That kid you're calling lazy or difficult may just have a learning disability
“I didn’t know how to explain to a laughing class that those numbers just didn’t make any sense”
In a scene in Taare Zameen Par, Aamir Khan, playing a special educator, asks a clueless father to read a board game’s instructions in Mandarin. When the father throws a fit, Khan bombards him with criticism, ignoring the fact that the script is foreign to him. This scene was an attempt to make the parent sympathise with how his dyslexic son may feel when asked to read.
Learning disabilities like dyslexia affect how a person receives and processes information. Despite being a neurological condition, they have no correlation with intelligence. A dyslexic person may struggle with reading, spelling and decoding words.
Dyscalculia means a child will have difficulty understanding numbers and memorising basic arithmetic facts, while those with dysgraphia find it hard to write and form letters
Unfortunately, the repercussions of these learning disabilities aren’t limited to academics — they also have a social and emotional impact.
“As a child, I was constantly ridiculed by my maths teacher whenever she asked me to solve a basic problem on the blackboard as punishment for what seemed like my laziness and misbehaviour to her. I didn’t know how to explain to a laughing class and a mocking teacher that those numbers just didn’t make any sense to me,” recalls Selena Jehangir*, 31 who was later diagnosed with dyscalculia.
Early detection of a learning disability can help young minds get the support they need, so they aren’t doomed to struggle within a system that won’t do them any good.
Telltale signs of learning disabilities
They have delayed developmental milestones
Watch out for developmental delays in a young child such as difficulty in identifying colours, trouble navigating around the house and problems with fine motor skills, advises Aanchal Luthria, freelance learning coach who specialises in teaching students with learning difficulties.
They seem lost to the world
According to Pooja Joshi, co-founder of Special Ninja Academy, “Parents often complain that their children keep on losing their pencils, no matter how many pencils you give them.” If a child has difficulty following multiple instructions, takes too long to finish simple tasks or keeps forgetting things, it could point to a learning disability. At Special Ninja Learning Academy, customised online learning solutions are crafted for children with alternative learning needs.
They have school blues
Schools can be like an emotional minefield for children who learn differently. They often develop feelings of embarrassment, shame, and low-self esteem when they fail to keep up with their peers. To avoid anxiety, they may turn to cutting classes or behaving disruptively.
They see dancing letters
“Children with learning disabilities have a complete disinterest in the written word. Dyslexic children often complain that the letters and words make no sense and appear as if they’re dancing,” says Dr. Swati Popat Vats, president, Podar Education Network.
“The human brain is inherently coded for language development or speech. But, the processes of reading and writing came in much later in our evolution. Many different parts of the brain need to collaborate and cooperate for reading to happen. By the age of 7, children usually overcome the initial difficulties they face while learning to read or write. So, a learning disability is best diagnosed after age 7,” she explains.
Instead of remembering the sound of alphabets through phonics, children who learn differently may use visual memory to learn words. That’s why it’s common to notice a difference in the way they read, says Ravi Raj Shetty, co-founder of Narrative Practices India.
Supporting the emotional struggles of affected children
Just as we explain to a child why we all need to wear a mask, it’s important to help the student what a learning disability is, and that it has nothing to do with intelligence. “After the age of 4, children always want to know the ‘why’ of everything. You can empower your child by explaining to her in basic terms why she learns differently than others,” says Vats.
“While breaking the news to me, my parents did not use the term disability. They said that there was just a difference in the way I learned. They made me realise that it was just a part of who I was and assured me that there were many factors that made me brighter than other students in different ways,” recalls Chirag Sen*, 27.
Beyond counselling children with learning disabilities, it’s time to instil empathy in their peers. “For a truly inclusive education system, all parents need to realise that it’s absolutely okay for anyone to learn the way they comprehend better,” insists Joshi.
There is no cure for a learning disability, but such kids can bloom when they’re equipped with relevant strategies and interventions to cope with their disability, explains the Special Ninja Academy co-founder.
“The learning resource centre at my son’s school really helped improve his reading. Whenever his classmates had their English period, he would go and learn there as they had special methods to teach dyslexic children,” shares Madhavi Gupta*.
The fault in our class
Children who learn differently often need customised instruction and teaching. But, a classroom is a diverse group where one child may have dyslexia, while another has a language barrier. So, isn’t it better to include lessons on ‘how to study’ in the regular curriculum?
“Schools should encourage self-study, so everyone can learn using the method best suited to them at their own speed,” suggests Selena.
“The disability justice movement talks about how learning disabilities are challenging a system of education that has been designed to serve only one group of people. But, there is no standard learning approach which works for everyone, so incorporating Individualised Education Plans (IEP) can benefit everyone,” says Shetty.
If you feel your child may have a learning problem, talking to a psychologist and special educator can help you figure out what is contributing to the difficulties and hone in on an alternative method for your child to learn better.
*Name has been changed to protect privacy