Wednesday, June 4, 2014

Learning Differences - Overcoming Obstacles

I recently served on an SAIS school accreditation team for a school that serves children with Dyslexia. During the process, we met with students from various grade levels. To one student, we asked the question, “What do you like most about your school?” A beautiful, articulate, fourth grade girl eloquently responded “I used to feel dumb until I starting attending this school. All of the kids here are just like me. Dyslexia,” she explained, “is a gift not an illness.” Wow. 

Jane M. Healy, Ph.D. , author of Different Learners: Identifying, Preventing, and Treating Your Child’s Learning Problems says that “A child born today in the US has a 30 percent chance of being diagnosed with some type of learning problem. “ Clearly, that’s a high number. 

I often wonder why there seems to be such an increase in the number of children with learning problems. Could it be a result of food additives, excessive media bombardment, over-scheduling or other environmental exposures? We don’t know but we do know that the list of childhood disorders continues to grow. Children must deal with ADD, ADHD, anxiety disorders, autism, Asperger’s syndrome, executive function issues and more. Many children have multiple issues.  For many children, the issues create tremendous challenges, frustrations and feelings of inadequacy. Many of these children are bright and gifted but because their brains are wired differently, learning in certain ways is difficult.

Thanks to advances in brain science, we are learning more and more about instructional strategies, routines and techniques that can help our children actually rewire and grow the needed dendrite-neuron connections in their brains.  Further, we are learning more and more about how to teach students regardless of their learning differences.    

Of course, parents should intentionally manage environmental influences such as diet, sleep, exercise, sensory stimuli and opportunities for play. Students with suspected learning challenges need more.  Bottom line, you are your child’s advocate. Tactically, begin with your pediatrician. Often, concerns are unfounded but if you discover your child does have a learning difference then the sooner you can start helping, the better. Research and create an action plan with trusted professionals.

More important is that the learning challenged student understands that he is a person of worth and value.  Being among one in three students with a learning difference can hardly be regarded “abnormal.”  In his book, David and Goliath, Malcolm Gladwell statistically supports that things popularly regarded as disadvantages are often, in fact, advantages and vice versa.  (An extraordinarily high number of the most successful innovators and entrepreneurs in recent decades are dyslexic for example.)  People who must work diligently to overcome learning obstacles and barriers quite often benefit from the struggle in significant, impactful ways. 

Everyone has obstacles and barriers.  What may initially seem as an insurmountable hurdle can turn out to be an advantage that results in empathy, sensitivity and compassion that can make the world a better place.

Thus, she says, “Dyslexia is a gift, not an illness.”  Again…wow.

This article appeared in Southern Distinction magazine. Volume 2:3 2014

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