Different Learners: Identifying, Preventing, and Treating Your Child's Learning Problems

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9781416556428: Different Learners: Identifying, Preventing, and Treating Your Child's Learning Problems

"My child is having trouble in school.

What should I do?"

When parents are told that their child is having difficulty in school, they often don’t know where to turn for reliable information and advice. They may be confused by conflicting claims of "cures" or may mistakenly think that, because some learning problems are genetically based, they can do nothing to help. Even the terminology of learning disorders is confusing: dyslexia, dyscalculia, ADD, ADHD, autism, Asperger’s syndrome, NVLD, executive function disorder—what are all these conditions, how do they differ from one another and, most important, what practical steps should parents and teachers take to remedy the situation?

This comprehensive, practical guide to children’s learning problems should be the first resource parents and teachers reach for when a child shows signs of difficulty in academic, social, or behavioral learning. Drawing on her decades of experience, educator Jane Healy offers understandable explanations of the various types of learning disorders. She distills the latest scientific research on brains, genes, and learning as she explains how to identify problems—even before they are diagnosed—and how to take appropriate remedial action at home, at school, and in the community.

Today’s fast-paced, stressed-out culture is hazardous to growing minds, says Healy, and a growing "epidemic" of children’s disorders is the result. Different Learners offers a complete program not only for treating the child, but also for making more beneficial lifestyle choices at home and improving teaching techniques at school. It shows parents and caregivers how to prevent some learning difficulties from ever happening in the first place. It explains how to have your child evaluated if necessary, and, if a problem is found, how to evaluate various treatments. Different Learners explains how medications for attention and learning work in the brain and why they should not be the first step in most treatment programs. It shows how schools can actually worsen a child’s learning difficulties and how to make sure this doesn’t happen to your child. It even offers a program for "brain-cleaning" that will help any child perform better in school.

Jane Healy draws on stories of real children to offer sympathetic as well as practical advice for children—and parents—who are struggling in an overstressed environment. She provides reassurance that parents and teachers can have dramatically positive effects on every child’s ability to learn.

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About the Author:

Jane M. Healy, Ph.D. is a teacher and educational psychologist who has worked with young people of all ages, from pre-school to graduate school. She has been a classroom teacher, reading and learning specialist, school administrator, and clinician. She is currently a lecturer and consultant, and the author of three books about how children do (and don’t) learn, Your Child’s Growing Mind, Endangered Minds, and Failure to Connect. She and her work have been featured in national media such as CNN and NPR. She has twice been named “Educator of the Year” by Delta Kappa Gamma, the professional honor society of women educators.  Jane and her husband claim they have learned most of what they know from raising three sons and enjoying six grandchildren.

Excerpt. Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

CHAPTER 1
Too Many Dyssed Kids


“I’m just wondering if there’s anything I can do....”

My first educational therapy session with Edward took place before he was born. Actually, the meeting was with his mother, but Edward was very much in evidence as Susan, eight months pregnant, shifted uneasily on my office couch. We were both aware that Edward’s activity level was vigorous, to say the least.

“I need some advice,” Susan began. “I don’t mean to be all freaked out about this, but you worked with my girls on their reading and attention problems, and this is going to be a boy, and I know that dyslexia and attention disorders run in families and problems are usually worse in boys, and I’m just wondering if there’s anything I can do, now or later.... ”

The answer to Susan’s question is an emphatic “Yes!” Parents have a powerful role in shaping a child’s learning abilities. Along with teachers, they create the environments that help determine how talents, skills ... and problems develop. Positive environments at home and at school can prevent, ameliorate, and maybe even extinguish many types of learning and behavior difficulties. They can even improve the outcome for genetic learning disorders.

But parents and teachers need help. They know what a challenging world childhood has become and they see far too many kids falling into the “dyssed” category—labeled with an academic, behavioral, or social learning problem. These problems come from every part of the socio-economic spectrum, and they are all too real. They upset families, discourage teachers, impair educational quality, and make children miserable. Fortunately, new research shows how most can be significantly helped, and many can be prevented.

Unfortunately, today’s lifestyles are a big part of the problem. Even in affluent communities, the most basic needs of a youngster’s developing brain are violated on a daily basis. How are parents, teachers, or children to succeed in a culture that does not respect its most important asset—the developing mind?

The purpose of this book is to help you understand and improve every aspect of your child’s or student’s learning. We will be exploring the latest research on many categories of learning difficulties to understand the nature of these problems, where they come from, and how parents and teachers can help prevent them as well as deal with them once they surface. We will focus especially on the all-important interaction of nature (in the form of genetics) and nurture (home and school environments) in determining a child’s ultimate success.

Crisis in Childhood

Watching a child struggle unsuccessfully in school—with learning, with social relationships, or with skills such as motivation or paying attention—is a devastating experience for everyone involved. To make matters worse, there is often no obvious reason for the difficulty. Learning abilities are an incredibly complex interweaving of genes, environment, and brain development, with each of us possessing a very special, one-of-a-kind combination.

Just because a learning difficulty is “in the genes” does not make it inevitable. Nor do genes alone determine its severity.

In the following chapters you will learn about new research showing the significant effects of positive environments on the complex interaction of genes and brains. You will also learn why children are being diagnosed with disorders that might have been prevented and can still be remedied if only the adults involved had the right information. If you have a child or a student who might fall into the “problem” category, please take heart. The more information you have, the better you can help! This book provides what you need to help children learn, succeed, and feel confident about themselves in the process.

Quick Take: What This Book Is About

1. Learning differences, which are the cause of many school and personal problems, are variations in the way the brain processes information. They include academic, personal (as in attention or motivation problems), and social skills.

2. These patterns are caused both by genes (“nature”) and the environment (“nurture”). Both can be influenced by a child’s experiences before and after birth. Just because something is genetic, or inherited, does not mean that it is either inevitable or unchangeable. Nor does it mean that when problems arise, medications are the only solution.

3. Medications may be helpful in some cases, but probably should not be the first or only approach used. Many proven therapies are available, and many of them start right in your own home or classroom.

4. Emotional development, which is one important aspect of learning, is tightly intertwined in the brain with academic and social learning. Stress is a significant and often underestimated contributor to children’s learning problems, and love is a powerful remedy.

5. Every child—and every child’s problem—is part of a much larger system of home, school, community, and culture. It is short-sighted simply to label and treat the child without examining how the larger system may be contributing to the problem.

6. Today’s lifestyle habits can cause problems and make existing ones worse. Fortunately, many of these negative outcomes can be prevented or reversed.

7. Learning “disabilities” and special talents often come in the same package. It is important to nurture the abilities at the same time we help with the difficulties.

8. “Late bloomers” are easily misidentified as “learning disabled.” Often the children with more leisurely developmental timetables turn out to be the smartest of all. Parents and schools that push too hard cause problems.

9. In our efforts to make kids “smarter,” we must not forget that brain development is closely tied to the development of the body. Neglecting play and perceptual and motor skill development may endanger foundations for other types of learning.

10. The human brain is wonderfully “plastic” and can be altered by experience. The more we understand about the way it works, the better we can help each child unfold his or her own tent of potential talents.

11. There may be positive reasons for certain types of learning differences. Unique thinkers could have important future roles.

12. Never give up. The brain retains its ability to change throughout a lifetime.

Sick Culture, “Sick” Kids

Most youngsters’ problems do not develop simply because the child has a genetic “flaw” or the parents somehow “messed up.”

I have never met a parent who did not truly want to do a good job, but our stressed-out world does not make parenting easy. Parents feel under incredible pressure to produce a “successful” child, yet find they must constantly battle against the many factors in everyday life that interfere with development of solid brain systems for intellectual and emotional skills. Likewise, overwhelmed schools and time-pressured physicians wonder how to cope with a seeming avalanche of learning and behavioral disorders in a culture that does more to cause them than to cure them.

The childhood and teen years are critical for optimal brain development. Environments can shape brains into more efficient learning patterns, but remember—and this is important—they can also make an existing tendency worse or even create a problem. At all levels of the economic spectrum, children’s daily lives allow and even promote habits that can severely disrupt both the developing networks in the brain and the chemistry that makes them work. Why are such record numbers of children being labeled as educationally, socially, and emotionally “sick”?

Our culture is sick and our children are getting the diagnosis.

Each child is a complex, growing, learning system who develops as part of a much larger system including home, school, neighborhood, the supports available (or not), and the habits and expectations of the surrounding society. Consider:

· frantic, stressed-out lifestyles

· brain-hazardous types of media use

· physically toxic everyday environments—at home and at school

· unrecognized brain disruptors in daily habits, such as food choices, sleep habits, and uses of playtime

· one-size-fits-all expectations for how children should act and what they should achieve

· some professionals who are overly eager to pin a label—and maybe even a medication—on normal developmental differences

· a medicalization of problems that should be treated educationally

We live in a culture that is both clueless and careless about what kids’ brains really need. No wonder there is trouble in the schoolroom!

Learning Disabilities or Disabled Expectations?

Not long ago I presented an evening workshop about young children’s brain development to a group of parents in a section of an East Coast city noted for its competitive school admissions culture. During the question and answer period, a concerned-looking mom was the first to speak.

“A group of us here have four-year-old sons whose teacher has told us she thinks our boys may have problems with auditory discrimination [difficulty listening effectively to the sounds in words]. She wants us to have them evaluated for a learning disability. Do you agree? And, we are wondering”—she looked around, clearly embarrassed—“do you think it could be something we’ve done wrong?”

Of course, without meeting her son, talking to the teacher, getting a family history, or finding out if the school’s expectations were unrealistic for four-year-old boys (it happens), I wasn’t able to come up with a very helpful response. But this incident got me thinking. I was troubled by the guilt trip laid on this concerned mother. I was even more troubled that no one had taken the time to help her understand the many factors that might be contributing to her son’s problem or how he could be helped.

“It seems odd that parents have been driven to seek a diagnosis that something is wrong with their children. In the past, such a diagnosis was probably the last thing most parents would have wanted....”

—Robert Sternberg in Our Labeled Children1

For example, do these little boys—at a critical period for development of language circuits in the brain—have caregivers who do not speak clearly or who do not speak much at all? How much time do they spend watching screens as opposed to listening carefully to stories? Do adults have the time and patience to carry on conversations with them to build language and comprehension skills? Are they under brain-damaging stress because they don’t have enough free time or unprogrammed play? What, if anything, do they eat for breakfast? Is the school expecting rambunctious little kids to sit quietly at desks and complete worksheets for which their brains aren’t ready? These are the questions that should first be addressed. As critical as it is to heed early signs of a language problem, we must also admit that the “problem” may lie as much in the child’s environment as it does in the child himself.

Nicole Kroupa, a preschool teacher and graduate student at Gonzaga University, recently sent me an unsolicited e-mail emphasizing this point. “I have seen such a change over the years in the speech/language development of kids that it is VERY disturbing. And I am NOT talking about special ed kids either. Children from educated/straight-A adults whose four- to six-year-old children have retarded language skills. [“Me do.” “Me no want.” No past tense verbs, etc.] Really bright children. It’s scary.”

What’s Broken—the Child or the System?

I am thrilled that things have changed dramatically since I first started teaching, when there were very few services and little understanding for students who couldn’t keep up or were somehow different. These unfortunate kids were ignored, blamed, sometimes emotionally destroyed, or turned into antisocial horrors by an ignorant and uncaring educational system. Yet progress sometimes goes too far. Now we need to be concerned about categorizing too many youngsters who fall outside rigid expectations as “disordered” and in need of “fixing” rather than as “different” and in need of patient, effective teaching within an understanding and flexible system.

My challenge here is to help you walk the critical line between celebrating each child’s uniqueness and taking positive steps to avoid the enduring pain that can accompany too much “difference.”

Many children who are tortured by learning differences are bright and talented, with the potential to reach high goals if they receive the proper support. A recent study by Julie Logan of London’s Cass Business School found that almost half of a group of successful entrepreneurs in the United States met the criteria for dyslexia, a learning difference that affects reading and written language.2Adults with Asperger’s disorder communicate online about their unique talents, which they attribute to not being “neurotypical.” Many creative, high-energy adults are also sure they would have been diagnosed with attention deficit disorder had the current diagnostic criteria been applied. It seems that what looks like a flaw in school sometimes looks like a talent later on!

Yet if such youngsters are part of a system lacking the understanding, patience, or expertise to deal with individual differences, they may find themselves in the growing pile labeled “broken.” Tragically, they may never realize their inborn potential.

Grown Up and Turned Off. On a recent vacation with a tour group, I happened to be seated one evening at dinner across from a couple who, when they discovered my profession, began to tell me about their twenty-four-year-old son.

“Well, he’s still sort of finding himself,” Mom acknowledged in anxious tones. “He just dropped out of community college again—he never did like school very much, and he’s not motivated.”

“ ... his teachers have always said he’s smart enough and just needs to apply himself.”

Every time I hear this story, which comes up with amazing frequency, I immediately suspect an undiagnosed learning problem.

“Did he ever have an evaluation?” I inquired.

“Oh, yes, but they said he didn’t have a learning disability. His teachers always called him an ‘underachiever.’ ”

As these parents described their son’s history, it became apparent that this boy had clear symptoms of a specific language disability that had never been identified or treated. He was smart enough to bluff his way through for a while, but his reading and writing were painfully slow and laborious, he couldn’t concentrate on teacher’s lectures, and he eventually just turned off and gave up. As our dinner ended, tears welled in Mom’s eyes.

“Is it too late,” she asked. “Can he still be helped?”

Fortunately, it’s never too late, so we may hope that this story ends happily. But stories like this make me want to scream—or write a book that may help other children who end up feeling “broken” and don’t know why.

No Easy Answers. P...

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