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How Do I Help My Child With Severe Learning Problems?

By Joyce Herzog

    A child with a severe learning disability needs help --some you can give and some help you can't.  But there are a few things you have to realize before you can even begin to help.

There is no quick fix. No pill to take, doctor to see, program to follow, person to talk to, or book to buy that will make it all better or make it go away. In fact, there may be no fix at all. Your student may grow to be an adult with many of the same problems that he has now. Hopefully they will be mellowed. Perhaps he will have developed coping skills. Ideally he will choose a career and lifestyle that minimize his problems and maximize his strengths, but he is unlikely to "cure" the problems and come out on the other side of the tunnel a "new" person.

Adults may still struggle with hyperactivity - but they learn to channel the energy into beneficial outlets. Adults with poor short term memory learn to use logic and lists to compensate for their difficulties. Others struggle to concentrate and use computers to take notes as they listen to a speaker. One man I know of is just now learning to enjoy reading and he is the father of four children. I have known adults who still sucked their thumbs (though they rarely admit it) and others who take a "blankie" to bed. Such behavior is not "normal", but neither does it reduce productivity or happiness.

I don't know you, but chances are somewhere in your family (or in your own life?) there are some habits and characteristics which you don't call to the attention of everyone you meet. If we as adults are not perfect, why do we struggle so to make our children perfect?

It is also important to put things into an eternal perspective. God has given every child everything they need to carry out His call on their lives. "Deficient" and "Disabled" are not labels of the Designer. These children are capable of fulfilling whatever God calls them to do.

Now, with that said, let's look at some general ways to help:

Structure Without Rigidity Children who learn differently learn best when they know exactly what is expected of them. Routines and patterns for behavior are beneficial to increase learning. When a change is necessary, a warning is helpful. It doesn't have to be much: "We will need to leave for church in twenty minutes. You may have five minutes to play and then we will clean up and go."

Shared Control: Many children who struggle to learn are headstrong and willful. They may be wonderful leaders when they learn self-controls and develop skills. Until then, they can be a terror---unless you are willing to release control in very controlled ways. I always try to set the perimeters first and then give a choice to share the control. "We are going to write. Would you like to write on the chalkboard or on paper. Would you life to use pen or colored pencils?" or "We are going to do math. Would you like to do the oral or written problems first."

Adjust environment, not expectations: Too many people, upon receiving a diagnosis of any sort of special needs begin to make predictions regarding twenty years from now. It may be better to make adjustments in the

environment to foster learning at the stage the child is now and leave the problems of the future to be solved in the future. Break the concept down into small chewable steps. Present the material from several different angles three or four days in a row. Provide plenty of practice in a variety of ways over enough days to over learn the concepts. Allow slack time (climbing trees, playing with clay or legos, drawing) during which many concepts will be assimilated. When a child seems to have hit a plateau, back off, concentrate on another skill for a time and test the water now and then to see if he is ready to proceed.

Success Builds Success: We all need success. When we succeed we are willing to try again. Presenting material in small incremental steps is a good start. Praise all small successes. Don't provide the answer too quickly - letting the child struggle a while allows his subconscious intuitions to kick in. (Don't let struggle continue to the point of total frustration if you can limit it with a gentle hint or helping hand.

Look for Strengths: Too often we focus on the problem or the disability and don't notice or give attention to the strengths. I think if Thomas Edison or Leonardo da Vinci were raised in our generation they would have become mediocre at everything and good at nothing. Every child has strengths: good memory, hospitality, ability to see things in new ways, organizational skills, artistic ability, skill in music or drama, conversational skills, ability to take things a part or put them back together. Look for the skills and give time and attention to them so that they can develop. Then explore careers that may utilize the strengths and not be hampered by the weaknesses.

Now some specific solutions to specific problems

Writing Problems

*Minimize requirements. Allow him to do something to show what he knows.

*Do require short daily does of writing practice.

*Provide meaningful opportunities for writing practice.

*Try standing position or slanted writing surface.

*Teach keyboard skills.

Trouble Sitting Still

*Firm but gently rub the back.

*Allow candy or gum only at quiet times.

*Practice sitting very still in very small time segments (one minute once a day). Gradually increase the frequency and the duration.

Trouble With Reading

*Read to them

*Read with them in choral style.

*Practice reading words, phrases, and short passages every day.

*Have a time of phonics instruction for decoding and encoding (spelling).

*Separate oral reading from silent reading.

*Separate reading instruction from reading for information or pleasure.

(Note there is a difference between silent and oral reading, reading for information and reading for pleasure. Your child may be good at one end and not the other. He may be using first grade book for pleasure, a primer of oral reading, and a third grade book for information. That is perfectly normal and acceptable.

Trouble With Reading Comprehension:

* Give an immediate purpose for reading, "Read to find out..."

* Ask questions after short passages.

* Do vocabulary building games and exercises.

*Do activities which build an awareness of sequence, cause and effect, main idea and intent.

* Do some comprehension activity every day.

Difficulty With Math:

*Talk about numbers, adding, etc. in real life.

*Choose a math curriculum that uses manipulatives and bridges the gap to real life.

*Make up word problems about events in the child's life.

*Cut the math paper into strips and allow a two minute break when a row of problems is successfully completed.

*Have your student make up word problems and then solve them together.

Difficulty Putting Thoughts On Paper:

*Let him dictate to you and you write the answer.

*Let him dictate to a tape recorder and then he transcribes the writing.

*Have him do real life writing in small doses, labeling pictures in an album, making lists, writing letters, writing notes to family members, etc.

*Get Dinah Zike's Big Book of Books and Activities and get him involved in fun writing projects.

Not Interested In School:

*Allow him to buy special activities or privileges. Each hour of concentrated attention to schoolwork will buy fifteen minutes for a privilege.

*Keep heavy academics to the first two hours after breakfast, chores and devotions. After that, let projects and real life do the teaching.

* Allow some choice in order of study and \or topics for study.

*Alternate dreaded subjects and tasks with more appealing ones.

*Allow choice in writing materials and project design.

*Limit the amount of time of struggle.

*Be enthusiastic yourself.

*Use educational games a and songs whenever feasible.

*Find a link between his interests and what you want him to know.

*Allow him to take some kind of class he would enjoy (wood-working, bird watching, raising and taming a pet, sewing, crafts, cooking, etc.)

* Take a class together in something you are both interested in.

*Minimize things that look like school, maximize real learning through doing.

Redeem the Day: I've saved this for last because it is important. When a day is going badly.....When the soup has boiled over, the dog vomited on the floor, toddler got into the boxes of cereal, and the pencils are broken and lost...Redeem the day. Take a deep breath and find a way to enjoy your child. Take a walk together. Cuddle over a book. Go swimming. Take a picnic to the back yard. Play a game of ball. Tell a joke and giggle together. Blow bubbles. Color a picture while you lick a lollipop. Lay on the floor and watch a video. (Don't forget to buy a gross of new pencils!) Take a few moments away from the routine and enjoy each other. Stay away for an hour or afternoon. Before returning, plan who will clean up the mess and what others might be doing. (Suzy takes a nap, Johnny sweeps up the cereal, Bobby sharpens the new pencils, Mom cleans up the soup and ....) Don't let this day go down in defeat. Make something pleasant happen. Then tell Dad what a wonderful day you had!

Our children are children. They are imperfect human beings. They have bad days. They also have a need to have fun, to enjoy themselves, to experience success, to laugh and giggle and play. Be sure that there is time in you life to be family!