Why Individuals with Learning Disabilities Don’t Just Need to Try Harder
By Alex Freer, Owner/Director
Key to Me Therapy
When my son was graduating high school, I attended what was to be his final IEP meeting. He attended the meeting as did his current support teacher for English and his case manager (a.k.a. life saver without whom he would not be graduating from high school). Both educators were giving him suggestions for success in college and other helpful information. As the meeting drew to a close, his support teacher turned to him and very casually said, “So, do you just not like to write?”
We all fell silent for a moment while she waited for my son to answer. He was visibly stressed so I started to say, “Well, you know, with his type of learning disability, writing is very difficult for him.” She instantly replied, “Nah...I’ve seen him do it and know he can. So, I guess he just doesn’t like to.” She looked again at my eighteen-year-old, six-foot tall son who was looking down, red-faced and embarrassed. He mumbled something like, “Yeah, I guess so.”
Ask most parents of a child with learning disabilities and they will likely confirm that they and their child have been told on numerous occasions that their child simply needs to “try harder.” This misunderstanding of the impact of learning disabilities is pervasive, even though schools conduct a comprehensive assessment of learning abilities to determine LD status and teachers and support staff are required to have special education training.
One reason for this misconception may be that individuals with learning difficulties sometimes self-report disdain for an area they find difficult. “I hate reading” is a common utterance among children who struggle to read. “I suck at math” is often given as a blanketed explanation for not understanding mathematical concepts. What’s important for parents and educations to know is that these knee-jerk responses may actually be an emotional response to an area of deficit.
It is human nature to avoid things that we perceive as overly difficult. And by that I mean that humans (and many animals) are biologically-programmed to avoid difficult, dangerous or anxiety-producing activities. In fact, anxiety is a key factor as to whether learning is possible in a given circumstance. Anxiety will bring about imprinting of the anxiety-producing activity as something that is dangerous and to be avoided. It does not matter that the situation is not actually dangerous; if the learner is anxious, the body reacts the same way it would if it were being charged at by an elephant.
Becoming anxiety about a subject or situation also triggers a series of neurological and chemical responses in the body that put an individual into survival mode. Once in that state, no new learning or higher-order thinking is taking place. If you have ever participated in a competitive sport or performed on stage, you know that it is never a good idea to change an approach or learn a new move right before “go time.” This is because, when your body is in a heightened state, it is focused on survival as opposed to higher-order, neo-cortex abilities.
How You Can Help
Many individuals with learning difficulties struggle to process information effectively. Auditory processing, sensory processing and processing deficits related to attention and self-regulation can contribute to academic struggles. Luckily, improving a person’s processing can help improve learning abilities as well as reduce anxieties that are triggered by or related to learning.
For example, I recently screened a nine-year-old boy who was struggling academically. One of the recorded segments asked the boy to process words while in the presence of background talking. While trying to respond to the words, the boy demonstrated ever-increasing signs of anxiety--increased fidgeting, scowls and frowning, and comments to the recording like “shut up, people.” His accuracy was very low when repeating the words. After addressing his processing difficulties using Dr Porges’ Safe & Sound Protocol (SSP) and Dynamic Listening Therapy, the boy was retested on the section. Not only did his accuracy increase but also his stress level was substantially lower. He was calm in his body and able to focus without stress. In fact, at the end of the segment he said, “that was easy.” The improvement he demonstrated on this segment translated into improved attention and focus at school as well as the beginnings of improved reading and spelling abilities.
So, how can you help your child with learning disabilities? First and foremost, by understanding that his or her struggles are not a choice but rather a processing deficit. Being able to do the work sometimes or dismissing struggles with a “because I hate it” does not change that fact. Secondly, remember that your child may be experiencing not only learning challenges but also anxiety that impedes learning (not to mention erodes self esteem). They will need ongoing understanding and support in this area. Finally, look into processing issues and engage in therapies and activities that help improve your child’s unique processing challenges. You can read more about processing challenges and solutions on the Key to Me website at www.KeytoMeTherapy.com.