Ashok participates in inter-school chess competitions, making it to the top three on several occasions. Yet, much to his mum's chagrin, he does poorly at school and often leaves his lunch box behind. Shireen is 10 but finds it difficult to distinguish between left and right. Nor can she ever tell the time. An obedient and quiet child, she prefers to sit with her books rather than play with friends. Despite her efforts, her grades at school are abysmally low.
"Both these children could be struggling with learning difficulties," says Lakshmi Krishnakumar, Director, Sankalp, a school in Chennai for children with special needs. In 1999, Lakshmi, a psychologist with 16 years of experience, founded Sankalp, along with Sulata Ajit and Subhashini Rao.
"Children with learning disabilities have difficulty processing information and acting on it. They often concentrate too much on the fine details and lose out on the main concept. They present an image of distraction and disorganization because of their scattered thought processes. However, such children, in most cases, are gifted with normal or above-normal intelligence levels. Their below- average academic score does not indicate a low intelligence level, rather it points to their inability to absorb the concepts taught within the same time-frame as compared to the average child," she says.
So, what is the cause of a learning disability in a child?
"It is caused by a neurological defect in the brain. Problems during pregnancy, a difficult birth, an early childhood disease, and even genes could be some of the factors responsible. In a few cases, there could be actual brain damage. So, learning difficulties have to be inferred from a child's behavior," explains Lakshmi.
The world over, 10 out every 100 school children are said to suffer from learning disabilities. An alert parent or teacher can spot discrepancies in learning patterns, as early as in the pre-school years. Though most children have difficulty writing at that early stage, children with learning difficulties find it hard to color pictures neatly or put together jigsaw puzzles, explains Lakshmi.
"Children in pre-school may show signs of having difficulty in learning concepts but manage to get over the problem by the time they enter primary school," says Subhasini. "Children who are learning-disabled consistently under-perform, continuously making mistakes their peers have long outgrown," she elaborates.
There is a difference between having difficulty in mastering the concepts of one subject and struggling to keep up to date with lessons in all subjects. According to Rathi Gopinath, training coordinator and teacher at Alpha to Omega, a learning centre for children with special needs in Chennai, a diagnosis of learning difficulties can be made only after a rigorous screening process, involving different types of tests and sessions with psychologists.
Learning disability is a broad term used to describe problems - ranging from speech and language difficulties to non-verbal learning disorders. Speech and language disorders include problems faced in understanding instructions, producing speech sounds and using spoken language to communicate.
Academic disorders are those involving dyslexia (reading problems), dysgraphia (handwriting difficulty), dyscalculia (problems with calculations and abstract concepts). A miscellaneous category includes problems in fine motor skills and in understanding non-verbal communications. Sometimes, children with learning problems also have ADHD/ADD (attention deficit hyperactivity disorder), compounding their academic struggles.
Children with learning differences have to be taught how to learn. Says Lakshmi, "If the difficulty is mild, sessions with a specialized teacher can help in getting round the problem fairly quickly. Those with moderate or severe difficulties have to be enrolled in schools where teaching methodologies are tailored according to the cognitive abilities of the children."
Part of the solution to this problem is identifying the signs early. "Not only does early intervention help the child to manage his/her difficulties, it also spares him/her the stress involved in not being able to keep up with peers in class. Children undergo severe emotional strain when they are unfairly labeled as stupid or are constantly compared to high achievers in class," cautions Lakshmi.
Rathi says, "Though awareness among parents is high, diagnosis often gets delayed due to the reluctance to accept the difficulties faced by the child in grasping lessons at school." Adds Subhashini: "Another reason for late diagnosis could be a teacher's hesitation to inform parents about any problem at school. This passive approach delays assessment, which could, in the long run, be detrimental to the child's academic development."
"Most often, parents and teachers take the matter seriously only when the child enters sixth standard. This is when the academic load multiplies - writing, compiling information and understanding complex concepts in various subjects. Often, the complaint is about the child's inability to write. The problem could actually lie in the child's inability to read or understand - without which no written work is possible in the present academic set up," explains Lakshmi.
She emphasizes the need to encourage such children to cope with their limitations. "Accept the fact that the child has certain problems and assist him in finding alternative methods. Avoid comparisons as that could destroy confidence. Encourage the child to think differently and creatively. Children should also be encouraged to take up creative activities since this paves the way for self- assurance. If the problem is very severe, it is easier for the child to attend a school with specially-trained teachers, able to disseminate information through innovative methods so that learning is faster and easier."
"Schools should be sensitive enough to accommodate the special needs of children with mild forms of difficulties. Ignoring the problem can have unhappy consequences for the child, who might resort to unsatisfactory behavior to mask a sense of failure. Reading, writing, spelling and handwriting difficulties have nothing to do with intelligence and such learning difficulties can occur in persons of any IQ, from low to very high," says Lakshmi.
If not counseled properly, children with learning disabilities can grow up to be lacking in planning, organizational skills and in critical thinking. To enter the world of work or higher education successfully, they need to be comfortable with their own abilities and disabilities, which will, in turn, allow them to speak up for themselves.
"Almost 80 per cent of our students go on to regular colleges after completing their high school here," states Rathi. "Though there is no miracle cure to iron out all the difficulties faced by children, the primary focus is to equip them with confidence in order to enable them to recognize their problem areas and get around them. This helps them face life with greater self-assurance and poise," she adds.