Many parents of young children with learning disabilities ask what they can do at home to help their youngsters. Generally, the first step is to try to understand the child’s difficulties and to consider how these weaknesses might impact on self-help skills, communication, discipline, play and independence; however, above all, we encourage them to focus on the child’s strengths in order to build self-esteem and to help them become an integral part of the family.
Like all parents, they need to consider the delicate balance between providing too much or too little assistance for the child, a balance between under and over expecting what the child can do independently. Understanding the child’s needs takes time because needs change with age and with expectations at home, in social settings, and in school. New and unexpected problems may arise as they do with all children. However, youngsters with special needs often require more understanding and support, not only from parents and teachers but from siblings.
The early childhood years are particularly important because learning typically occurs so rapidly. Children change from almost complete dependence to relative independence in a few short years. Much of the learning during this time occurs without formal instruction; however, most parents teach their children informally as they encourage them to notice things in the environment, as they label objects, and as they guide certain social skills, appropriate behaviors, and manners. Parents teach self-help skills such as dressing, buttoning, and tying. Often they teach their children how to throw a ball and ride a bike. And many parents provide the basis for early reading, writing, and mathematics skills by reading stories, reciting the alphabet, coloring, copying letters, writing simple messages, and playing counting games. Parents engage in these activities so naturally that they do not even think of them as instruction, and yet, this training, social interaction, and stimulation are crucial for learning.
Some children with learning disabilities find these seemingly natural, every day skills difficult to learn, even with good stimulation. Their learning and behavior is less predictable than normally achieving children, and generally different from children who are delayed in all areas of development.
Symptoms Associated with Learning Disabilities
The symptoms associated with learning disabilities vary. Some have difficulty processing auditory information while others have problems with visual tasks. Some have difficulty processing language, whereas others have problems with nonverbal skills such as interpreting facial expressions, learning to play, or dress themselves. Some have no problems until they enter school, though indications of pre-academic weaknesses may be evident.
When problems persist, parents may discuss their concerns with physicians, educators, or specialists in fields such as learning disabilities, occupational therapy, or speech/language pathology. A comprehensive evaluation which includes a developmental history, tests for mental ability, oral language, pre-academic achievement, perceptual-motor skills, various cognitive processes and behavior is helpful in order to obtain an overall profile of strengths and weaknesses, and in order to make recommendations.
Help for Young Children
Some children may be placed in a developmental class where they can receive supplemental help, whereas those with milder problems may be seen individually for assistance. In other instances, a specialist might go into the classroom or kindergarten to assist the child with those areas of learning which appear to be most difficult. Others will be placed on a “watch list” and their learning will be monitored. In certain instances, families choose private intervention, particularly if the schools do not provide services in the early childhood years.
Some specialists give parents suggestions for activities at home, depending upon the needs of the child. While we do not recommend formal lessons, parents are encouraged to take advantage of their daily routines to foster the development of certain concepts and skills that appear to be weak.
The first step is always understanding. It is important to remember that the population of children with learning disabilities is heterogeneous. The children are similar because they all have adequate hearing, vision, mental ability, and many strengths, but their specific disabilities and symptoms differ. Therefore, not all of the suggestions provided below are applicable, but we begin with general recommendations.
- Focus on the child’s strengths, not the weaknesses
Every child is unique; all can contribute to the joys of family life. Find special times and jobs that allow the child to contribute to the group.
- Set reasonable expectations
Try not to expect more than the child is capable of doing, but expect the best that he or she can produce, with and then without assistance. The child may need to be taught simple skills, and then complex tasks can be taught step by step, gradually reducing the supports as the child makes progress.
- Provide the guidance needed for independence
Climbing the steps on a sliding board requires some degree of sure-footedness, as well as visual and visual-motor skills. Crossing the street requires very careful visual scanning and time estimation. Some children with learning disabilities will need careful guidance and instruction in order to master these and other skills requiring attention and visual perception.
- Maintain consistent discipline
Give clear, simple explanations, particularly if children have language problems. They may not understand the vocabulary, lengthy instructions, and complex sentences used at home or in school. Our guideline is “firmness with warmth,” together with consistency.
- Foster intellectual curiosity
Try to excite children about the learning process. Parents and teachers who enjoy learning themselves can convey such an attitude to their children. Many infants and toddlers seem to be naturally curious as they look at objects, explore them, turn them, try to move them, etc., whereas others need guidance. Take a walk around the block, look at the trees and the bushes, feel the bark of the tree, smell the flowers. Look at the grass, the gravel, the cement and talk about what is hard, smooth, rough, and pretty.
- Help children classify and categorize objects
Many children naturally put groups of objects together because they are the same color or shape, or because of their use. If given blocks, toy cars, cups and saucers, they notice similarities and differences, a critical skill for all learning. However, some children with learning disabilities have problems with conceptualization. They do not notice similarities or observe the most relevant attributes. Parents can help with this categorization process when they go to grocery stores, parks, zoos, and other places to note how things in certain areas are similar. The important thing is to help children categorize, and reclassify objects so they become flexible thinkers.
Provide good language models and stimulation
When children have delayed language, some parents tend to talk less to them. While some reduction of language may be helpful, children need good stimulation. Informal conversation is the kind of social interaction that strengthens the interpersonal relationship as well as verbal learning.
Guide the child’s language comprehension
Many parents of children with delayed language are concerned about their lack of ability to speak or to put words together in sentences, but the first objective is to make certain they understand language. When helping children comprehend new vocabulary, remember that words are concepts, not simple associations. The same object can have more than one name (e. g., rug, carpet), and the same word may have several meanings (e. g., bill, back). Many children with learning disabilities have problems understanding words with multiple meanings, particularly those that change with the context. For example, children probably first learn the word “letter” when it refers to an envelope that is sent or received in the mail. Later, however, the word “letter” will refer to a part of the alphabet. Most normally achieving children seem to abstract these word meanings more easily than those with language learning disabilities. Therefore, when children start to school, teachers and parents need to make certain they understand word meanings in new contexts, particularly the language of instruction. Try to reduce the amount and level of language so children understand new and difficult word meanings.
It may be necessary to help children understand the language of feelings. Some do not understand words such as sad, angry, or embarrassed. Let your children know how you feel in various situations also.
Help the child comprehend and remember longer units of language
Some children can comprehend single words or short phrases, but they have difficulty understanding the meaning of sentences and stories. When children have difficulty listening to stories, it is often helpful to speak slowly, to repeat phrases or sentences, and when necessary, use pictures to illustrate the meaning. When disciplining the child, make certain that directions are not too lengthy. Show the child what to do if he or she does not understand verbal instructions.
Do not call attention to expressive language weaknesses
Language is first and foremost a form of communication. Parents and teachers should not interrupt a child’s flow of thought when he or she is trying to communicate. It may be helpful to give a multiple choice question, or the first sound of a word. For example, if the child is trying to recall the word “juice,” the parents might say, “Do you want juice or milk?” This type of question will allow children to use the word and to provide practice. In general, parents should not correct grammar or pronunciation. Make the verbal interactions as pleasant and meaningful as possible. Listen to children. Make certain they have opportunities to contribute to family discussions.
Engage the child in early literacy activities
Literacy refers to many oral language, reading, and writing activities, all of which are intertwined. Reading to children strengthens oral language and introduces them to various forms of discourse such as stories, fairy tales, and poetry. Reading signs, labels, or thank you notes helps them understand relationships between oral and written language and emphasizes meaning. Sometimes, children with language disorders do not like being read to because they cannot process all of the information. In these cases, we suggest that parents read the pictures and reduce the language level so that the child comprehends. For example, from a picture of a child eating soup or cereal, ask is the soup hot, how does it taste, do you think the boy likes the soup, how do you know, look at his face. While reading, parents should stop periodically and ask the child questions about the story.
Logos and signs can be used for early reading activities. Groceries can be used for many purposes including reading of labels. When looking at a can or carton of food, one might ask, “Which word do you think says milk?” Encourage the child to read signs such as “stop, exit, enter” and words on doors such as “boys, girls, push,” etc.
The primary goal is to make certain that children understand that reading is a meaningful act. It is not learning the alphabet.
Several studies in recent years have found that phonemic awareness is related to early reading. Therefore, we encourage parents to play listening games in which they encourage children to identify objects that begin or end with a particular sound (i.e., let’s find all the things that start with “m,” using the letter sound, not the letter name). Rhyming games are also encouraged.
In order to strengthen visual processes and whole word recognition, we suggest that when parents read to children they ask them to find letters or words that look the same.
Early writing is also an important part of literacy. By age three, most children can draw a circle; by four they can draw a square; and by five they can draw a triangle as well as the rudiments of many letters and numerals. They also draw pictures of people, houses, and simple objects. Many preschoolers enjoy “pretend writing,” which is an important part of development. Do not try to achieve perfect copying or production of letters and numbers. Rather, let the child engage in writing as a communicative act. When children can copy letters, however, use the opportunities that arise from going shopping. Encourage children to help write the grocery list by copying one or two words from empty cartons and boxes.
Encourage early mathematics and number activities
Introduce mathematics as a meaningful, pleasurable activity, not a rote memory skill. While most parents play simple counting games and sing number songs, we also recommend activities which strengthen the language of mathematics and one-to-one correspondence. Some children with learning disabilities have difficulty counting systematically; others have difficulty with words such as “more, less, few” and other relational terms. Encourage children to estimate, measure, pour water or milk, not only to learn some of the quantitative terms, but to help them acquire certain visual- spatial-motor skills.
Simple games with dominoes can be used to match quantities, to strengthen counting skills and one-to-one correspondence. When reading to children, have them look at the page numbers and say them. Some youngsters learn to count, but not how to read numerals.
Simple problem solving can begin with activities such as setting the table. “How many more forks do we need? Do we have enough spoons?” These same types of activities can be used when playing games “Do we have enough players, cards?”
Help the child learn to play
Some learning disabilities interfere with a child’s ability to play and acquire social skills. One does not usually think about having to teach children how to play, yet visual-spatial, language, and symbolic skills are needed to play with blocks, a doll house, trucks and cars in garages, and making sand castles. While we do not want to make work out of play, in order for children to play unsupervised or to participate in groups, adults may need to show them how to stack blocks so they do not fall, to pretend, to dig in the sand, and to play simple games. Throughout all of these activities, take time to enjoy the children and have fun.
Consider the importance of nonverbal communication for social skills
Certain children with nonverbal learning disabilities have problems interpreting or using appropriate body language including facial expressions and gestures. Others have difficulty interpreting tone of voice. As a result, their social skills may be less adequate. Play games in which you initiate various body movements, facial expressions and intonations.
Encourage children to listen to music and to develop a sense of rhythm
Musical skills may come easily for some children with learning disabilities, in which case it can be used as a way to teach certain reading skills. Other children need help in listening to rhythm, beat, and tempo so they can participate in group activities.
Teach simple time concepts
Many students with learning disabilities have problems understanding the language of time. During the early childhood years, words such as “early, later, today, tomorrow,” can be emphasized. Mark school days on a calendar with a special color, and perhaps keep simple weather journals illustrating sunny or rainy days with simple drawings of a sun or raindrops.
Provide structure for children with attention problems
Some, but not all, children with learning disabilities have problems focusing and maintaining attention. In these cases, we recommend structure and quiet, but firm discipline. The goal is not to punish, but to create an environment in which the children can succeed. For example, help them with organization by breaking down complex tasks and giving them an orderly sequence of activities.
Children with special needs often have special gifts, gifts such as sensitivity, perseverance, tenacity, and resilience. These gifts are far more important than perfect recitation of the alphabet or copying letters. All children can make progress, but the rate and amount of improvement varies. Try to build on the child’s strengths in order to foster self-respect. Help the child realize the value of people in all walks of life as you go about daily routines. There is a place for everyone.
Modified from Newsbriefs article by Doris J. Johnson, Ph.D., Jo Ann and Peter Dolle Professor Emerita in Learning Disabilities, Department of Communication Sciences and Disorders, Northwestern University, Evanston, Illinois 60208