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Challenge of identifying learning disabilities

July 4, 2013 :

Children need to be observed for the discrepancies in their activities and performance so as to diagnose learning disabilities, writes Shivananda Nayak.

The most common challenge for parents and teachers is to recognise the ‘symptoms’ of Learning Disabilities (LD). One can identify a child with LD through the various discrepancies in the child’s activities / performance. Following are some common signals which can be observed in school going children (you may find the problems in varying degrees and not all signs may be present in the same child).

Subject specific


n Reading: Children with LD may not be able to read fluently. Some children may have confusion with spellings while reading, there by making mistakes. Some may stand up to read in the class but fall silent. They will be reluctant to read story books or comics on their own, instead prefer to watch TV or play. But if read to, they enjoy the stories.

n Writing: Hand writing of such children may be illegible, poorly organized with lots of spelling errors. Even simple words may be spelt differently in different places. For example, the word banana may be spelt as banana, bannana, bananna, banann, bannan etc. by the same child. Some may write mirror images, e.g. letters b, d and p can get interchanged, danana = banana, pefore = before, deep = beep. There can be interchanging of letters within a word, e.g. strated = started. These children may show a lot of reluctance to write, be it in the class or at home. Their class work often remains incomplete and they may fail to note down the assignments given as homework. If parents sit with them they may do the homework neatly. But on their own, the home work may be done shabbily or may remain incomplete. While writing tests, they would know the answers but do not complete the paper. When asked, the common refrain is ‘I did not have time’ or ‘I forgot’. Closer look would show that they would have completed and scored full marks in objective type questions but have written incomplete answers for the ‘long answer’ questions or left them unanswered.

n Mathematics: A child with LD can get confused with numbers,  in simple operations like addition, subtraction, etc. Numbers in thousands may be written as 100010 = 1,010, 20020020 = 2,220 (extra zeros, interchanged numbers etc.). As they move to higher classes they begin to abhor mathematics. Due to this reluctance, naturally the writing will be shabby with lots of errors and scratches. Students with reading or writing problem, can be sometimes brilliant in mathematics and science. Such students may not like subjects like Social Studies, History or languages.

Age specific

n 4 to 9 year olds: They may show poor or lack of attention along with restlessness. Sitting at a place for more than a few minutes may be impossible for them. They would like to indulge in some physical activity, exploring the place and objects. When those opportunities are not available, like in a class room, they may disturb and distract other children. They may be talkative along with hyperactive. Confusion with directions may be observed, while pointing to right, they verbally say ‘go to left’. Some of them may have a difficulty in tasks like tying shoe lace, handling scissors, buttoning the dress properly, handling the zip, colouring within the boundaries- using crayons / pencil / paint.
It is commonly observed that the ‘projects’ (making of charts, models etc.), which are given to the children in the lower classes are executed by the parents. If the child is made to do it, parents can observe the children for the shortcomings in the above mentioned activities and record them. Parents can always advise and assist the child in execution. But parents fear loss of grades and want to send the child with a ‘well done’ project. At the school level, teachers can insist on the child doing the task and ask for the observations recorded by the parents.

n 10 years and above

In this age group, children may show poor ‘discipline’. Other adjectives used by parents are ‘lazy’, ‘arrogant’, ‘argumentative’, ‘stubborn’, ‘over confident’, etc. Their room (clothes, books, stationary, toys etc.) may be left messy or unorganized. They may not like to mingle with other children who are scoring well. They may refuse to accompany parents to their friends’ / relatives’ houses (where discussions are likely to turn to studies). They may not take active part in discussions in class / school, sometimes discouraging the ones who take part. They may resort to teasing or bullying other children. When timid, they may get bullied.

Here is the good news. Often these children are seen to be very talented. They exhibit strong aptitude in some specific area. Their areas of interest can range between sports, drawing / painting, crafting and designing, music, mechanics, automobiles, computer (hardware / software), and acting, to name a few. Some may be good in more than one skill. It is the responsibility of the parents and the teachers to identify and nurture the talent. As far as their academics are concerned, there are enough provisions to help them obtain a decent qualification.

With excessive focus on academic achievement, children are deprived of indulging in their interest. Parents seem to believe that if the child spends more time studying, they will be better students and score better marks. Hence they are sent to tuitions or are coached at home depriving them of the ‘playing time’. The net result would be that they cannot do what we want them to do and we don’t allow them to do what they can actually do.

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