A specific learning disability is a disorder in one or more of the basic processes involved in understanding or in using written or spoken language. A specific learning disability shows itself in the child’s ability to listen, think, speak, read, write, or to do mathematical problems. This term includes children who have talking and listening problems. They have trouble finding the right words to talk about their ideas and/or hear other people saying words, but not understanding what the words mean. Children with LD may have trouble paying attention. They may have many ideas in their heads at once and cannot distinguish one from the other. Some children with LD may move slowly and have difficulty holding a pencil or crayon, thus making their work messy. A few children with LD have trouble understanding how other people are feeling. Children with LD do not include children who have learning problems that are primarily the result of visual, hearing or motor disabilities; of mental retardation; of emotional disturbance; or of environmental, cultural or economic disadvantage.
Family members of children with learning disabilities can help by gearing their interaction or instruction to the child’s ability level and by modifying, when necessary, the tasks to be completed. They can plan sequential learning tasks (what to do first second, third, etc.), provide order in his or her space and simplify the task to be learned by the child. This can be done by breaking the task down into specific things that need to be done and listing them in the order that they need to be completed.
There needs to be a place for everything in the child’s room. Limiting the number of items makes it easier to have a cleared place where each thing can be put away. Shelves are often preferable to drawers because children can see their things in their proper places, rather than having to visualize what’s in a drawer.
Structure can be introduced into children’s time by making them fully familiar with the parts of each of their usual routines–what comes first, next, and last. Be consistent with routines.
It is obvious that all children need as much positive reinforcement for their good efforts as they can get. They need to be rewarded with praise, a gesture, or some form of approval whenever they succeed. But even the best of parents cannot maintain the self-esteem of children who have failed again and again in school, in the neighborhood, or on the athletic field. Often a tutor, a special class, or a special school is necessary to provide the help needed to make these children feel good about themselves, to show them that they are capable of doing something about themselves–that they are the master of their own destinies.
Parents can work with these children in short periods of five-to-fifteen minutes, with a change of activity in between. They can help them make sense of their surroundings by talking about what they see and hear and help them express their ideas in nonverbal terms such as gestures, dramatics, and writing. All communication and learning activities need to be geared to the individual child’s ability.
It is best that parents of children with LD try not to dwell on the future in their own minds. You can plan realistically for today, tomorrow, next week or even a few months ahead. But it is unrealistic to become overly concerned with the long-range future of a young child. There is too little knowledge, too many variables, and too many unknown factors for this kind of reflection to be in any way useful.
It is vital for parents of children with learning disabilities to develop their sense of humor in every way they know how. Laughter helps overcome many hurdles, and it gives children an extremely important unspoken message: Life is basically sunny despite all our difficulties. Funny things can be found in many situations, even though they are sometimes hard to see. When the whole family can see the humor in some of the experiences they go through together, it’s really worth it.
Brothers and sisters of a child with a learning disability may exhibit intense negative emotions and feelings which they themselves may resent at times. Every child wants a perfect brother or sister of whom they can be proud. Just as parents are blamed by neighbors and others for unacceptable behavior of their child who has learning disabilities, siblings are often held responsible by their peers. A child may feel very resentful at being labeled “Weirdo’s sister,” or at having a child they scarcely know come up and say, “Hey, do you know what your brother did?” or “Is your sister dumb or something? She can’t read.” Children can be very cruel to each other sometimes.
Siblings may feel put-upon when they are urged to include the child with the learning disability in their play and their free time activities. This child may have few friends of his or her own and it is natural for parents to seek occasional relief, to expect the cooperation and a sharing of responsibility from their other children. But there are irritations–“He can be such a drag to take along.” They have to watch him every minute to see he doesn’t hurt himself, destroy someone else’s possessions, or disappear. He wrecks any hope of making new friends that day. They can’t go far or move fast.
Siblings may feel mean and guilty for feeling this way because they really do love their brother or sister. They care deeply in spite of the irritations. It’s a rare family whose siblings are not more than understanding at times and don’t come through in emergencies. Parents can’t expect more. Children need support and assistance to be able to come to terms with the problem the same way their parents do.
In the end, what really counts are human qualities. A person’s sense of himself, his feeling of comfort with himself, and thus his ease with others are what matters. How many adults do you know whose handwriting, or spelling, or memory of historical facts makes any difference to you? The chances are you want to be with a person who is fun and caring. You want a friend who laughs with you, not at you, who can share your worries as well as your pleasures. You want someone you can count on, whose word is good, who comes through on promises, and who doesn’t keep score on favors given and received. The crucial roles in our society are being a good friend, a fine mate and a good parent. These are roles the child with learning disabilities can fulfill in adult life.