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Learning Disabilities

What You Should Know to Help Your Kids

When her son’s teacher contacted her about his inability to stay focused and complete tasks, Alisa Brookshire was angry. She says, “At first, I thought it was the teacher. I thought she was making issues out of minor differences in my child’s schoolwork.” But after listening to the teacher’s argument that her son, while obviously intelligent, was not keeping up with the other students, she decided to have him tested.

“I am forever grateful to that teacher because I might not have realized the problems he was having until a much later grade.” The testing process showed that her son had attention deficit disorder. Many parents have the unsettling feeling that their son or daughter is having difficulty learning but they cannot pinpoint the problem. They might hear it from a teacher, from the child himself or observe that he or she is not progressing like his siblings or peers.

Susan Rhodes, speaking from 30 Years experience as a specialist teaching children with learning disabilities, says, “If you suspect a problem, approach the teacher in a collaborative way. Do not complain or criticize, as this will put the teacher in a defensive mode. Ask the teacher what she sees, and how the child is functioning in school.” Rhodes suggests a heart-to-heart with your child, who may also feel concerned about his performance, and recommends including him in the planning to help him stay motivated.

The next step might be having your child tested. James Culbert, Ph.D., associate professor in psychiatry at Virginia Commonwealth University, has been testing and diagnosing children’s learning problems for three decades. “The first step, when I receive a referral, is to interview the parents and get the child’s history and the parent’s perspective. We send forms to the teacher to see what she has noted. We are looking for early childhood evaluations of motor and language skills, learning and attention problems. It is always a good idea to get feedback from professionals who see your child in the context of other children of similar age groups. Is the child progressing like the others?”

If your child does show deficits, Culbert says, the areas of difficulty should be identified by looking at performance history, testing, interviews, and teacher reports. “If the testing shows minor problems like mild attention deficit or mild dyslexia, then you try to adapt his environment, like changing classroom seating or removing distractions. If the problem is in a specific area like language, reading or math, we make a request to that school for special education or suggest tutoring.” He adds if the conditions are more serious, then medications can be considered.

Glenn Weiner, Ph.D., a clinical psychologist with Dominion Behavioral Healthcare, has 26 years experience providing testing, evaluation and therapy for children with learning problems such as attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and anxiety disorders. He says, “I see a lot of kids who are under-achieving, who have school anxiety, obsessive compulsive disorders, and depression.”

There are a number of things to look at when a child is having learning problems, according to Weiner. First, he suggests evaluating nutrition, which can often be An overlooked element in a child’s ability to pay attention and learn. He advises parents to make sure children are getting enough protein and not experiencing low blood sugar. Therapy is another option.

“We can try behavioral therapy. This will not work with the problem of attention or impulsivity but can help with oppositional behavior or compliance issues.” One of his therapies is biofeedback, a process that measures bodily functions such as brain waves, blood pressure, heart rate, skin temperature and others and conveys the information to the patient and therapist in real-time. Weiner estimates biofeedback can help perhaps two thirds of students with ADHD. “It can be used to train the child to sustain attention and not respond impulsively.” He believes medications are also an option, but says changes only last as long as the medication is being taken. He adds, “Some children experience side effects which can include irritability, anxiety, or they can develop insomnia and loss of appetite.”

Alisa Brookshire’s son became his client. After the diagnosis of attention deficit disorder was made, Weiner treated him with biofeedback over a 40-week period. After 20 weeks, his teacher reported that he was able to finish his work and could focus on projects much longer than before. She says, “My son is now in middle school and is an honor roll student.”

In addition to therapy, there are also learning techniques that attempt to strengthen the child’s basic concentration, processing and attention skills through specific mental exercises. There are several programs in Richmond that provide cognitive training. One of them is Learning Rx. Ed Lawrence, owner of Learning Rx in Richmond, says, “These exercises can actually increase the number and activity of synapses in the brain.”

Amy Humphries, director of advancement for Richmond Montessori School, said her 9-year-old son, diagnosed by a psychologist with ADHD, was struggling in school. After 12 weeks of cognitive training at Learning Rx, his scores on assessment tests showed a progression of two full years.

When asked about programs like this that attempt to strengthen skills through cognitive training, Culbert says, “Look at the research for that particular modality. If it has been around a while, there should be some research that will back up their claims.”

In discussing the changes he has seen in his young clients over the years in the context of learning disabilities, Culbert says, “The tests now are much more reliable and sophisticated than before. I am also seeing a lot of Asperger’s Syndrome and autism. In Asperger’s there are adequate language skills, but difficulty with social skills. With autism, both language and social skills are poor.”

Weiner agrees, “I see much more autism and Asperger’s. There may be biological causes for those disorders, but I also see a lot more stress and anxiety related problems in my client population now. The world is a more stressful place.”

Mothers and medical professionals agree on this: Don’t wait. If you think there is a problem, investigate it. You may be able to avoid years of stress for your child by diagnosing the problem and addressing it now.

Diane York
Diane York is a Richmond-based freelancer, mother, and grandmother and regular contributor to RFM. She writes about lifestyle and wellness issues.
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