Help me to help them!

Learning Difficulties within the classroom -- Dos & Don'ts

by Andrea Waddell, Dip.T., E.C.E.
from the SPELD SA newsletter Spring 2002

Do know what you are dealing with

An important key to developing successful strategies is to be informed. There are some excellent resources available outlining a range of learning difficulties and strategies to deal with them (see Resource List). Consider a diagnostic assessment of the child. Educational Psychologists can administer a range of tests to profile and determine the extent of the learning difficulties. Psychologists can also provide recommendations and information on teaching and learning strategies.

Don't get so caught up with the symptoms that you miss the cause

It may be useful to build a profile of the child as a learner. Try to find out why the child avoids tasks/is quiet and withdrawn/rarely completes tasks. A child with Learning Difficulties may be labelled naughty or inattentive, when in fact he/she is using a range of avoidance strategies to delay perceived failure. A lazy child may well be working just as hard (or harder) than others, yet cannot complete the task in the time allocated.

Do document patterns of learning behaviour

Collect data relating to the child's attention span/optimum learning times/best and worst tasks/success with individual vs group tasks. This information, over a period of time, will help inform your program delivery strategies and provide additional information for an assessing psychologist.

Don't be afraid to admit that you don't have all the answers!

Learning Difficulties can present a complex maze of hurdles to successful learning. It is not reasonable to assume that you will always know the right path to take. Ask for help from people with specialist training and experience.

Do set children up for success

Failing every day can be very damaging to a child's self-esteem. Find ways to modify tasks and/or classroom structures to allow some obvious successes throughout each day. A child who feels he/she can achieve, is far more likely to keep trying.

Don't expect less ... understand and accept different

Encourage children to be the best they can be and understand this will look different for each individual. Children with Learning Difficulties may process information in a different way/take longer to complete tasks/need support to get organised and/or started.

Think about what you want the children to get out of the task. What do you want them to know when they are done? If getting from point A to point B is the goal, does it really matter if they take a meandering path rather than a straight one? The focus should not be so much on how they get there ... just that they do (or are at least moving towards it). You may need to modify tasks so that they don't get lost or overwhelmed along the way.

A teacher, as facilitator, will encourage children to try a range of paths ... to find out what works best for them ... and ultimately, leads them to the desired outcome.

Do provide structure within your teaching program

Routine is vital. Familiarity of structure and, to some extent, content can provide a positive framework for children to work within. A set of expectations and/or skills that the child knows he/she has done before and had some success at, can foster confidence and a willingness to participate. You can slowly add new expectations and/or skills to these familiar and comfortable routines. Allow time for over-learning and over-lapping of tasks.

Don't single the child out

This is a difficult one. Children don't want to be different ... even if they instinctively know they are. The key to successful support is subtlety. Any negotiations with the child regarding expectations and outcome should be done out off the earshot of classmates. If recognising and allowing for individual learning styles of all students is the basis of your classroom environment, then children with Learning Difficulties will most likely feel comfortable working on the tasks at their own pace.

Do document any goal-setting negotiations and strategies you are trialing

This becomes a valuable record when planning long-term and sharing information with parents and/or specialist teachers. It is also useful to inform the child's next teacher, in an effort to provide some continuity of transition.

Don't say it's just a phase

Although maturity/developmental progress may be a factor, you don't know for certain that it will pass without some sort of direct intervention. Feedback from parents indicates that they find this comment frustrating and feel as if they are being fobbed off. If it is a phase, then any extra effort or individualising of programs will do no harm; if it isn't, then early intervention will be of critical importance.

Do teach explicit skills

A big trap is assumed knowledge or understanding. If education is like a carpenters tool belt, then the individual skills taught are the tools of the learning trade. Each new skill taught is another tool the child has to use in order to make sense of the world. Explicitly teach language skills ... phonics, punctuation, grammar, formal handwriting. As the written language children encounter becomes more complex, so their needs for the tools and how/when to use them, increases accordingly.

Don't try to go it alone

You need a team of supporters. Finding ways to engage the child in his/her learning is a major priority. Use whatever resources are available to you. Enlist the help of parent volunteers (some in-service would be helpful). Establish a support group with colleagues to share ideas and resources. Make the most of Integration Aides and the support they provide. Think carefully about the structure of groups in your room ... group in different ways for different tasks ... watch for what works well and what doesn't ... and why.

Do be flexible

Children with Learning Difficulties will focus and learn more easily on some days than others. They are often easily distracted in large or even small group situations. Try to be cooperative and open with any outsider tutor engaged to work with the child on a one-to-one basis. They have the luxury of teaching the child in close to ideal circumstances. They are not in competition with you. Rather they are like you, trying to give the child the best possible chance of learning and a team approach will likely bring about the best possible results.

Resource List

Here are some resources which you might find useful:

  • Dyslexia and other learning difficulties: the facts, by Mark Selikowitz
  • The hidden handicap: how to help children who suffer from dyslexia, hyperactivity and learning difficulties, by Doctor Gordon Serfontein
  • Sound check: Sequencing sounds for Spelling success, by Maureen Pollard
  • First Aid in Reading/First Aid in Spelling, by Sonya Stoneman
  • First Aid in Basic Mathematics: A table for parents and teachers of children having difficulties with school mathematics, by T.H.MacDonald

All of the above titles are available for loan to SPELD SA members

Reprinted with kind permission of SPELD Victoria Inc

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