will often be stressed. Parents may be told that there child has ADD/ADHD (Attention Deficit Disorder) when, in fact the attention problems seen in the classroom may be a symptom of "weak rungs," or underlying skills.

Maybe she just needs to try harder. She doesn't seem to have a problem with things she really likes to do.
Learning and attention challenges are perplexing because they may cause very “able” individuals to be unsuccessful of “disabled” in certain situations. Children and adults with learning disabilities look and act like the rest of the population. They are bright and often talented in creative or physical areas. Their “disability,” with it's accompanying frustration, hours of homework, and coping behaviors, rears its head in the face of specific tasks or expectations.

Will it go away with time? Will he grow out of it?
The most common reason for a child to struggle in school is weak or inconsistent learning skills or what you might think of as information processing skills. These underlying skills cause interference to learning. Unfortunately, they do not typically improve with time or traditional tutoring.

As a result students become more frustrated and anxious about their learning challenges. They may become angry or withdrawn. They may appear unmotivated or lazy. They may make poor decisions, feel like a failure, and quit believe in themselves.

Learning disabilities do not have to be permanent!
We live in an amazing time. In the last 20 years, brain research, as well as clinical evidence, has shown that the brain can literally be retrained to process information more quickly and easily.

The weak or inefficient underlying skills that cause learning disabilities can be developed. With specialized training the brain can learn to think and process information in more effective ways. Students don't have to go through life crippled by their learning challenges.

One day down the road,
no one will believe
that he ever had a learning disability

A parent of a form student recently reminded me that years ago, when her son was attending the learning center as a second grader, I had said to her, “One day down the road, no one will believe that he ever had a learning disability.” I had not seen mom or son in 16 years, but when I ran into her, she shared that because of his work at the learning center, he went on to be an excellent student. When he graduated from community college, he shared as a graduation speaker, “I used to have a learning disability, but I overcame it.”

This young man is now a graduate of the University of California, Berkeley and a high level retail manager.

What can I do?
Don't tell your child to “Try Harder”
Believe it or not, trying too hard can be counter-productive. In order to be an efficient learner of anything, we need to be able to use all of our mental resources. Our two hemispheres in the brain each have unique thinking capabilities which compliment each other and work best in cooperation.

The right side of our brain lets us experience the whole or the “big picture.” It is more intuitive and less structured. The left side is logical, orderly, and verbal. It allows us to break information into small bits in order to learn new things and communicate.

When both hemispheres of the brain work together, learning can be easier and more fun. Telling a struggling learner to “try harder” may actually cause him to overfocus with the left side of the brain. He will try and try to make sense of the pieces, but without the “big picture” support of the right brain, he will become more confused and frustrated. Dr. Paul Dennison of the Educational Kinesiology Foundation calls this “switching off.”

The cycle of being stuck can often be broken by movement. Integrating movements for this purpose can be found in Brain Gym activities.(www.braingym.com).

Our words can also help trigger clearer thinking for learning. Instead of saying, “Try harder,” try saying something like, “You got this part exactly right. Now let's take a look at this.”

Respect the effort…
Being smart but having to work harder and longer than anyone else in your class, or trying hard and failing anyway is painful for both the individuals with the learning challenges and their families. As we work with our children or our students with learning difficulties, we first need to respect the great amount of extra effort that is needed for them to perform. Constantly reinforcing that effort and celebrating each small success encourages them to keep going.

Coping is not the final answer…
All of us have both stronger and weaker areas of ability, talent, and interest. We
naturally gravitate toward those things that are our strengths, and often find ways to get around the weaker areas. As an adult, if I am terrible at playing tennis, I may chose to cope with that by not playing tennis.

But what if the area that is weakest for you is reading? “Getting around” it or just coping with a reading disorder is not easy or comfortable in today's society. Those of us who work with the “learning disability” / dyslexic population, do them a great disservice if we do not seek to understand and address the underlying skills and differences in thinking that cause the learning challenges. Teaching them compensations and coping strategies is simply not enough.

Change Your Brain, Change Your Future!
Recent brain research tells us that the brain has plasticity, or the ability to change with training. Through intensive training that “stretches” an individual's thinking, chemical and physical changes can occur in the brain. Because we know this kind of “neuro-rehabilitation” is possible, we also know that with the right tools and strategies, new, higher functioning neuropathways can be developed to permanently improve student's overall processing and performance.

Our brains are continually modified by our experiences. This implies that programs which target processing and motor skills can improve those areas in students with brain injuries or motor or learning disabilities. Learning disabilities can be corrected so that students can go on to l ive up to their potential!

Michael changed his future through auditory processing skills training, from failing in 8th grade to acceptance into medical school.

Hector changed his future from being an 11-year old with extreme problems understanding language and expressing himself to being a successful pharmacist.

Chase changed his future from being distraught, anxious, and help back in things he wanted to do due to his dyslexia, to being an independent high school student and varsity football player.

Jess went from being a 10-year old who “can't learn” to being a college student.

Elise went from getting all Ds and Fs to honor roll and the top of her class in her most hated class, History.

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