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There is no consensus about the definition of LD/SLD however, the most comprehensive and acceptable definition is the one accepted by US government "It means a disorder in one or more of the basic psychological processes involved in understanding or in using language, spoken or written, that may manifest itself in an imperfect ability to listen, think, speak, read, write, spell, or do mathematical calculations, including conditions such as perceptual disabilities, brain injury, minimal brain dysfunction, dyslexia, and developmental aphasia. The term does not include children who have learning problems which are primarily the result of visual, hearing, or motor handicaps, of mental retardation, of emotional disturbance, or of environmental, cultural, or economic disadvantage" (Tunmer, 2005).
Generally speaking, LD is a disorder that affects people's ability to learn, interpret what they hear or see, or process information which can show up in their writing, reading, speaking, hearing, learning, or difficulties with attention. It can be defined as "a significant gap between a person's intelligence and the skills the person has achieved at each age" (Kenyon, 2003). LD is a broad term which can be divided into three categories for ease of understanding. They can be Developmental speech and language disorders, Academic skills disorders, or 'Other' disorders.
Developmental Speech and Language Disorders include Developmental Articulation Disorder wherein "children may lag behind other children of their age in the way they articulate the sounds of speech like 'wittle wabbit' instead of 'little rabbit', or Developmental Expressive Language Disorder wherein children have trouble expressing themselves with speech or Developmental Receptive Language Disorder wherein children have problems understanding just certain aspects of speech. They can hear, but they can't interpret certain words" (National Youth Network [NYN], 2011).
Academic Skills Disorders include Developmental Reading Disorder (Dyslexia), wherein children may be intelligent but have difficulty with language and may further have difficulty with reading, spelling, understanding language they hear, or expressing themselves clearly in speaking or in writing. Developmental Writing Disorder (Dysgraphia) which is a neurological based writing disability in which a person finds it hard to form letters or writes within a defined space, and Developmental Arithmetic Disorder (Dyscalculia), a mathematical disability in which a person has unusual difficulty solving arithmetic problems and grasping math concepts. An unexpected gap exists between their potential for learning and their school achievement (NYN, 2011).
Other Learning Disorders include disorders related to coordination of fine and gross motor skills, delays in language acquisition, social activities (peer relationships) and Attention Deficit Disorders (ADD). Although ADD is not considered a learning disability by itself, but because this disorder seriously interferes with and impairs school performance this disorder often accompanies academic skill disorders (NYN, 2011). It is characterized by extreme hyperactivity and distractibility, which makes it difficult for them to concentrate, stay-focused, or manage their attention to specific tasks. Treatment has typically been in the form of either mild stimulant such as Ritalin or behaviour modification techniques (Salkind, 2006).
What causes LD is not, exactly, known but a leading theory is that LD stem from subtle disturbances in brain structures and functions, which in many cases begin before birth due to drug or alcohol use during pregnancy, illness or injury during pregnancy or labour, lack of oxygen, and premature or prolonged labour. LD may be hereditary and may occur as a result of head injuries, nutritional deprivation, and exposure to toxic substances after birth. In many cases, there is no apparent cause for the learning disability (Kenyon, 2003).
"The problems of children with LD are not physically visible and, therefore, not readily recognized by parents and society" (Kale, 1999). "Typically, LDs are not recognized until the child is in the early years of elementary school. Although investigators have attempted to identify early indicators of LD during the preschool years, predictive factors have been elusive. Even timely identification in early elementary school is inconsistent. Depending on the teacher's approach and familiarity with LDs, the availability of appropriate assessment resources, and school policies on identifying children for special education services, LDs may go undetected for years" (Ammerman, 2006).
This is where Early Childhood teacher can play a significant role by observing & comparing the child's performance in language, social, cognitive, fine motor or gross motor development as against the informative milestones which a child should achieve at certain ages. Early childhood teacher can identify some common signs of LD like, difficulty learning the alphabet or rhyming words, difficulty with spelling, struggle to express ideas, unable to participate in fine motor activities like dressing, tying, buttoning, using spoons and forks, using art materials or holding a pencil awkwardly. Other earliest signs which the educator can pick may include child's preference for repeated activities on daily bases or avoids participation in the variety of resources offered, avoiding outdoor activities involving coordination of gross motor skills like erratic climbing, balancing involving falls and collisions including uncontrolled frantic movements, has poor observation, easily distractible, has difficulty in getting along with peers (isolation), (Learning Disabilities Association [LDA], 2004).
If an early childhood teacher observes a child with some of the above mentioned characteristics, there are reasons to believe that a child probably has a learning disability. While each child presents a very different learning profile, teachers may modify activities to accommodate these children. One way to assist learning is to provide demonstrations of how materials can be used to assist the child with learning the function of the items in each of the activity areas. It is also important that while implementing activities teachers do not assume a child knows the sequence in which things should be done (Miller, 1996).
Adult facilitation can help children to be integrated into play. Children with LD may need motivation to pay attention in an activity area or to directions. While other children may jump into the activity, these children may need to hear all about the activity before they will enter into the play. They may need to watch for some time before they begin. They may benefit from having a peer "buddy" to perform an activity with so that the peer will serve as a facilitator. Instructions may need to be repeated. Demonstrations may need to be performed more than once to maximize the benefit of the activity for the child. Children with a short attention span need to have activity modifications that encourage their participation and attention (Miller, 1996).
Also, "The role includes alerting parents to conditions and signs that, taken within the total context of the child and his family, may foreshadow problems in learning and adjustment. Observations made in the natural setting of a child's preschool or day care centre can provide important baseline information that is useful in assessing the child's individual development and in documenting the child's response to interventions. Systematic observations reported from the day-to-day life in an early childhood facility can enrich the understanding of the child's educational needs" (LDA, 2004).
Household Disability Survey conducted in 2006 defined children as having a special education disability if they had a LD, had an individual education programme (IEP) or individual programme (IP), and/or were receiving special education support. Using this definition, 2% of the children between 0 -14 years of age of all the ethnic groups suffer from the learning disability which includes dyslexia, ADD, or ADHD. An estimated 10,800 Mäori children (5 percent of all Mäori children) had a special education disability, the same as the rate for non-Mäori children. An estimated 7,000 Mäori children (5,500 boys and 1,500 girls) had a learning difficulty such as dyslexia, ADD, or ADHD. This was 3 percent of all Mäori children. Children with certain types of disability tend to also have other types of disability (Statistics New Zealand. (2007).
According to the U.S. Department of Education, LD affects approximately 5% of all children enrolled in public schools. About three times as many boys as girls are classified as learning disabled (USA ). LD is estimated to affect about 2.6% of school-aged children and young people in the UK. It is about three to four times more common in males than in females (Tempest, 2006). 3.2% of Canadian children have a LD (Statistics Canada, 2006).
Depending on the type and severity of the LD, as well as the child's age, different kinds of assistance can be provided. Process Approach, the Behavioural Approach and the Cognitive Approach are the three major remedial approaches which attracted considerable attention throughout the world. In New Zealand, provisions have been made in the Special Education 2000 policy for schools to assist children with moderate LDs. A special Educational Grant is paid directly to schools so that they assist students with special needs (Fraser, 2005).
Also, appropriate treatment for LD includes modified academic programming, social skills training, and psychotherapy. Different specialists can help the child in overcoming or coping with it, like Educational Therapist can help with learning and behavior problems, LD Specialist can assess the extent of the disability for advising specific training for SLD, Neurologist can scan for possible damage to brain functions and can fix it with neuroplasticity. Occupational Therapist helps improve motor and sensory functions to increase the ability to perform daily tasks. Educational Psychologist assess children by conducting psychological and educational tests and based on the results prepare specific plans to help them, etc. (Ammerman, 2006).
"Another technique is authentic assessment, such as portfolio collection of the child's work and play samples. Other useful techniques include criterion-referenced assessment, which evaluates the child's mastery of specific skills, and standardized screening/diagnostic instruments. The use of a variety of these assessments techniques can assist in determining if the child displays uneven patterns of development" (LDA, 2004).
IEP is another good strategy which creates a specific teaching plan after in-depth assessment of child's needs in consultation with the input of educators and parents to improve the children's academic and behavioural skills. It also indicates the type of participation the child will have in general education classes. Other strategy for children can be shortened lessons with frequent activity breaks, repetition of lessons etc., for children LD (Teel, 2007).
However, the most helpful strategy may prove to be the inclusion of child with LD in the general classroom. The teacher can achieve it by keeping in mind that child's performance is the result of interaction between the child and the instructional environment and the teachers can reasonably accommodate most children needs after analysing their learning needs and the demands of the instructional environment (Smith, 2004). As has been rightly said, "The battle to reduce educational failure must focus first on general classroom methods that are most successful with the widest range of students. Prevention of difficulties at the first stage of teaching is so much more effective than applying remedial methods after the student has failed and after he or she has developed secondary affective reactions to failure" (Westwood, 2004).
In New Zealand the Special Education policy states that specialist provisions in the early childhood sector will be based on ecological and inclusionary model (Ministry of Education, 2000). The national early childhood curriculum, Te Whariki, "is designed to be inclusive and appropriate for all children and anticipates that special needs will be met as children learn together in all kinds of early childhood education settings" (Ministry of Education, 1996). Just by adhering to Te Whariki, an early childhood teacher can ensure that children with LD would overcome or tackle their disabilities because Te Whariki provides a sound framework for an inclusive curriculum by stating strands and goals to meet specific needs of children (Cullen, 2005).
According to the ecological model, as much as the family affects a child's development, the child also influences the life of his or her family. Thus, a child who has a disability has a special effect on his/her family (Seligman, 2007). It is the right of every infant and young child and his or her family to participate in a broad range of activities and settings. I hope that children with and without disabilities and their families should have a sense of belonging and membership, positive social relationships and friendships, and development and learning to reach their full potential. LD is not merely an academic problem - it is a life, language, and learning problem that affects every moment of the child's day (Lavoie, 2005).