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Inclusion of Children with Learning Disabilities

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What are the challenges to the inclusion of children with those difficulties and how can they be overcome?


The DSM-V (APA, 2013) has recently revised the diagnosis of learning disability into a single category, specific learning disabilities (SLD), in order to emphasise the fact that children tend to experience general difficulties in academic abilities and that such difficulties are inter-related. SLD in DSM-V are classified under neurodevelopmental disorders and it is stated that a diagnosis is dependent on impairment in the child's learning using specific academic skills such as reading, writing or arithmetic, which then disrupt further academic learning (Tannock, 2014). Typically, children are recognised as having a difficulty in certain areas of learning when they begin formal education, the difficulties can occur in different cultural groups and without interventions can persist into adulthood (Tannock, 2014). One area of difficulty experienced by children is dyslexia which occurs predominately in the domain of reading in the English language. Dyslexia mainly involves a problem when learning the correspondence between letters and sounds (Rose 2009; Snowling, 2013). Therefore the aspect of SLD to be focused on in the following essay will be dyslexia, the challenges encountered with this impairment and ways in which the challenges may be addressed.

Specific Learning Disabilities

The diagnostic criteria for SLD in the DSM-V, involves firstly an overall diagnosis of SLD and secondly the identification of specifiers. The specifiers identify the key characterisation of the disorder in the three academic domains of reading, writing and arithmetic. The diagnosis also involves a child demonstrating one of six symptoms over a 6 month period, which is persistent despite receiving any intervention strategies. Furthermore, the child's abilities in the academic domain are below those of other children of the same age and cause disruption in academic and everyday activities (APA, 2013). In order to be diagnosed with SLD other conditions, for example, other neurological conditions or psychological issues must be excluded (APA, 2013). The key difference for a diagnosis of a learning disorder is the change from specific subtypes (reading disorder, mathematics disorder and written expressive disorder) in DSM-IV to one overarching condition (SLD) in DSM-V. One component of SLD is dyslexia, although terms such as dyslexia or dyscalculia are no longer used in the same way as they were previously in DSM-IV (Tannock, 2014).

Inclusive Education

Warnock, Norwich and Terzi (2010) define inclusive education as providing each child with an opportunity to be educated in a mainstream school. One of the central principles of inclusive education is that each child's needs are assessed and there is flexibility to respond to their differences and individual requirements. In the UK, the aim is to educate all children with different needs in mainstream schools, including those children with SLD. The rationale behind this philosophy is that segregating children with special educational needs (SEN) from their typically developing peers does not prepare them for adult life when they will be expected to integrate into society (Fisher, Roach, and Frey, 2002). Furthermore, inclusive education aims to develop tolerance and understanding towards others and promote social cohesion (O'Gorman and Drudy, 2011). Children with SEN are defined as having 'a significantly greater difficulty in learning than the majority of children his age' (Department for Education and Science, DfES, 1981, p.1). Each child should be assessed by professionals to determine the level of support required which is detailed in a statement of needs (DfES, 1981).

Inclusive education should include 'children of all backgrounds irrespective of gender, religion, class, ethnicity or any other characteristic', thereby including children with diverse types of SEN (O'Gorman and Drudy, 2011, p.4). However, one challenge faced by all children with SEN is that they are not a homogenous group and some children do not thrive in an inclusive environment and may instead experience less stress and anxiety in a specialist school environment (Cigman, 2007). As suggested by Lewis and Norwich (2005), inclusive education is not just assimilating children with SENs into a mainstream schools; instead, the emphasis should be on 'developing an education system in which equity is striven for and diversity is welcome' (Lewis and Norwich, 2005, p.xi).


There are a number of definitions of dyslexia, all of which include a similar theme of difficulties in reading 'accurately and with fluency' (Hulme and Snowling, 2009, p.37). According to Rose (2009), dyslexia is a continuum of disorders ranging from mild to severe and is not related to the IQ of an individual. Rose also supports the DSM-V perspective of SLD not being separate categories but being inter-related with other impairments in motor co-ordination, attention, working memory and organisational skills. Dyslexia, as mentioned previously is characterised by an inability to recognise a relationship between sounds, letters and words, which is known as phonological awareness (Hulme and Snowling, 2009). It is important to distinguish between children who are poor readers, as they can also demonstrate difficulties in phonological awareness. Poor readers may have difficulties because of poor pre-school literacy or perhaps if they are from families where English is not the first language used. However, children with dyslexia additionally show a core difficulty of word decoding which affects spelling and oral language skills (Snowling, 2013).

Challenges facing children with SLD and Dyslexia

There are a number of challenges that face children with SLD and although they are not a homogenous group, the issues they face can be common to all children who have SEN. First, not all children are happy in an inclusive mainstream school. Kavale and Forness (2000) report that historically, children with SEN were taught in specialist schools which had small classes and specialist teachers. There was also more differentiation between different types of SEN and therefore a more heterogeneous and individual approach to the children who had certain needs. However, it has also been argued by Kavale and Forness (2000) that there is limited evidence that specialised education is any different to inclusive education in mainstream schools in developing the academic or social skills of SEN pupils. Kerins (2014) found that many children in Ireland with mild-learning disabilities were leaving mainstream schools and transferring to specialised schools. A similar finding of children with SEN leaving mainstream schools for specialist schools is reported by Kelly, Devitt, O'Keeffe and Donovan (2014).

A further challenge that can affect many pupils with SEN is bullying by non-disabled peers, which occurred within mainstream schools and also among children in special schools, who were bullied outside of the school environment (Lewis and Norwich, 2005).  The findings in Lewis and Norwich's (2005) study are supported by Frederickson (2010), who found that children with SEN were typically not accepted, frequently rejected and tended to be the victims of bullying more often than typically developing children. In order to overcome the challenge of bullying, Frederickson (2010) found that positive and supportive peer relationships developed if the impairment was severe and obvious; often learning disorders are not obvious, particularly if they are mild SLD. It was also found that older peers were more accepting if they understood the nature of the special needs, although schools were found to be reluctant to discuss pupil's SEN as they were concerned about labelling. Frederickson (2010) argues that positive relationships can develop between pupils with SEN and typically developing pupils if the school promotes respect and emphasises caring relationships. Norwich and Kelly (2004) investigated the views of children aged between 10 and 14 who had statements for moderate learning difficulties. It was found that the majority of mainstream children preferred to receive support away from other children, which may have been related to the very high rate of bullying reported by the children.

In examining the more specific challenges faced by children with dyslexia, these include the failure of adults, such as parents and teachers, to detect and recognise the signs that indicate the child is failing in their ability to read (Snowling, 2013). If interventions are not implemented early, the child may become frustrated and unmotivated at school, developing a low self-esteem (Snowling, 2013).  There will usually be a number of difficulties in many areas of their academic life and education that can continue into adulthood. A study undertaken by Nugent (2007) examined the parental perspectives of the education of their children with dyslexia in three different educational environments in Ireland - namely, special schools, separate specialist units within schools and resources in mainstream schools. The results of the postal questionnaire indicated that parents had positive perceptions of all three areas of provision. However, there was greater support by the parents for the specialist services in special schools and units than the provision in mainstream schools.

Addressing the Challenges

The importance of early identification can be addressed by assessing pre-school children's language skills, and early recognition of letters and the sounds of different letters (Snowling 2013). There also appears to be a genetic component to dyslexia as it is often seen in different members of the same family (Nash, Hulme, Gooch and Snowling, 2013). In their study, Nash et al. explored the literacy skills of preschool children at family risk from dyslexia in comparison to a group of typically developing children of the same age and a third group of children with other language deficits. Both groups of children at risk from language impairment showed phonological deficits and, there was an overlap for both language conditions, further supporting the more generalised classification of SLD found in the DSM-V.

Screening pre-school children is expensive and therefore it is important that teachers are able to identify when a child is failing to respond to effective teaching methods - particularly in relation to the progress of children who are the same age (Snowling, 2013). The type of teaching methods include provision for children who may be slow learners and who are provided with the opportunity to catch-up with their peers. However, Rose (2009) argues that intervention strategies that are used with poor readers or slow learners do not provide evidence of improvement in the reading ability of children with dyslexia.  If a child fails to achieve a certain level with early intervention strategies they can receive additional individual support. This can be monitored as children are assessed at regular intervals during their formal education (Snowling, 2013). Rose (2009) argues that intervention strategies for children with dyslexia must be highly structured, systematic and implemented regularly so there is that constant reinforcement and the generalisation of reading skills. O'Gorman and Drudy (2011) report that the positive attitudes of teachers towards children with SEN is an important factor in the success of their education. Attitudes of teachers towards pupils with SEN tend to reflect the severity of the disorder and the role of the special educational needs co-ordinator (SENCo) is highly relevant to the successful inclusion of children with SEN in UK mainstream schools.


Children with learning disabilities do not tend to experience one specific learning disability. The DSM-V (APA, 2013) reflects this perspective by categorising learning difficulties as one group (SLD), which appears to be necessary because impairments often overlap and children can experience difficulties in more than one area. Snowling (2013) and Rose (2009) support the DSM-V perspective that dyslexia is a multi-faceted disorder. There are a number of challenges for children with dyslexia. If the condition is not diagnosed early when the child is young and which enables interventions to be implemented, this can have a negative effect for the future of the child. Children can experience a lack of motivation and low self -esteem which can affect their educational achievement and also have a negative affect when they are adults. Snowling (2013) therefore stresses the importance of early detection and early intervention strategies for children at risk from dyslexia, particularly if there is a family history (Nash et al. 2013).

In general, children with SLD can experiencing bullying (Lewis and Norwich, 2005; Frederickson 2010) and it has been found recently that many children with SEN have left mainstream schools in preference for specialist schools (Kelly et al. 2014; Kerins, 2014). These findings may also be related to the bullying of SEN pupils by their typically developing peers. Not all children thrive in inclusive mainstream schools, although the principles of inclusive education are to help a child achieve their full potential during their formal education and also to facilitate tolerance and an inclusive community.


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Warnock, M., Norwich, B. and Tersi, L. (2010). Special Educational Needs: A New Look. Second Edition Continuum International Publishing Group: London

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