frequently asked questions heading

Parents are equipped with instinct, and parents do know when something is wrong with their child. Trust your instincts and if you are concerned, seek professional advice without delay. Whatever his age, your child can learn how to learn…it’s never too late.

Why can't my child learn?
There may be many reasons why a child’s progress at school does not meet the expectations of parents and teachers. For one, it has been proven that a child’s environment has an effect on his* performance in school. Other factors can include emotional disturbances, poor teaching practices, or limited intellectual potential. But another reason may be that the child has a learning difficulty.
(* Learning difficulties have the same impact on girls as it does on boys and the treatment is the same. For this reason, the terms he and she are interchangeable.)

What is a learning difficulty?
A learning difficulty is a neurological condition that interferes with a child’s ability to store, process, or produce information. Learning difficulties can affect a child’s ability to read, write, speak, spell, do mathematics and reason. They can also affect a child’s attention, memory, coordination, social skills and emotional maturity. A child with learning difficulties works below his potential, lags behind his peers and cannot cope with the demands of school despite the appropriate efforts.

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What causes learning difficulties?
No one knows for sure what causes learning difficulties, but most researchers today think that they are caused by differences in how a child’s brain works and how it processes information.
The central nervous system is responsible for learning. It is made up of the brain and the spinal cord. Nerves all over the body pick up sensory stimuli and send messages via the spinal cord to the brain so that it can interpret what has been seen, heard, felt, smelled, and tasted. The brain integrates this new sensory knowledge with previously stored information and, based on that process, decides what to do with the new information.
It would appear from many researchers that children with learning difficulties have a maturational lag in the development of their central nervous system.

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What are the signs of learning difficulties?
Children mature at varying rates, with girls generally maturing faster than boys. There is nothing that can be done to hurry up neural maturation – the brain requires its own time to develop. However, there is a fairly predictable sequence of developmental events, such as speech at the age of 2 years. When these predictable events do not happen on schedule, and when the delays are significant, this could indicate potential problems. Such delays may include problems with language, motor delays, or problems with socialisation. Research has found that approximately 80 percent of children who have delayed language development go on to have reading, writing, and spelling deficits.

Often a child’s problems are only recognised when he begins Grade R or even in Grade 1. It is here that teachers will notice that the child is ‘out of step’ when seen against a background of other children the same age. Early intervention with a child who is behind in social, cognitive, fine motor, gross motor, and/or language development can make a world of difference. If these delays are undetected, misinterpreted or ignored at preschool level and carried into formal schooling, it is just a matter of time before problems like the following develop as a result of prolonged academic failures:

• low self-esteem
• low motivation to learn
• poor coping skills, such as:
withdrawal | feigned illness | absenteeism | anxiety | overdependence on others | behaviour problems

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What are the symptoms?
Children with learning difficulties exhibit a wide range of symptoms, but typically learning difficulties affect five general areas:

Spoken language: delays, disorders, and deviations in listening and speaking
Written language: difficulties with reading, writing and spelling
Mathematics: difficulty in performing mathematical operations or in understanding basic concepts
Reasoning: difficulty in organising and integrating thoughts
Memory: difficulty in remembering information and instructions

Consistent problems with a group of behaviours in the areas described, is a good indication that a child may have a learning difficulty.

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What is the treatment for learning difficulties?
While there is no direct cure for a learning difficulty, early screening and intervention can greatly improve the chances for a child to succeed in school. Helping a child with a learning difficulty is a team effort involving parents, teachers and the school, and often consultations with an array of specialists. Assessments determine exactly what the difficulties are and how severe they are. They provide a basis for making educational recommendations and determine the baseline from which intervention programmes can begin. Any or all of the following may be required:

  1. An assessment by an educational psychologist will determine a child’s learning potential, whether he has a learning difficulty and in which areas the weaknesses lie.
  2. A scholastic assessment provides a child’s actual performance level and detailed information about the nature of reading, spelling, writing and mathematical problems.
  3. An occupational therapy assessment will indicate deficits in gross and fine motor coordination, visual-spatial organisation, motor disabilities or visual perception disabilities.
  4. A speech and language assessment will indicate problems with specific language difficulties and auditory perception disabilities.

Once the assessments have identified specific difficulties, parents and teachers can make decisions as to how best to support the child – extra learning support at school, after school or even placement in a school which caters for children with learning difficulties.

Parents can help their children by encouraging their strengths, knowing their weaknesses, understanding the educational system, working with professionals and learning about strategies for dealing with specific difficulties. A research paper published in 2006 by the National Dissemination Centre for Children with Disabilities, showed that when parents participated in academic enrichment activities with their children outside of school, children demonstrated an equivalent of 4 to 5 months improvement in reading or maths performance.

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