When Kathy O’Sullivan’s son, Davis, came home from fourth grade day-after-day discouraged and dreading the next day of school, she knew it was more than just a light opposition to education.
After several conferences, she and Davis’ teacher determined that he may have a learning disability causing him to feel downtrodden about all-things-academic.
A few tests and meetings later, it was determined that her son did have a learning disability. Davis now receives intensive tutoring sessions and one-on-one help at school and at home. Finally, he is beginning to enjoy his educational experience and even thrives at it. But sometimes detecting a learning problem isn’t so easy.
While children and teens with learning disabilities are often “diagnosed” in middle or high school, many difficulties can actually be prevented by intervention at a much earlier age as in Davis’ case. Experts now know there are things that parents can do at home to help even the youngest child.
The Root of Learning
“The root of learning – whether it be reading, math or writing – is good cognitive skills,” explains Tanya Mitchell, director of training for LearningRx, a “brain training” franchise. “Things like auditory and visual processing, memory, processing speed, comprehension, short- and long-term memory, logic and reasoning and attention are the underlying tools that enable kids to successfully focus, think, prioritize, plan, understand, visualize, remember and create useful associations and solve problems.”
According to Mitchell, any weak cognitive skill – or a combination of several – can lead to a learning disability. By identifying weaknesses early, parents can help prevent problems even before a child starts kindergarten.
“There are very promising studies that show a 90 percent decrease in reading problems if children are first introduced to sound analysis activities,” Mitchell says. “This might include things like rhyming or playing sound games when children learn how to add or omit sounds in a syllable.”
According to G. Reid Lyon, M.D., chief of the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development’s (NICHD) Child Development and Behavior Branch, NICHD-funded research shows that such services should have a firm foundation in phonological awareness. Before most poor readers can learn to read successfully, they need to learn that spoken words can be broken apart into smaller segments called phonemes. Next, they usually require training in phonics – “mapping” phonemes to the printed words on a page. Once children have mastered these steps, they can then receive training to help them read fluently and comprehend what they read.
While a trained cognitive specialist can help diagnose the specifics of learning and reading disabilities, parents may be the first to identify struggles.
According to Kathy Rayburn, head of school at Currey-Ingram Academy in Brentwood, “The most common signs of a problem are when a preschool-aged child is not able to rhyme; does not want to try to read or be read to; cannot recognize common logos or symbols; or is having trouble with pronunciation, mixing syllables, poor coordination and/or following directions. Other warning signs may be if the child tends to:
- appear to guess at words
- add or omit sounds in words
- have difficulty spelling new words or spelling when writing
- have difficulty recalling stories and jokes
- take a long time to complete tasks
- show difficulty doing two things at once
- often ask to have things repeated
- have difficulty organizing activities
- get easily distracted
- use slow, deliberate speech
Recognizing Risk Factors at Any Age
If your child is too young to discern if the above general symptoms apply, look for the following age-related risk factors:
PreK or Kindergarten: Does the child have difficulty:
- recognizing rhymes?
- remembering names of friends, peers, etc.?
- with language development?
- recognizing letter shapes?
End of 1st Grade: Does the child have difficulty:
- learning the alphabet and corresponding letter sounds?
- applying “phonics” to reading and spelling?
- spelling common sight words?
- retelling stories in sequence and making predictions?
- reading aloud with some fluency and comprehension?
End of 2nd Grade: Does the child have difficulty:
- recalling facts and details?
- using phonics to sound out words including multi-syllable words?
- correctly spelling previously studied and commonly seen words?
Helping at Home
If parents recognize some of these signs in their children, it’s important to take action. “Language is the scaffolding of learning,” says Rayburn, “and problems in this area will spill over into other areas.” She advises administering hearing and vision tests, and if those turn up nothing, parents should consider a psychological-educational evaluation. “This comprehensive process will help map out the constellation of the child’s cognitive strengths and challenges and provide a roadmap for learning success.”
What’s more, parents don’t have to spend a lot of money to help improve their child’s cognitive skills at home. In fact, many simple word- or sound-related games can be played in the car. LearningRx trainers recommend the following to help younger children get on the right track early to become strong learners:
Auditory: Play sound segmenting games. Say a two-sound word, like bee or tie, and have him tell you which sounds are in the word (“b” and “ee” for “bee” and “t” and “i” for “tie”). Increase to three-sound words like cat, (“c” “a” and “t”) and tree (“t” “r” and “ee”).
Phonetics using building blocks: Use two to three blocks to make up nonsense words. Create a nonsense word, then have your child remove one of the blocks and add a new one while verbally trying to figure out what the new nonsense word sounds like. Say sounds for him, and ask him to try to figure out from hearing the sounds what the new word would sound like when blocks are switched.
Rhyming games: Say a word and then take turns with your child in coming up with a new word that rhymes.
Visual: To play the “Make-a-Movie-In-Your-Head” game, start with a subject like a puppy and have your child create what the puppy looks like: his size, if he is sitting or running, his color, etc. Then have your child talk about where the puppy is: next to a doghouse, in the forest, etc. Gradually have your child add other subjects: the weather, what the dog is saying, etc. By developing pictures with color, size, perception, sound, background, etc., kids learn how to develop a more complete picture, which will lead to better comprehension.
Memory: Ask your child to give directions to either your home, the post office, the grocery store or a friend’s house. Also, ask him to tell five things about his day, three being something new he learned.
Parents can also teach mnemonics. Think of a fact – like remembering a phone number – and have your child create a funny story that they can use. For instance: 487-9376. “The number 4 ate (8) seven (7) fine(9) trees(3) and seven(7) sticks(6).” Another example of mnemonics is the phrase most of us learned in grade school to learn the order of the planets: My (Mercury) very (Venus) educated (Earth) mother (Mars) just (Jupiter) served (Saturn) us (Uranus) nine (Neptune) pies (Pluto).
If you’re concerned that your child has a learning disability, complete evaluations of learning abilities can be made at learning centers in the area.
Wendy Burt is a full-time freelance writer with more than 1,000 published pieces. She is the author of two books for McGraw-Hill.