A New Look at Learning Challenges Leads to Real Solutions
Finding and Addressing the Underlying Cause of Learning Difficulties
Talented, intelligent, children and adults who have learning challenges, naturally experience frustration and loss of self-esteem.
They often have tried a variety of avenues to make learning easier, but without success. This only adds to their discouragement and sense of failure
It has long been thought that learning difficulties could not be resolved; that individuals would just have to find ways to compensate for them. However, our experience in the field and research on brain function and learning has shown otherwise.
Individuals who experience learning difficulties usually have areas of inefficient processing, which are interrupting expected academic development.
Just as we recognize that these individuals need to be taught differently, it may also be time to evaluate their needs differently. WE know they are struggling and often functioning below grade level, but does this really tell us what to do to make real changes in their learning?
Instead of (or in addition to) noting how far below age or grade level they are functioning in academic skills, it makes sense to look at the underlying cause of the learning difficulty, the thinking processing. This way, instead of focusing our instruction on the symptoms, we can create changes where they will permanently impact the individual’s learning…in the neuro-pathways of the brain.
Successful learning is dependent on the following learning attributes:
Intelligence (but please don’t limit intelligence to I.Q. scores!)
- Language, and
- Motor Coordination
Memory is the foundation for acquiring, accessing, and using information. In order to be ready to begin reading, an individual should be able to hold 5 digits of information in his auditory and visual memory. (If a child can only hold 2-3 digits, how can she be expected to read typical first grade level words, such as come, away, yellow, and school, which have 4 to 6 letters!)
In order to really deal with reading and spelling, an individual’s memory skill needs to be at a 6 digit level. This usually occurs at about 8 ½ years old. Higher levels of learning will require automatic processing of 7 digits.
Attention involves an individuals ability to screen out extraneous stimuli or information, and maintain focus on a task. An individual’s sense of time will affect his attention and ultimately his auditory processing, comprehension, task completion, organization, and interaction.
Difficulties with language are key indicators of learning problems. Language processing includes:
- Phonological development (the processing and use of the sounds of the language),
- Syntax (putting words together to form sentences), and
- Semantics (getting meaning from the language).
Difficulties in any of these areas can play havoc with a person’s learning
Motor coordination is critical to learning and affects such things as sitting in a chair, focusing our eyes, and writing. Most of what is learned is experienced by the motor system in some way (through saying, writing, manipulating or doing) so integration and coordination of that system is critical
G. Reid Lyon, NIMH, said, “Human learning and behavior are dependent upon the ability to:
- Pay attention to the critical features in the environment
- Retain and retrieve information
- Select, deploy, monitor, and control cognitive strategies to learn, remember, and think.”
In other words, learning and behavior are dependent on attention, memory, and executive function (the ability to pull information together to do something with it).
When students have areas of processing that are inefficient, it will be critical not only to strengthen those areas, but also to teach them how to use them for academics. This may involve teaching them how to visualize symbols for copying, spelling, and reading; turn words into mental images for comprehension; use inner language to guide themselves through steps; and/or to think about strategies for reasoning, planning, and studying.
When we look at learning disabled students in an effort to create truly effective programs for them, we need to look carefully at learning attributes. By developing the processing skills and teaching them how to use the (executive function) we now have a whole learner who is ready to learn academics skills.