A Learning Problem Is Not an Intelligence Problem

We need to transition from placing all the weight on our kids' shoulders to the understanding that learning is transactional -- it happens between the child and the environment.
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Report cards are coming home, and a good number of parents are worried that their child seems to be showing signs of a learning disability. Their concern is well founded; learning disabilities including A.D.H.D. and dyslexia affect 20% of our students and less than half get the attention they need. That is a large community, in fact, the largest minority in the country. For these kids, often the day is longer, the challenge greater, the work harder. Unless we identify and assist them, the national cost in human potential and hard dollars will be tremendous.

Kids with learning disabilities drop out ten times more frequently than others in high school, and are much more likely to use drugs and get involved in our jail system. The impact when this large a social group fails is felt by all of us.

A learning problem is not an intelligence problem -- these children are smart, creative, and capable. They can and do learn; however, they think differently, access and process information in an atypical way. That is where opportunity lies, and where we are falling far short.

Though learning disabilities are common, less than half the students get the attention they need. Society is quick and willing to judge them as lazy, their parents as unsupportive, and teachers as inadequate. We would not blame a child with vision problems who lacked glasses; we would press for assistance and accommodation. We need to transition from placing all the weight on our kids' shoulders to the understanding that learning is transactional -- it happens between the child and the environment.

How do we create bridges to enable learning to occur?

First and foremost, as parents, teachers, and mentors we must accept that one in five children think differently. It is absurd to admonish children with learning disabilities to "simply try harder," and detrimental and debilitating to cheerlead them along, without acknowledging that in our current school structure they begin at a deficit.

Building self-advocacy skills, resilience, and self-esteem help "thinking differently" kids re-engage and be successful. Self-esteem is always based on real accomplishments, when children feel the truth of what they have achieved. They gain resilience to bounce back when we say, yes, your problem sustaining focus for long periods of time to decode language and retrieve words challenges you more than the average kid, so you're going to get medication, we're going to give you extra time so you can run the race on equal footing with your peers. And, by the way, though you're weak here, you happen to be very strong in your visualization skills, or your listening skills.

We all experience the world in diverse ways, and learning disabilities are an extension of that truth. We have to help our children take ownership of their different-thinking brains, and open up the conversation to be more transparent. Let's give children a set of language tools, so they can approach a teacher and say, "I have an learning disability, I think differently, I need accommodation. I need 20 minutes extra on quizzes," or "I can't copy an assignment off the board. If I try to do that, I will miss 15 minutes of your lecture."

Paul Orfalea, dyslexic and with ADHD, couldn't study like everyone else; reading and focusing for long periods were exceptionally difficult for him. He devised alternate solutions (making and sharing copies of classmates' notes) and developed great relationships (organizing study groups). These were building blocks for the business he founded, Kinko's, now with revenues of over $2 billion a year.

How do we unlock good thinking? Pay attention to what drives your child. Verbal kids often learn best in a team. A child listening to videos on a computer all day is likely an auditory processor who learns through hearing. Others are physical, kinesthetic learners, who acquire knowledge best by doing, so activities that engage their hands, as well as their minds, often pave the way.

Adults can:
1. Be a learning detective; help kids discover how they think best. Metacognition is knowing how your mind works. It matters immensely to kids. A child might be a multisensory learner, needing to hear the information, repeat it, and write it down. On NPR, I asked the interviewer, "How do you like to learn?" Her answer made perfect sense: "Through stories," she said, a tool she had used in school.
2. Help children build bridges in the education community and receive appropriate accommodations. A child with ADHD will learn best in less distracting environments, so teach good ADHD hygiene; shut down extraneous laptop windows, turn the cell phone to silent, create a space for focus.
3. Provide advocacy. Help them ask for what they need.

Learning disabilities, ADHD, dyslexia, and "thinking differently" are equal opportunity challenges; they come to all kinds of kids. They can diminish someone, make them feel less-than, and be incredibly demoralizing every day, when children don't understand their own metacognition.

Our job as parents, teachers, and mentors is to remove barriers to learning so these kids can unlock their minds by helping them to see their strength and weaknesses, and accentuating their skills by giving them opportunities to thrive, while simultaneously decreasing their deficits. Practice homework with them, read together on a regular basis, and give them a reader, audiobooks, or an electronic note-taker.

And remember, even if third grade was great, this year introduces new teachers and a new environment. Fostering empowerment and resiliency is key. These will serve them all their lives.

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