Living with learning difficulties

Stupid, lazy, clumsy and slow. These are some of the labels that children with learning difficulties have to live with.

Yet most children with learning difficulties have normal or above-average intelligence — it is just that neurological problems prevent them from functioning as other kids do.

And if their problems are not picked up early on, many of these children may become school dropouts, with low self esteem who believe the labels that have been stuck to them.

“I prefer to use the term learning diversity to difficulty,” says educational psychologist Elaine Harcombe, who works at the University of Witwatersrand Education Clinic.

“In the past, people thought learning difficulties were as a result of a ‘€˜problem’€™ with the brain. Today we perceive it as children who have a different way of learning. So a child who cannot learn to read the conventional way may learn to read another way.”

Learning difficulties are often subtle, and hard to identify ‘€“ especially for inexperienced parents and teachers.

Take Nomsa*, who battled to draw. At pre-school, her drawings looked like those of a much younger child, and her colouring-in was nothing more than a quick scribble. She avoided drawing because she was aware that she could not translate her ideas on to paper successfully. When she got to school, she battled to write. She also struggled to tie her shoelaces and cut up her food.

At first, her mother thought her child was immature and lazy. But Nomsa’s problem was actually with her posture and her fine motor skills ‘€“ what is often called “low muscle tone”.

Peter* learnt to talk later than little friends his age. He was slow to learn new words, wasn’t very interested in stories and battled with pronunciation. Once he reached school, he struggled to learn to read and his spelling was poor. He was later found to have a language-related learning disability and now has remedial lessons to help him to cope.

Ironically, says physiotherapist Pam Hansford, children’s best efforts to overcome their difficulties often aggravate their problems. The harder they try, the more tense they get. This distorts their body posture and alignment yet further, and slows them down, says Hansford.

“The child is then not in a position to divide his or her attention between the work and the teacher and often gets accused of not listening when they are in fact trying very hard.”

“The most common learning problems amongst pre-schoolers “involve the development of language and motor skills, which can cause a child to fail to acquire basic reading and writing skills,” says Sue Hill, head of Crossroads school for children with learning difficulties.

Joan Gardiner, headmistress of the special school Japari, says her school deals with two main areas of learning problems – “non-verbal learning difficulties, which affect planning skills, writing and problem-solving, and verbal learning difficulties that affect reading, spelling, comprehension and maths”.

Her school also encounters children with Attention Deficit Disorder, so-called hyperactive kids.

Harcombe of the Wits Education Clinic, which sees children from pre-school to matric, says many of the problems children face are not “pure” learning difficulties ‘€“ but relate to second language learning, and no exposure to books.

“We also see lots of children with emotional problems, caused by violence in the home and so on,” says Harcombe.

While the term “learning difficulties” is a catchword for a whole lot of different problems, Hill stresses that they are “usually neurological in origin”. This means that the problem lies with how a person’s central nervous system works, rather than in their physical environment.

“Learning difficulties are not going to develop from poor socio-economic conditions,” says Hill. So a child who grows up in a shack with little stimulation is not more prone to learning difficulties than a kid from the suburbs, as people are born with learning problems.

Hansford agrees that all learning difficulties are primarily neurological, but emphasises that “gravity, handling and socio-economic living conditions” all affect the course of the child’s development.

“In the end,” she says, “we all get good at what we practice so any kind of deprivation or disruption of the learning process will affect the outcome.”

Children from more affluent homes may be movement-deprived from being kept in little plastic seats, walking rings and push chairs. These tend to “tip the child off balance, preventing them from developing good shoulders, freedom of arm movement and eye-hand co-ordination skills,” says Hansford.

“If children don’€™t learn to use their back and stomach muscles properly, they won’t learn how to lean forwards and take weight on their arms, crawl and strengthen their shoulders and hips in preparation for an upright posture to support successful function in class,” says Hansford.

Children from disadvantaged backgrounds may have fewer problems with poor posture, but often lack of opportunity to develop manipulative skills ‘€“ or fine motor skills.

Gauteng education department early learning co-ordinator Norma Rudolph says social problems such as “inadequate nutrition and lack of opportunities for sensorial exploration and language development” are the main stumbling blocks for poor children.

But a child from a poor background who also has neuro-developmental learning problems faces bigger obstacles than a suburban child whose parents can afford therapy to help them to cope with their problem.

For a start, most parents rely on teachers to identify problems. Yet if your child is in a huge class the teacher is less likely to pick up more subtle learning difficulties.

“Low muscle tone has become such a buzzword yet few parents and teachers know what it is,” says physiotherapist Justine Elgar. “We find that a large part of our work is educative, giving seminars to make people more aware of how to identify problems with posture and movement.

“There is so much pressure on children at school these days, that the average kid can’€™t cope. Many children just need a few sessions to restore their self-confidence, then they’€™re away.”

Even if a child’€™s problem is picked up, there are few places that offer help to those who cannot afford it. Special schools are usually very expensive, and there are few government remedial schools in Johannesburg.

The Wits clinic offers an affordable service and also trains teachers. But as it only has a fulltime staff of five, its impact is limited.

Parents often stand a better chance than teachers do of picking up whether their child has a problem. But identifying the nature of the problem is a complicated matter (see checklist).

Hansford urges parents to listen very carefully to their children. “If your child’s neck or shoulders are sore from writing, they might have a problem with their posture. And if their spine is not supporting them, they can’t sit properly at their desk so they can’t concentrate on learning.”

“I know that comparisons are odious,” says Hill, “but you can compare your children’s development with that of their siblings and friends. If their language development appears to be delayed, ask for a professional assessment from a speech therapist.

“If your child struggles to hold a pencil and draw on the left of a piece of paper with their right hand, their motor skills could be poor and referral to an occupational therapist is suggested,” she adds. – Health-e news service.

* names of children changed.

Early warning signs for parents of pre-school children:

  • Does your child have pronunciation problems and slow growth in vocabulary?
  • Is your child clumsy, and battles to feed or dress him/herself?
  • Does s/he battle to hold a pencil and draw or cut with scissors?
  • Does your child struggle to sit still and finish a task?
  • Does s/he have trouble learning left from right, or learning about time?
  • Can s/he name a few colours and count a few objects?
  • Does s/he cry easily or refuse to take part in group activities?

Where to get help:

Wits remedial clinic: (011) 716 5286

Physiotherapy (birth to matric): Justine Elgar (011) 640 5454

Japari (011) 646 2132

Crossroads (011) 782 5377


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