School Starters Out into the World : Learning Difficulties Helping them through (part 1) - The earlier the better Getting extra support

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Q: My six-year-old son has a developmental delay. Does that mean he will always be behind?
A: The term “developmental delay” is a confusing one for parents. It implies that skills your child has yet to acquire will eventually arrive—in the same way that a delayed train is annoyingly late, but definitely on its way. Since your son is still very young and has lots of growing and developing to do, it’s not possible to say for certain exactly how his skills and abilities will compare to those of his peers in the future. However, the more wide-ranging his difficulties, the less likely it is that he will catch up in all areas. Like all children, as your son gets older he will reach a peak in the development of particular skills. This means that the gap between him and his peers will be wider in some areas than others. All children have strengths and weaknesses, though—so try to focus on what your son can do well, and use that to compensate for his difficulties in other areas, in order to help him achieve his potential.
Q: Our daughter has a moderate learning disability. Should we go easy on discipline?
A: Within their capabilities, all children need to learn how to behave in an appropriate and socially acceptable way. Just because your daughter has a learning disability, there is no reason to treat her any differently. If you fail to set firm and consistent boundaries around your daughter’s behavior now, you are likely to have difficulty managing things at home as she gets older. She may try to get away with things at school, too, which could cause more problems. Discuss your concerns with your partner and agree some simple house rules about behavior. To help your daughter understand them, draw the rules out in picture form and display them somewhere visible, such as on the refrigerator. Use plenty of praise and encouragement when she follows a rule (“Great job putting all your toys away!”) and use simple consequences for rule-breaking. Don’t be surprised if things seem to get a little worse at first. It’s normal for children to turn up the volume when parents clamp down on their behavior. If you and your partner are consistent, your daughter will quickly understand what is expected of her. You may also find it helpful to attend an appropriate parenting group, where you could learn other strategies to promote your child’s development and manage behavior. Talking with other parents of children with special needs is a great way to get support and share tips. Your pediatrician should have details of local courses.
Q: My son has autism, and I have just read about a new therapy on the internet. Should I try it?
A: The internet is a fantastic resource for parents and puts a wealth of useful information at your fingertips. The downside is that there is a lot of conflicting and confusing advice out there, so you need to be careful not to take everything at face value. As a parent, you will naturally want to try anything that claims to offer help for your child. Most therapies will probably do no harm, and you may see some improvement in certain behaviors, but unfortunately there is no cure for autism at present. Some therapies are better researched and tested, so they will have evidence to show how they work, what patients they work best with, and what kind of changes you might expect. Other approaches rely more on anecdotal evidence from parents, and have less scientific research to back them up. If you know someone who has used the approach you are considering, speak to them about their experience. You could also contact one of the national organizations that represents people with autism to see what their views are. If you are changing your child’s diet in any way, speak to your pediatrician before you go ahead.
Q: My daughter goes to a special school and doesn’t get to see her friends much. I’m worried she will be lonely as she gets older.
A: As special schools move toward accepting a wider variety of students, this is a problem that many parents and their children face. Friends are important for acceptance, support, and security—they generally makes us feel happier and more confident. If your daughter is unable to spend time with her friends outside of school, this will also place extra demands on the family to ensure that she is entertained. At this age the foundations of friendship are built more on shared activities and having similar expectations. One way to address this is to see if there are any after-school clubs or activities that your daughter could attend. If not, see what is available in your area—you may find that other parents from school already have a meeting place. If you find something that other school parents may be interested in, spread the word. Try to be inclusive when you are looking for suitable activities. Lots of clubs now provide for typically developing children and for those with additional needs. If you are unsure, don’t be afraid to ask.

Developing links and making friends in your local community is just as important as maintaining your daughter’s social network at school.

Q: My son used to love looking at books. Why has he lost all interest since he started school?
A: Starting school means that activities that were once about play and having fun suddenly become linked with school and “work,” which can make them less appealing. It may also be that your son is finding learning to read a difficult task, so he is avoiding books at home. Try to make books and reading as much fun as possible. Join a library and help him choose books he is interested in. Listening to other people read is just as important for your son as trying to recognize and sound out words himself, so aim to get at least one bedtime story in each day. There will be lots of opportunities to read together at other times, too, but try to avoid challenging him to see if he can read new words. Praise his efforts when he does read and correct any mistakes sensitively. If you are concerned that your son may be struggling with his reading, speak to his teacher to see if there is any additional support he may benefit from in school. Learning to read is a complex task so do what you can to take the pressure off and go at his pace.
Q: My son struggles academically, but is included in lessons with the rest of his class. His behavior is getting worse. What can I do?
A: As your child progresses through school, the demands on him will increase. Work will become more difficult, he will have to sit and concentrate for longer periods, and he will be expected to develop independent learning skills. If your son is now finding certain aspects of his work too challenging he may be showing this by becoming disruptive in the classroom. Including him in lessons with his peers is good for his self-esteem and confidence – as long as he feels as though he is keeping up with them. All children need to be treated equally but that does not mean they should all be treated the same. If his needs are not being met, it may be time to think about a more individualized approach to his education. Parts of the curriculum that he finds more difficult can be broken down into smaller, more achievable steps. He may also benefit from some one-to-one support or small group work. It can take time to get additional support in place so the sooner you act, the better. Speak to his teacher to see what options are available in the school.
Q: What is a 504 and an IEP? Does my daughter need one?
A: 504 and IEP (Individualized Educational Plan) are the two means provided by the federal government to arrange extra classroom accommodations to meet your child’s special needs.

A 504 plan is a less formal agreement between school staff, faculty, and parents to help your child succeed. It could involve special seating, limited homework, or receipt of notes before a class presentation. An IEP is a more formal and detailed arrangement that will require that your child be “coded” as having one among a dozen types of learning, behavioral, sensory, or physical differences. This plan will seek to provide your child with the means necessary to learn in the “least restrictive environment” possible. It should set out the short-term targets set for or by the child; the teaching strategies to be used; the provision to be put in place; when the plan is to be reviewed; success and/or exit criteria; and outcomes (to be recorded when the IEP is reviewed)

If your daughter has a physical or a learning disability, she will be evaluated if she meets certain criteria. These should include a medical diagnosis, aptitude and achievement tests, teacher recommendations, physical condition, social and cultural background, and adaptive behavior. Once a diagnosis has been made and your child provided with a 504 or IEP, it will be reviewed periodically to ensure that she is receiving the most appropriate learning aids. IDEA (Individuals with Disabilities Education Act) requires that this evaluation takes place every three years or more frequently if it is warranted, or if the child’s parent or teacher requests a re-evaluation.

Q: My son’s friends tease him about his difficulties at school. Should I stop him from seeing them?
A: Children can be cruel to one another at this age, and name-calling is fairly typical behavior. In most cases it will be quickly forgotten, but of course this does not make it right. If you are concerned that your son is being persistently targeted by his friends because of his learning problems you could always invite them over to play at your house so that you can keep an eye on things. You may find that your son dishes out as much as he takes, particularly when he is on familiar territory, so be prepared to step in and address his behavior, too. When children have additional needs, it is easy to find yourself becoming increasingly protective of them. Keeping your child safe is the main priority, but it is important to strike a balance between protection and independence.

Like all children, your son needs to learn how to cope with other people and difficult social situations. Overprotective parenting can lead to social withdrawal, so help your son develop the confidence and skills he will need to look after himself as he grows up.

The earlier the better Getting extra support

When I saw my son getting more and more frustrated with his math homework, I knew exactly how he felt. I always found math really difficult and I didn’t want him to go through the same experience. I spoke to his teacher and pushed to get him some extra help at school. At first he was not thrilled with having to do some of his work in a small group away from his friends. However, he gets along well with the support teacher now, and seems far more comfortable working with children who are at a similar level. My advice to any parent whose child is struggling at school is to get help early on—don’t wait for things to get better on their own.


Around five percent of children are thought to have dyspraxia, which is sometimes known as developmental coordination disorder (DCD). It affects movement, planning, and coordination, which can lead to difficulties with language, perception, and thought. Dyspraxia can make learning more difficult.

Q: What does it mean for my child?
A: Your child may take longer to reach developmental milestones, such as walking and talking. As he gets older, he may find it harder to jump, run, ride a bike, catch or kick a ball, and have difficulty concentrating—particularly on problem-solving toys such as shape sorters and puzzles. Your child may also have a poor sense of time and direction and a tendency to fall, trip, or bump into things due to reduced spatial awareness (which is why this condition used to be called “clumsy child syndrome”). He is also likely to struggle with tasks such as dressing, tying shoelaces, and using a fork. At school, he may avoid joining in with playground games, and his written work may look immature for his age. Little is known about the causes of dyspraxia, but it is thought to be due to incomplete development of motor neurons (the nerve cells that control muscles) in the brain. As a result, messages are not properly transmitted to the body, which makes it difficult for your child to turn these into actions.
Q: How do I get my child assessed?
A: Your pediatrician can arrange for an assessment if you are concerned. This is usually carried out by a pediatrician, educational or clinical psychologist, speech and language therapist, or physiotherapist.
Q: What can I do to help my child?
A: Dyspraxia cannot be cured, but there is a lot that can be done to improve things for your child. Help will be available from a range of professionals, such as occupational therapists and physiotherapists, to look at how your child manages everyday activities at home, at school, and during play. Skills training can help with the development of literacy, numeracy, spelling, reading, and physical skills. Doing these exercises at home and school will give maximum benefit.
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