Specific Learning Disorder: 10 Pointers for Understanding and Intervention


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Specific learning disorders refer to difficulties in acquiring and using specific academic skills like reading (includes accuracy of reading, fluency, and ability to comprehend what is read), mathematics (includes counting, number sense, and mathematical reasoning), or writing (spelling/grammar errors, poor organization and lack of clarity in written expression).

The common/alternate names for these conditions are dyslexia, dyscalculia, and dysgraphia respectively.They are called “specific” difficulties because they are not caused by gaps in general intellectual capacities/intellectual disability or developmental delay and may be restricted to one academic domain. Further, they are not caused by visual, hearing or motor impairments; however, processing of the information received is affected.

Several markers of delay in attaining developmental milestones may be noticed in the child’s early years and early intervention is the most effective for better outcomes. It is important to note, identify and diagnose if there are larger implications of the developmental delays. LD can often co-occur with other developmental disorders such as ADHD, autism or communication disorder.

An effective intervention program would include an individualized education program (IEP) which works with the child at their level and helps the child overcome their particular areas of difficulty in a style most comfortable for them. The child should be diagnosed by a clinical psychologist and appropriately referred for special education/developmental/occupational therapy. Dance/movement or music and other art therapies are also useful for SLD. Identify the child’s affinity (tactile, visual, oral, auditory or kinesthetic) and develop lessons around those.

Example: For a child with impairment in mathematics, it might be helpful to use manipulatives which the child can actually see, touch and move to understand numerical concepts. Or use dance sequences or musical rhythms to teach concepts.

Games can be played with a child that enhance phonemic or syllable understanding by breaking down words and segregating sounds that form the word.

Example: Syllable segmentation skills:

-Find the Hidden: Is ant hidden in can’t? In Andy?

-Say the Missing: Say carelessly. Now say lessly. What is missing?

-Say the Word Without: Say friendliness. Now say it without ness.

-Substitute: Say garden. Now don’t say it with den, say it with ter.

Same can be done with phonemes:

- Find the Hidden: Does the word begin with /m/ as in mother? make? time?

- Say the Missing: Sat mice. Now say ice. What is missing?

- Say the Word Without: Say wave. Now say it without /w/.

-Substitute: Say sad. Now say it with /h/ instead of

Similarly, mathematical games can be played using objects which the child can actually physically see and count and maneuver. It is useful to keep most of the lessons in an oral format rather than written, and reading or written material can be slowly introduced as the child gains confidence and mastery over basic concepts.

Pictorial representations of words/sight words can be put up for the child to absorb them better and develop sight vocabulary. Sequencing of tasks using placards or pictures also helps the child organize information and helps their working memory. Lessons can be broken into smaller parts that easily show how different skills relate to the new concept. Teachers call this process “chunking.”

Repetition is important for children with SLD to help them concretize and practice their learning. Reviewing a learned skill before moving to a next one and explaining how the skills are related can help the child process patterns and apply the learned information well.

Accommodations from the school/education system are extremely important. Curriculum modification, reduction of written content, providing reading content in advance, peer engagement and inclusivity, opportunity to use computer to type rather than writing everything by hand, on the one hand and examination modifications like extra time, oral tests, reducing the amount of material being tested at once, overlooking grammatical/punctuation errors when testing for history/science or other content or concept based subjects on the other.

In early childhood, learning and brain development depends mainly on the sensorimotor system. If certain developmental milestones like turning over, crawling or walking have not been sufficiently developed, the corresponding neuronal connections may not be securely formed, causing difficulties in accumulating information. Thus including a thorough movement exercise, preferably in the supervision of a movement or occupational therapist, can help compensate for sensorimotor developmental gaps. Performing those movements can help strengthen connections of motor neurons. Further, it can help judge a child’s kinesthetic affinity and be an important medium to impart lessons which the child is not able to comprehend through conventional teaching methods.

Overall, a well-planned mixture of specific and holistic interventions is key. Multimodal interventions are usually very effective with SLD because the child can learn compensatory mechanisms for whatever particular skills or functions they may lack. Further, extracurricular activities can highlight several other strengths that a child may have and this can help the child in two ways 1: the child gains confidence when working on a skill they are competent in and can also provide a future career path 2: those skills can be enhanced and transferred to the academic sphere to learn missing or difficult concepts.

Consistency is key and parental involvement is extremely important. Parents need to be supportive, patient, and realistic about the child’s outcomes. Special educators, therapists, counselors, and parents need to be aware of the overall treatment the child is going through and it is useful that art therapists and parents reiterate and work along concepts that the special educator is working on so that the child is not getting confused and the same concept gets time to be absorbed across various settings. Further, the special educator can also inculcate activities and modalities being used in other creative session that child responds well to.

A harmonious and steady supportive environment can really enhance the abilities of the child.