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Discovering Learning Difficulties: What To Do Next

Discovering Learning Difficulties: What To Do Next

How do you handle the case of your child not performing as well as they should? How should the school? Is there the possibility your child has real learning difficulties? And, if you suspect this, what should you do about it?

The heart-stopping moment when the class teacher beckons you over with a “Can I have a quick word….?”, leaves most parents with an acute sense of dread.

This scenario conjures up memories of ourselves and our own embarrassments at school with a sense of foreboding and trepidation. Sadly, this is often with reason – behavioural and educational issues first really come to light when a child starts school.

This is obvious for many reasons. Many of us are first time parents and have no real comparison of whether our child’s behaviour or learning pace is the conventional or not.

We may have another child of the other sex and any differences may appear to be explained by this fact. We may even have had some inkling following on from reports from the nursery, but we may have expected these to disappear or recede at least, within a formal classroom situation.

It is impossible not to react in a protective way when criticism is levelled at our child; not to take it personally on some level, no matter how sensible and wise we normally are. It is human nature.

Many things come into play here. Do we trust the teacher? Do we start feeling that she/he is “having a go?”
Trust is very important here.

Some teachers come across much worse than they intend to – due to their own embarrassment in having to deal with a sensitive issue.


There may be frustration already, caused by attempts at dealing with, and presumably failing, to work through the problem within the class. A difficult or unusual child often brings forth a sense of failure in the adults who try working, or doing things with the child.

Parents / teachers embark on their tasks with a belief that they can handle most things. When that belief is disproved, there is an inevitable sense of failure.


Our reactions, why they matter

How we react, often depends on how this first conversation goes. If the teacher manages to convince us that she/he, as well as the school, is on our side in an attempt to help our child, all is well. This may signify the beginning of a mutually supportive and beneficial partnership. Sadly, this is often not how things work out.

As soon as parents realise or accept that all is not well with their child, a whole battery of emotions is unleashed.

Guilt is part of it.

What issues the child has – whether educational, behavioural or emotional – parents will feel in part responsible, but also resentful. Life will not be plain sailing from this point on. They do not have the child they thought or hoped they had.

It is one thing to want children as part of your life – we all harbour idealistic views of how parenthood will be – and quite another to accept and embrace fully the fact that you have to parent the child you have, warts and all.

These emotions make objectivity very difficult – nearly impossible. For the teacher too there are other considerations.


Understanding the teacher and school

The rules and regulations surrounding how the type of issues the child has are handled mean that she/he has to deal with things in a prescribed way. Conversations, facts have to be documented. The teacher’s own frustration and difficulty in trying to do her/his job well in the face of challenges posed by the child in question, may add to their handling of the matter.

They may be very fond of the child or the opposite, while still behaving in a professional manner. Sometimes parents’ behaviour – overly emotional, aggressive or blaming may complicate things.

Some schools handle matters in an excessively formal manner, inadvertently alienating parents – frequently as a result of overly “politically correct” regulations which, albeit designed to protect all parties involved, often result in the personal touch being lost in the process.

Whatever the case, despite everything, it is still in the interest of a child and his/her parents to get as full a picture of a child’s specific abilities and difficulties as possible.


Information is power to improve things

Armed with this information and the resulting understanding and awareness, the help parents are able to provide – personally, through school, or with assistance from other professionals – is far more likely to be better targeted and more effective.

Certain strategies that frequently work for other children with the same generic label, may not work for your child’s particular cluster of difficulties. No two children are the same.

Most of the potential labels are umbrella terms – within them there is a great deal of variety. Alternative strategies may need to be worked out to utilise your child’s specific strengths. Parents may need to adjust their behaviour or coping systems to support more adequately. Hobbies that appeared mere pasttimes, may need to be developed into skills.

A dyslexic child, for example, is likely to get much less general information from reading than an avid reader. Such children need alternative routes to access information – being read to, access to more on-line research or more information programmes.

Many children, certainly by the age of 8-9, begin to suspect that “something is not right” with them. Given the critical, often cruel words of kids, many conclude that they “must be thick.”

For such children it can be enormously comforting to find out that they are not “thick” or “lazy;” that there is something specifically different about them – which, like in the case of a limb in plaster, needs some allowances to be made for them, but that otherwise they are perfectly able.


Labelling – the positives, and negatives

How the specific diagnosis is explained to a child is very important, as it is often very clearly remembered, permanently colouring the child’s vision of him/herself.

Some teens may try to use their “label” as a permanent excuse for not trying. This is obviously a scenario the parents and educators have to work to counterbalance. Whether you share the information with your child’s school is a complex decision.

Many parents fear the ill-effects of their child being “labelled.” If the child has very severe difficulties, the school may insist on a shadow – paid for by the parents – to accompany the child to school.

This can be a massive cost.

In an ideal world, school should be a supportive environment where all children are given all the educational support they may need. In our world, the reality is that many schools are businesses and support costs the schools money.

This is a decision that parents ultimately have to make. However, if you have gone down the route of testing due to certain “signs” you may have picked up on – chances are that the concerned professionals at your child’s school already “suspect” what you now know; they have already been “singled out” – for something as yet not clearly defined.

Bringing clarity to this helps, not hinders everyone.

With certain diagnoses children are entitled to assistance during tests and assessments – ranging from extra time (25%) / to a reader / scribe / or laptop. They may be permitted to work in a separate room, free of distraction. They may be entitled to “rest breaks” so that they are able to focus better. In some cases this truly levels the playing field to really help a child, in others it makes no difference at all.


Working towards acceptance

A word of caution nonetheless – many assessments give an IQ or at least information relating to the child’s IQ.

If your expectations of your child are very high, this may prove a disappointment. Conversely, a child with mediocre performance – assumed to be working “to their level” – may actually have far greater potential and should be challenged more.

At the very least, however, testing may take away from the mystery a child is – revealing their intellectual potential in numerical terms.

This is a complex, though obvious, decision to have to make.

The ultimate objective has to be: to do what is best for the child in giving them a future with possibilities.

Further reading: The WSA Special Needs Special Report


Agnes Holly, BA English and German; MA Comparative Literature; Hornsby Dipl Special Educational Needs. Agnes has more than 25 years’ teaching experience in various roles ranging from university to nursery teaching, in addition to on-going work bringing up 5 children.


1 Comment

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  1. Nicola says
    October 2, 2014, 9:52 am

    Such an informative article – thank you.


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