How Therapies Help Children With Learning Difficulties With Their Academics

Sensory Integration (SI) Therapy helps to provide self regulation strategies to a child

What are Learning Difficulties?

The DSM- 5 considers Specific Learning disabilities (SLD) to be a type of Neurodevelopmental Disorder that impedes the ability to learn or use specific academic skills like reading, writing or arithmetic which are the foundation for other academic learning. These are due to genetic and/or neurobiological factors that alter brain functioning in a manner which affects one or more cognitive processes related to learning.

The prevalence of SLD is 5-15% among the school age children globally as cited by the American Psychiatric Association. Early symptoms of learning difficulties may appear in the preschool years (e.g., labor intensive handwriting, difficulty following instructions, difficulty identifying letters and phonic sounds , making reversals while writing ,difficulty learning mathematical concepts) but a referral is made only by age 6 years. Formal psychoeducational testing is recommended around age 7 years to diagnose this condition. These are often identified by neuropsychologists, psychiatrists, school psychologists through a combination of intelligence testing, academic achievement testing, and mapping class performance. Other areas of assessment may include testing memory, perception, cognition, attention and language abilities.

The resulting information helps to decide if there is a significant gap between child’s academic performance and his cognitive ability. This is where learning difficulties can go undiagnosed as the child looks perfectly “normal” and seems to be a very bright and intelligent person, yet there is a huge gap between his verbal and written academic performance. This can also affect higher level skills like long or short term memory, abstract reasoning, organization, time planning, and attention. It is important to understand that it can have long term implications even into adulthood impacting relationships with friends, family, and at work if no timely intervention is received.

Types of Learning Difficulties:

The 3 main types are:

Dyslexia : A specific learning difficulty that affects reading and language based processing skills.

Dysgraphia : A specific learning disability that affects a person’s handwriting and practically all aspects of writing process including spelling, legibility, word spacing and sizing. It also impacts the ability of putting one’s thoughts onto paper.

Dyscalculia : A specific learning disability that affects a person’s ability to understand mathematical concepts

These maybe mild, moderate or severe in its intensity.

How Therapies Help?

Having a learning disorder does not mean a person cannot complete formal education and have a successful career.

Early Intervention is the key to managing this condition successfully, meaning to lead a successful career despite of their alternative learning styles..As soon as a child is diagnosed or suspected to have SLD , a referral is made to an occupational therapist and a special educator.

An occupational therapist will help build the subset of skills essential for reading and writing. They help the child to work on his fine motor skills; sensory processing issues of movement and proprioception (muscle and joint sense), force modulation, attention span, sequencing his tasks, organizing skills required to plan and complete a task successfully. Various approaches like Sensory Integration Therapy, Brain Gym exercises and Handwriting Without Tears methodology are used by an occupational therapist certified in the above techniques.

For addressing difficulties with attention span and self regulation, occupational therapists use The Zones of Regulation and The Incredible 5 Point Scale that helps a child to be aware of his arousal level. This will help him to regulate his body to be calm when in high arousal state in order to facilitate a good attention span.

Sensory Integration (SI) Therapy helps to provide self regulation strategies to a child. If a child is in a low arousal state , he can do certain set of alerting activities to make him aware and attentive towards his learning environment and tasks. By SI therapy , a child often learns to maintain and assume a correct sitting posture, increase core and shoulder stability, develop improved time management strategies, building fine motor, hand strength and dexterity.

Apart from the above mentioned approaches, a variety of adaptations and accommodations are also recommended by an OT like using a weighted pencil, vibrating pen, raised lines for writing, extended time for tests, using highlighting films to not lose place while reading.

Remedial Education is often offered to children with SLD. This therapy uses multi sensorial resources and different techniques to teach a particular concept to the child which he fails to understand when taught in a conventional manner. A special educator often assess a child’s educational needs and customises an Individualised Education Plan (IEP) for the child keeping in mind his strengths and weakness depending on the type of SLD he has. This ensures learning and attaining goals step by step in order to meet the basic academic requirements.

A special educator uses diagrams, graphics and pictures to augment learning rather than reading a paragraph, use personalised one on one teaching , provide ample independent, well designed intensive practice, breakdown tasks into small goals to boost self esteem of the child.

SLD is unique to an individual and can be manifested in a variety of ways. Hence, a customised plan of accommodations is tailor-made for classroom, assignment and examination to make the learning environment conducive for the child despite of the learning differences. A strong collaboration with the school teachers, special educators and parents ensures a team approach with good results in the best interest of the child.

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