Help me, Miss!

Children with learning disabilities are sometimes labelled as slow or lazy, but they just have differently structured brains — and they need more support.

Illustration by Michael Dockery

Illustration by Michael Dockery

Imagine you are a 10 year old, sitting in a classroom of 25 other 10 year olds. You are surrounded by distractions — kids chatting, joking and making fun of each other — while the teacher at the front is trying to give instructions and maintain classroom discipline at the same time. You’re trying your best to comprehend what the teacher is saying, but you just can’t work out what she wants you to do. The kids around you seem to be getting through the work, so why can’t you?

There are varying reasons why some children find it much more difficult to learn than others. For many, it is social or environmental factors that cause the issues. For example, a child might not have had opportunities to learn at home, or may have had ineffective instruction at school. For others, it can be an internal issue: there is something about their individual brain that makes them respond differently to learning. Studies show that about 10–16% of people have problems that come under the umbrella term of “learning difficulty” and 4% of students have issues caused by a dysfunction in the brain itself, termed a “learning disability”.

“Learning disabilities are caused by differences in how our brains receive, process, analyse, or store information,” said president of Learning Difficulties Australia, Dr Lorraine Hammond. Learning disabilities can make everyday things that many people take for granted very challenging, like telling the time or reading a menu, let alone performing academically at school.

Learning disabilities affect how information is processed by the brain.   DigitalRalph/Flickr  (CC BY 2.0)

Learning disabilities affect how information is processed by the brain. DigitalRalph/Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

Common learning disabilities include dyslexia (problems with reading), dyscalculia (problems with math), dysgraphia (problems with writing and organising ideas), dyspraxia (problems with fine motor skills), dysphasia/aphasia (problems with language) and auditory and visual processing disorders. These are all neurologically based processing difficulties that affect the way the brain handles certain information.

Researchers are working on understanding why the brain develops differently in some people. They have found that there is a difference in brain structure in people with learning disabilities, specifically in the area that deals with language. It is thought that there is a genetic factor, but also that some learning disabilities may be caused by factors affecting a foetus, like alcohol or drugs, or young children being nutritionally deficient and/or ingesting toxins. Learning disabilities can also be caused later by dementia or brain injury.

Sadly there are many misconceptions about what it means to have a learning disorder.  This is the case with most disabilities, but especially with invisible disabilities. “Unlike an x-ray image of an arm that is irrefutably broken, a learning disability is a hidden handicap so children are sometimes incorrectly labelled as ‘dumb’ or ‘lazy’,” said Dr Hammond. “In fact, a learning disability doesn’t have anything to do with a child’s intelligence and some children with average to above average intelligence will have to work much harder than their unaffected peers just to keep up in class.”

Perhaps contributing to the expectations of children with learning disabilities is the structure of traditional schooling. Sir Ken Robinson argues that schools are geared towards the academically inclined, where success is often measured by a student’s university entrance scores. Less academic subject areas like drama or dance are considered lower in the hierarchy of schooling, and so these other aptitudes are devalued. It is no surprise then that students struggle with self-confidence when they under-perform in more academically valuable areas, regardless of how successful they are or can be in other areas.

Subject areas that are less academically inclined can be undervalued in schools.   Jakub Hlavaty/Flickr  (CC BY 2.0)

Subject areas that are less academically inclined can be undervalued in schools. Jakub Hlavaty/Flickr (CC BY 2.0)


Fortunately, there are programs in place to help these students navigate their way through school life. Research is continually being done to work out the best way to educate children who have differently structured brains. While responsibility for monitoring a child falls largely on the caregiver(s), there are systems in place that help determine when there is a problem and support students throughout schooling.

The first step is to identify which children have learning disabilities. Initially, caregivers and early childhood educators can watch out for missed milestones. But if these aren’t picked up on before a child reaches school, a systematic method is required.

According to Dr Hammond, an increasing number of schools in Australia are taking up an approach known as 'response to intervention.' “This approach is based on the idea that difficulty acquiring literacy and numeracy may be due to inadequacies in instruction or in the curriculum,” said Dr Hammond. “Close attention is given to teaching the pre-requisite skills for literacy and numeracy in a direct and systematic way, that leaves nothing to chance.” This means that learning disabilities have a high chance of being noticed and supported from the start of school life.

Once a child has been identified as having a learning disability, there are a number of in-school interventions that can take place. One that has proven effective is the development of an individual education plan (IEP). Each plan is designed to suit the specific needs of a student and how they will be addressed. They are developed in consultation with the student, a school representative and someone from the student’s support group, and they are designed to be flexible, holistic and include short and long-term goals. Personalised learning takes this further, with a modified program of learning that entails a high level of student-teacher interaction and support alongside regular assessment of student progress against the IEP goals. This ensures that the child’s learning is monitored and that they are supported, reducing the risk that they will be lost in the system.

As a part of this, students may use assistive technology to complete tasks set in class. “For older students who are tired of being the special one who gets withdrawn for remedial support it’s sometimes time to turn to assistive technology that removes the barrier to learning,” said Dr Hammond. These include using audio books, speech to text programs and talking calculators.

Some researchers claim that compensatory methods of dealing with learning disabilities, like assistive technology, while useful for helping students in the first instance, do not address the cause of the problem and so are not fully effective.

To overcome this, research has been done in capacity-based intervention. This approach uses the principles of neuroplasticity — the notion that the brain is not fixed — to strengthen the weaker area of the brain that is causing the dysfunction. Private programs assess the child for impairment, and use specific and graduating cognitive exercises to develop the weaker part of the brain, purportedly enhancing the child’s capacity to learn. However, Dr Hammond said that these programs are expensive and that there are questions about the validity of this approach.

With the support that these interventions provide, people with a learning disability can succeed in professional roles. There are alternative pathways for those who struggle with final tertiary examinations but would still like to pursue tertiary education. In some instances, students leave school and come back to study once they have matured enough to take control of their learning. This can require a level of self-advocacy.

Having a learning disability doesn’t rule out tertiary education.   Alan Light/Flickr  (CC BY 2.0)

Having a learning disability doesn’t rule out tertiary education. Alan Light/Flickr (CC BY 2.0)


“I have been delighted to run into former teenagers with learning disabilities I have taught who left school, found something they were deeply interested in and returned to study,” said Dr Hammond. “One young man I know who struggled with all aspects of literacy at high school has just completed a masters degree and is contemplating studying medicine.”

For other students, going back to study is less of an option. According to Dr Hammond, the daily expectation of the classroom to perform literacy and numeracy skills can mean that leaving school is a big relief. “This is not to say that adolescents won’t eventually learn to do what they find difficult at high school, but conflicting social pressures and failure to engage with remedial programs conspire against them.”

It seems counter to education as a concept, which aims to empower and inspire people through learning, that students can drop away from schooling because they don’t live up to specific academic standards. This is perhaps where the educational environment could be expanded beyond emphasising academic success as the main measure of aptitude, particularly in high school where students are preparing for transition into work.

Vocational training in schools can be useful in preparing students with disabilities for the transition into working life, but there are concerns about whether this is enough. Perhaps a shift in mindset about what the outcomes of education ‘should’ be is required to keep these students from losing confidence in themselves.

There is more to life, after all. “It is important to keep in mind that academic success, while important, should not be the only goal,” said Dr Hammond. “What you really want is for your child to be happy and feel a sense of achievement.  This can mean finding a sport, musical instrument or hobby that your child enjoys and you can value the experience together.”

Edited by Ena Music and Jack Scanlan