Dear Ask the Youth Commission,
My daughter was diagnosed at the end of last school year with a nonverbal learning disability. We have spent the summer helping her to relax and enjoy herself while we have read and researched as much as we possibly can. Now the school year is finally upon us; she is entering sixth grade, and I am not sure what to expect. I know that she will receive additional attention from teachers and aides, but I am also concerned about how she will adjust to this diagnosis socially and emotionally. What is going on with my daughter, and how can I help her make it through the school system successfully?
Cautiously Optimistic Mom
We applaud your awareness of the social and emotional difficulties a learning disabled child can encounter, and encourage you to remain vigilant to the different needs of your daughter. Although leaning disabilities are more commonly diagnosed and managed in public school settings, there are still many unknown factors and misunderstood issues connected to such a diagnosis.
In general, a learning disorder means that the child is struggling to achieve, in the area of concern, what might reasonably be expected for that child’s overall intellectual ability. Furthermore, other developmental or emotional explanations are ruled out, and there is a consistent pattern over time and within different contexts.
Nonverbal learning disabilities are a specific type of learning disability that can be most simply defined as a disorder that impairs the ability to process and learn nonverbal information. Paradoxically, children with NLD have excellent verbal and language skills, but because about two-thirds of all communication is nonverbal (body language, spatial relations) this learning disability can cause profound challenges.
According to various articles on NLDline, a Web site devoted to information and resources on NLD, children with nonverbal learning disabilities will show the following strengths and deficits:
· Early speech, language, and vocabulary development, strong memory, attention to detail, strong reading and spelling skills, excellent verbal expression and good auditory retention.
· Visual-spatial skills (poor visual recall, spatial relations, telling right from left), motor skills (poor balance and coordination, weak athletic abilities, messy handwriting) and social skills (poor understanding of facial expressions, body language, tone of voice, personal space and relating)
Regardless of the specific type of learning disability, children often know at an early age that they are different. Perhaps they are capable in certain areas yet struggling in others, which can lead to self-consciousness, frustration and isolation. According to an article by Linda Broatch, a child-development specialist, “children with learning disabilities often have problems that go far beyond those experienced in reading, writing, math, memory or organization. For many, strong feelings of frustration, anger, sadness or shame can lead to psychological difficulties such as anxiety, depression or low self-esteem, as well as behavioral problems such as substance abuse or juvenile delinquency.” There are two leading theories as to why children with learning disabilities may develop the aforementioned problems:
1. Repeated academic failures and educational struggles. This can lead to disapproval or labeling by teachers or parents despite the child’s best efforts to “try harder” because the child might appear unmotivated or slow. Low self-esteem, poor self-confidence and frustration result for the child, and research indicates that as many as 70 percent of learning disabled children suffer from low self-esteem. Furthermore, according to expert Dr. Marshall Raskind, “over time, children with LD may just stop trying, entering a state of ‘learned helplessness’ where they see little connection between their efforts and ultimate outcomes.” They give up.
2. Social difficulties. Children with learning disabilities frequently struggle to make or keep friends because they are less accepted by peers. Dr. Raskind reports that “social and psychological problems are so interconnected that it may be quite impossible at times to determine which one may have caused the other.”
Some of the social and psychological problems associated with learning disabilities include anxiety, depression, loneliness, low self-esteem, increased risk-taking behaviors and substance abuse. According to Dr. Robert Brooks, a psychologist, Harvard professor and expert on self-esteem, signs of low self-esteem may be hidden by the child’s attempts at coping, such as:
· Quitting projects or tasks that are frustrating or difficult
· Avoiding activities for fear of failing
· Clowning around to mask low confidence
· Controlling situations of people when feeling helpless
· Aggressive behavior to hide feelings of vulnerability
· Denying problems in order to minimize shameful feelings
· Impulsivity to get things “over with”
A child with a diagnosed learning disability will need academic and emotional support, which requires parental awareness and advocacy. While the public schools are well-equipped to diagnose and manage many kinds of learning disabilities, there are also many specialized learning programs and private schools for parents to consider. If you have concerns for your child’s academic or social well-being in school, we urge you to consult with your child’s guidance counselor for testing, setting up or modifying an “Individualized Educational Plan,” or coordinating counseling services if necessary. Your guidance counselor and other collateral professionals involved with your child (psychologists, special education staff, etc.) are your best resources to ensure a successful school experience for your child. Many schools use a “team approach” whereby the multiple professionals and family members work collaboratively to coordinate services.
We hope this is helpful, and encourage you to contact our office at 781-455-7518 anytime and to look at the following resources for further information:
· www.doe.mass.edu/sped/ - Massachusetts Department of Education Special Education
· www.doe.mass.edu/pqa/spedpvtlist/ — Massachusetts Approved Private Special Education Schools
· www.nldline.com/ — Nonverbal Learning Disability Online Information and Resources
· www.schwablearning.org/ — Nonprofit Learning Disability Information and Support
· www.samgoldstein.com/ — Life Success for Children with Learning Disabilities
· “When You Worry About the Child You Love: Emotional and Learning Problems in Children” by Edward Hallowell, M.D.
· “Many Ways to Learn: Young People’s Guide to Learning Disabilities” by Judith Stern, M.A., Uzi Ben-Ami, Ph.D., and Michael Chesworth