By: Ryan E. Gill, MD, FAAP & Mary Leppert, MB, BCH, FAAP
Over 2 million students in the United States have
learning disabilities and differences. There are many strategies and tools that can be used at home and at school to support children with learning disorders. Let's go through some of the most common ones to better understand how to help our children learn.
Dyslexia is a difficulty with the way the brain processes written and spoken language. Dyslexia primarily affects reading and may be referred to as a "reading disorder." However, it can also affect writing, spelling and speaking. In addition, dyslexia can impact social skills, listening comprehension, time management memory and navigation or sense of direction.
The exact cause of dyslexia has not been identified. We do know that differences in genetics, the anatomy of the brain, and the activity between language-processing centers in the brain play a role in dyslexia. It is a lifelong condition that a child will not outgrow.
A common misbelief about dyslexia is that it's a
vision problem, but that's not the case. Rather, the brain of children who have dyslexia reverses or inverts the information it receives from the eyes. Also, dyslexia
is not a result of laziness or lack of intelligence.
How to support a child with dyslexia
There are many ways to help a child with dyslexia thrive. Specific instruction on identifying individual sounds in language can help them match these sounds with letters, for example. Reading programs with a multisensory approach—using all the senses to learn—are also beneficial. There is
no evidence that vision therapies or eye exercises treat dyslexia or other learning disabilities.
School accommodations that may help kids with dyslexia include:
one-on-one small or small-group instruction
extra time for reading and writing
audiobooks or books on tape
access to teacher's notes to reduce the need for note-taking
At home, you can help your child by
reading out loud with them. When you read aloud, your child can hear stories above his or her reading level. You can also listen to audiobooks with them and recite nursery rhymes or memorable songs with younger children.
Dysgraphia is difficulty with the physical act of writing. It can affect handwriting or typing on a keyboard.
Dysgraphia is not a disorder of expressing oneself (see more about that, below). However, it causes children to focus a great deal on physically transcribing words. This, in turn, can affect how they think about and convey ideas.
Dysgraphia can be a result of dyslexia,
motor skill (movement) coordination or problems understanding space (spatial awareness). Having dysgraphia
does not mean that a student is lazy or that they lack intelligence.
How to support a child with dysgraphia
Occupational therapy helps children improve fine motor skills and planning. It's the main way that children with dysgraphia get help.
School accommodations, strategies and tools may be helpful for kids with dysgraphia include:
Extra time for writing tasks
Responding in ways other than writing (such as orally)
Breaking writing tasks into smaller steps
Taking breaks before proofreading their work
Checklists for editing work (spelling, neatness, grammar)
Graphic organizers like charts and diagrams
Tools like pencil grips and talk-to-text programs
At home, supporting a child with dysgraphia may include practicing keyboarding skills or trying a handwriting program. You can try working with them on letter formation in a new and fun way, such as writing in the air, in shaving cream or in sand!
Disorder of written expression
Written expression is a complex process. It requires the ability to use language with other skills at the same time. This includes attention, organization, planning and movement coordination.
Dysgraphia, which involves the mechanical skills of writing, is only half the story when it comes to writing challenges. Sometimes a child has difficulty using the language or concepts involved to express themselves in writing. This is called disorder of written expression. The condition may also be referred to as a written language disorder.
Disorders of written expression can co-occur with other learning disabilities, along with neurodevelopmental disorders such as attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). It is estimated that about 60% of children with ADHD meet criteria for written language disorder by 19 years old. That's compared with about 12% of those without ADHD.
How to support a child with disorder of written expression
School accommodations and other strategies for students with disorders of written expression may include:
Extended time on tests and assignments
Very clear instructions
Mnemonics (memory tricks)
Pre-writing exercises such as brainstorming, creating mind maps or other visual organizers
Assistive technologies such as grammar and spelling checkers and talk-to-text programs
Dyscalculia is a learning disability in math. It may involve difficulty with understanding quantities, concepts such as bigger or smaller, and math symbols. Students may also have difficulty applying concepts that they do understand in order to solve math problems.
Dyscalculia is not as well-understood as other learning disorders like dyslexia. We do know that dyscalculia occurs at similar rates across genders. (We also know it's a myth that boys are better at math than girls.)
How to support a child with dyscalculia
There are no specialized teaching programs for dyscalculia like there are for dyslexia. However, multisensory lessons may help students with dyscalculia to learn math.
School accommodations that can help kids with dyscalculia may include:
At home, children can use objects like cereal pieces to solve simple math problems. Playing board games and computer games can also provide fun math practice.
Evaluating your child's learning challenges & strengths
It is often helpful to have a full evaluation done through school or privately. This evaluation can help to better understand your child's specific learning difficulties, as well as their strengths. It can also provide recommendations for school accommodations and supports in the home and community that would be most helpful to your child's specific needs.
Helping your child keep a growth mindset
Having difficulties in school can be a blow to a student's confidence. It may make them feel "dumb" or embarrassed. It is important to remind your child that we all struggle with something. Help them to focus on a "growth mindset," remembering that their skills improve with time and support. Most importantly, families help their child to build
self-esteem and confidence.
About Dr. Gill
Ryan E. Gill, MD, FAAP, member of the American Academy of Pediatrics Section on Neurology, is an Assistant Professor of Neurology at The Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine.
About Dr. Leppert
Mary Leppert, MD, FAAP, is a neurodevelopmental pediatrician in the Department of Neurology and Developmental Medicine at Kennedy Krieger Institute and Division Director of Developmental Pediatrics in the Department of Pediatrics at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine. Dr. Leppert is a member of the American Academy of Pediatrics Council on Children With Disabilities and Sections on Neurology and Developmental and Behavioral Pediatrics.