A child is experiencing learning difficulties when, although s/he possesses normal intelligence is not able to achieve a learning goal in a typical manner unlike his peers and shows deficiencies in the basic psychological processes that are necessary for the comprehension and use of the oral or written language. These disorders are caused by deficiencies in oral attention, thought, speech, reading, writing, spelling and mathematical calculations. However, all difficulties caused by auditory, visual or mental deficiencies, psycho-emotional disorders or mental retardation are excluded. The primary reason behind learning disabilities is a dysfunction in the central nervous system in the left hemisphere of the brain that is linked to the centre of language. Around 10-15% of all school children show some type of learning disabilities, though the percentage is higher in left-handed children.
Children with learning disabilities are impulsive, hyperactive, show attention deficit and immature behaviour in general. They tend to speak later than their peers, exhibit difficulties in speech, in understanding orders and in their interpersonal communication. They are unable to organized the information they receive, suffer from memory and reception problems, exhibit difficulty in learning the days of the week, the months, seasons and other sequences, exhibit visual-motor problems and are unable to orient themselves in space and time. They are careless, often cause accidents and experience difficulties at school. It is however understood that it is not necessary for each child to exhibit all of the afore mentioned characteristics.
Dyslexia is one type of learning disability and relates to the failure or poor standard in reading and writing. It may be inherited and boys exhibit higher rates of dyslexia than girls (4/1). The child who suffers from dyslexia is not the lazy, indifferent and bad student that is often accused to be. Rather, s/he is a child of normal intellect who exhibits specific difficulties that can only be diagnosed by a specialist. These difficulties prevent the child from performing satisfactorily at school and lead to bad evaluations from the part of the teacher, thus disappointing the child who, in turn, stops any effort to learn thus suffering from even more learning difficulties. Failure leads the child to show aggressiveness and withdrawal and refusal to go to school.
DIFFICULTIES IN READING
Children suffering from learning difficulties learn to read later than their peers and when they do learn to read, their reading is slow and bad, stumbling, flat and lacks rhythm. They cannot differentiate easily between the letters of the alphabet, reverse letters (b-d), omit letters and exhibit difficulties in the use of complex consonant clusters. They do not accentuate words correctly, they show difficulties with multi-syllable words, they ignore the punctuation points, they read continuously or stop incorrectly, the omit or repeat syllables or small words and they get confused between the lines even when they are using their finger to point the line they are reading. They get tired often and easily, they get bored and stressed and avoid reading altogether. At times, they do not read whole words but only the first syllable and guess the rest, they use their own endings and replace words with others that have similar meaning (“house” instead of “apartment”).
DIFFICULTIES IN WRITING AND SPELLING
Children with learning disabilities scrawl, their letters are illegible and make a lot of spelling mistakes. They tend to press their pencil too hard, they are slow writers and seem to move their whole forearm, They seem too immature to distinguish between left and right and unable to follow the lines and curves of a letter. They get tired easily, they erase often and their paper is full of smudges. They tend not to leave spaces between words, sometimes they leave no space between words, sometimes they forget whole words and seem unable to write on a straight line in a white pages. They omit or reverse letters and syllables, they replace consonants or letter clusters. They do not accentuate properly, they do not use punctuation, they do not start a sentence with capital letters or they place the capital letters in the middle of the word. Their writing is affected by the “mirror effect” (e-3, p-9, ah-ha) and they make a lot of mistakes when copying. However, they may draw very efficiently, because their difficulty in writing stems from the visual-motor deficiency and their difficulty in eye-hand coordination.
DIFFICULTIES IN MATHEMATICS
They count using their fingers and exhibit difficulties with multi-digit numbers. They reverse numbers (1429-1492), they get confused with numbers and mathematical symbols (+ and X, 6x9=15 instead of 54). They experience difficulties with vertical equations, maybe due to their inability with the perception of directions (right-left) and they may add the numbers incorrectly or reverse the multiplication. Their week verbal memory impedes them from learning the terms of the mathematical problems, while at times, they do not answer a question on time since they need more time to process the information. They encounter problems with the multiplication table and they may omit or repeat the numbers. They may also make mistakes when copying mathematical exercises where they can omit or reverse numbers.
We have already discussed the problems of reading and writing in dyslexic children. However, at times, they may also encounter problems in mathematics, though they are not as serious as the problems in spelling or reading. It must be noted that there is a number of dyslexic children who do not face any problems in mathematics, while others are very good at it. The difficulties encountered in mathematics relate to the child’s inability to perceive direction, sequence and order as well as to their verbal memory deficiency (difficulty in remembering the terms of the mathematical problems) and, therefore, the exercise text. Therefore, dyslexia and dyscalculia are two separate difficulties or deficiencies that occur both independently of each other and together and one does not presuppose the other.
Children with learning difficulties are evaluated in terms of their perception, motor skills and speech development. A medical or neurological examination may be necessary prior to the evaluation performed by the special educator, in order to exclude any possible vision, hearing or other physical problems. Furthermore, it is also imperative to evaluate the child’s dynamics in order to exclude any mental disabilities, since the learning disabilities affect children with normal intelligence. It is also important to assess the personality, the emotional state and the behaviour of the child at home, at school and at their greater social environment. Other areas that need to be evaluated are the child’s cognitive abilities, their performance at school, their speech ability and the ability to comprehend speech whether it is written or spoken, i.e. the child’s reading, writing, spelling, memory, comprehension and mathematical skills.
AFTER THE DIAGNOSIS
Following the diagnosis of learning disabilities, the special educator draws an individual program although in a number of cases it is important for the s.e. to cooperate with a speech therapist and an occupational therapist in order to fully address the problem. The program is drawn according to the specific needs of each child and marks the start of a joint cooperation between the s.e., the parents who must follow the program at home and the school teacher, who is considered one of the most important people who affect the child’s present and future academic performance. Rehabilitation is always easier when the learning difficulties are diagnosed early. Therefore, it is imperative for the parents to seek immediate professional help shall they detect any signs of speech retardation or any other unusual behavioural signs that may affect their child’s academic performance. Timely diagnosis is imperative and a necessary prerequisite for successful rehabilittation.