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So what are learning disabilities? A learning disability is a neurological disorder that affects the way in which information is learned, processed, analyzed and stored in the brain. Does this mean children with learning disabilities are unintelligent? No! A learning disability does not have anything to do with a person's intelligence. It is due to the difference in the way a person's brain is wired. In fact, many people with learning disabilities have gone on to living successful and fulfilling lives. Some well-known examples include Walt Disney, Alexander Graham Bell, and Winston Churchill.

"Learning Disabilities" is an umbrella term used to cover a range of difficulties such as Dyslexia, Attention Deficit and Hyperactivity Disorder/Attention Deficit Disorder, Dyscalculia, Auditory Processing Disorder and Dyspraxia. Having a learning disability can influence the way a student learns within a typical classroom environment. For example, certain types of learning disabilities can interfere with an individual's ability to concentrate, pay attention or focus on a given task. Other learning disabilities can cause difficulties in reading, writing, spelling, or solving math problems. Learning disabilities are usually first noticed when children begin to perform poorly in school. Parents or teachers may notice the child being unable to follow directions for a game, seem constantly distracted and cannot complete a task. Signs for learning disabilities are also noticed when a child may have difficulty learning basic skills in reading, speaking, writing (spelling, forming letters and sentences etc), solving math problems, expressing their ideas verbally, following instructions, completing activities within a given time or paying attention. Some students may easily learn basic skills but have difficulty applying skills in problem solving or higher level school work.

Despite these difficulties, children with learning disabilities are as smart, or sometimes even smarter than their peers. Yet, many parents are anxious when their son or daughter is diagnosed with a learning disability. Questions such as "will they cope with school work?" "will they find a job" "will they be successful" fill their minds. With the right support from parents and teachers children with learning disabilities can reach their full potential and live a fulfilling life.

It is very easy for a child who has struggled with academics to lose confidence and motivation to learn. They may find that they have strengths in certain areas, but weaknesses in other academic areas and they may avoid or even completely ignore school work that is difficult for them. For example, a child who is good at Math, but who struggles in reading will prefer to spend more time on Math work rather than improving his/her reading abilities. One important aspect that both parents and educators need to keep in mind is that no child should be defined by their learning disability. There are many areas of strengths that should be focused on and built upon. Observe the child, pick out their gifts, talents and areas of interests and nurture these areas in which the children will excel. Identifying children's individual learning preferences is a major step in the right direction. It will enable parents and educators to reinforce the type of learning that will suit the child best. Each child has their own unique style of learning that works best for them. For example, some children are visual learners and learn best by reading and writing. Auditory learners on the other hand do well on oral tests and benefit from verbal directions and classroom discussions. A kinaesthetic learner benefits from hands on activities and learns through touching, exploring and creating.

There are many ways to adapt a classroom for children with learning disabilities so that they will progress and stay motivated with their schoolwork and homework. Some methods are: simplifying instructions, offering simple rewards and incentives, provide small steps in assignments that will help students not become overwhelmed, provide consistent, positive feedback to the student when he succeeds, clearly communicate classroom standards and expectations, teach them study skills and seat them in an appropriate place in class where there is less distraction. Conventional teaching methods need to be adapted according to the specific nature of the disability. Thus, knowledge of the disability is extremely important in order to understand the individual needs of the child.

Helping children with a learning disability to succeed in the classroom requires a well-rounded approach that involves parents, teachers and school administration collectively. Each of these people need to ensure that the student will be supported in a positive manner both at home and at school. Parents and educators need to encourage the children's strengths, be aware of their limitations and work together to implement the best strategies to support the children. Being diagnosed with a learning disability is not easy for the child or parent. Excelling also means working through their problems. Instead of focusing on finding a "cure" parents need to offer their children social and emotional support and positive reinforcement. This will equip them with the determination, resilience, strength and confidence to overcome and succeed in life.

Written for Mums in Colombo By Vanessa Bibile in 2014

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