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Can Learning Disabilities Be Cured?

What’s in a ‘cure’? Would a technique to ‘live’ with a diagnosis be the same if called by any other name?

It’s not at all unusual for parents, educators, and researchers in the field of education and child development to wonder if the short answer, ‘No, learning disabilities can’t be cured,’ is actually obscuring the subtleties of the ‘disabilities’, when they might be better if called ‘differences’.

What’s in a word? Isn’t this all just semantics?

Yes — and no. Research shows that words — especially when framing a particular issue to an impressionable child who is still learning and forming a sense of identity — can have a definitive and deciding effect.

The impact that judgements, conclusions and, indeed, diagnoses can have upon the expectations of a child on his or her own learning path is tangible.

Specifically, students might expect less and end up having a justification for giving up, being unwilling to risk ‘failure’, or simply not performing to their ever-expanding potential.

And, isn’t that the entire point of an education?

In 1964, Harvard professor, Robert Rosenthal was determined to find out whether the expectations of teachers affected students’ performance. His findings were definitive.

Rosenthal’s research showed that the expectations of teachers not only affected their students but did so in subtle, almost moment-to-moment interactions, what he calls a ‘thousand almost invisible ways‘.

‘It’s not magic, it’s not mental telepathy. It’s very likely these thousands of different ways of treating people in small ways every day,’ said Rosenthal.

What does this have to do with learning disabilities? Often, learning disabilities or learning differences are crystallised in their severity by others’ attitudes towards them — which the student, initially, has no choice but to accept and internalise.

It becomes more critical than ever, then, to properly understand learning disabilities before looking for a proverbial ‘cure’.

Learning Disability and a Learning Difference

Before there can be a cure, there must be an issue. Are learning disabilities an issue?

Terminology surely matters, especially when trying to differentiate between a learning disability and learning difference.

In general, learning ‘differences’ may include preferred learning styles, to the extent that a student might not necessarily flourish or even absorb as well as they would if they were operating in their ‘zone of genius’, so to speak.

Like anything that is a combination of behavioural and neurological, this falls on a spectrum.

Meanwhile, diagnosis of a ‘learning disability’ makes it a pressing matter to address and then supplement learning with supports. And isn’t provision of support the prime reason to identify children with cases of dyslexia, for example?

However, the term ‘disability’ doesn’t account for the entire picture because students with these perceived ‘disabilities’ also present with a higher frequency of three-dimensional spatial reasoning, understanding of abstract information and connections between concepts, and higher levels of creativity.

So does a hiccup that can be responded to with individualised support but that also possibly equips a student with some other learning ‘superpowers’ really need a cure?

Early Identification

It should be obvious from the above that the only real way to correctly ‘diagnose’ any learning disability is to let the student’s learning and tendencies evolve naturally, over time. Any ‘intervention’ should only occur after sustained observation — and, even then, consistent monitoring is the key to forming an ‘opinion’.

This means there shouldn’t be any rush to judgment about what a student ‘has’ or ‘doesn’t have’,  especially when it comes to IQ or intelligence in a classroom.

Remember Rosenthal.

So what about observation and monitoring? Students who are struggling repeatedly with the same skills or in particular subjects might have a learning disability.

The first step in ‘intervention’ is to gather a holistic team of learning specialists and educators that understand organised intervention and how to create a focused ‘learning plan’.

This learning plan can mark milestones as well as help the student with a specific learning disability thrive academically regardless.

Some parents are simply too anxious and want to figure out ‘what’s wrong’ with their children. Others are more cautious about early labels.

The key here is to follow that parental gut and, then, from there, seek professional help. If parents get the sense that something is ‘off’, it might be. From here, they’ll need professional guidance to either refute or support that instinct.

It also helps when parents are aware of the signs of ‘atypical development’ or sustained struggle with certain milestones. Here are some common learning disabilities and the telltale signs.

Dyslexia

A student may demonstrate dyslexia if:

  • They have difficulty pairing letter sounds and letter names
  • Demonstrate a consistent issue with understanding the sounds and parts of words like rhyming words, words that sound similar (‘chuck’ and ‘shuck’) or mixing up short vowel sounds
  • They have trouble sounding out unfamiliar words
  • Have a low ‘bank’ of words they can recognise on sight
  • Often confuse two words that look alike (displacing the consonants and vowels)
  • Have consistent difficulty retelling the main idea of a book or giving the main idea when reading independently

Dysgraphia

Dyslexia is clearly an issue with the visual and understanding aspect of words. What about when translating these into written work? Students with dysgraphia might display with:

  • Struggle when trying to maintain correct word and letter spacing while writing
  • Complaints of tired or cramped hands while writing
  • Trouble when organising information and thoughts in a cohesive or logical manner when writing
  • Issues with printing and spelling, to the point of illegibility and incomprehension by others
  • Issues with punctuation, prepositions and the direction of reading

Dyscalculia

As the name suggests, students with dyscalculia have sustained issues with mathematical or arithmetic-based tasks. They might demonstrate:

  • Issues when trying to remember the names of numbers and the quantities they refer to
  • Issues with signs and their functions (that ‘+’ sign means addition, etc.)
  • A struggle when trying to recall foundational math facts
  • Demonstrating a struggle with various counting strategies (example: counting by ones, twos, fives, or tens)
  • Issues around coin values, making change, or telling time
  • Having a troubling time conceiving of a strategy or plan to solve word problems; similarly, might also have trouble keeping track of mathematical procedures in a multi-step word problem
  • Issues with interpreting charts and graphs
  • Difficulty remembering the mathematical order of operations

Strategies for Learning Successfully

Certainly, every student’s specific situation varies greatly. But there are very common strategies teachers and educators can use to enhance the learning experience and make it a positive rather than a reductive one.

Accommodations

Allow students with learning disabilities extra time, a quiet environment or an ‘open-book’ testing methodology to help them not only get through the test but focus on absorbing what is truly important. Pressure in these cases rarely, if ever, helps.

Evoking self-awareness through educational therapy

As part of the student’s learning plan, it might help to expose students to a weekly form of educational therapy. These strategies might help them self-evaluate and then choose the best response to move forward, building a ‘can-do’ attitude in general, over time.

Assistive technology to supplement learning styles

These are pretty common in higher-education classrooms and lecture halls as it is, thanks to the rapid shift in digital technologies. Now, voice-to-text software, recording devices for notes, and audio lectures are examples of ‘assistive technology’ that are simply commonplace.

Dietary and environmental factors

Many parents, strapped for time and attention, might end up addressing behaviour issues like attention deficit or hyperactivity, linked to unrecognised learning disabilities, with drugs.

While it is certainly a path and an aid that shouldn’t be left unexplored, several parents also opt to go for more natural treatments to supplement their child’s overall neurological development through dietary therapy.

The Expectations of Educators in Assessing Learning Disabilities

These are all forms of mitigation, reduction and maintaining the status quo while giving either an adult or a child with learning disabilities the very best learning experience that translates into success in all aspects of their life.

But the question still remains: Are learning disabilities ‘curable’?

We’ve seen that a variety of factors influence how a learning disability is discovered, dealt with and monitored. While some ‘issues’ are genetically-influenced, others are a consequence of ‘nurture’.

The obvious response, then, is to approach learning disabilities using a ‘holistic’ methodology that draws on various intersectional strategies — as we’ve mentioned here.

And what about expectations? Obviously, it’s a thin line between denying an issue completely and actually responding to the situation without overblowing its influence. Robert Pianta, a researcher at the Curry School of Education, has a couple of pointers for teachers, educators, and instructors when aiding students’ learning:

  • Watch how the student interacts and details about their learning. Persistent observation over time helps teachers to understand the full spectrum of capability and is more likely to make them appreciative of a student’s ‘strengths’.
  • Listen to what students say their goals are and for language that indicates their worldview, their understanding of your role, their peers and their assignments.
  • Engage by talking to students about their individual interests but don’t offer any advice or opinions at first.
  • Experiment, based on observations, especially when challenging behaviour arises. It might be useful to shift one’s own thinking and re-frame issues to a thought like, ‘My student is trying to reach out to me by acting out. How can I respond to help them communicate?’
  • Connect outside of the classroom and allow the student to pick their own activities to be done together. The teacher’s job here, again, is to watch, listen and focus on the student’s interests.
  • Reach out and ask them about the mediums and methods of communication they feel strongest in. Allow them to tailor assignments and projects to reflect these strengths and preferences.
  • Reflect on prior and personal collegial experiences: What can be taken from these memories that can then be changed in one’s own personal style and approach to teaching?

Are these ‘cures’? No. But they are certainly novel ways to be able to sort through a spectrum of behaviours.

In other words, while a student may reflect behaviour that could be characterised as a learning disability, this kind of conscious approach may actually help sort out those who are simply disengaged, in need of extra attention and a different set of expectations from those whose learning differences call for sustained accommodations.

Of course, even the traditional classroom of today is not remaining the same. Assistive technologies, for example, are less of a stigma simply because the modern classroom in the digital age is digitally outfitted to incorporate computer- and tech-based projects, assignments and class material.

Gone are the days of slide projectors and handouts. Now, Prezis and online submissions rule the learning environment.

While MOOCs and eLearning courses are transforming adult education beyond traditional recognition, children’s education in K – 12 formats still relies on blended lessons, at best. It will be interesting to see, then, as we move forward, how we’ll reconstruct learning disabilities in an eLearning environment.

Unless, of course, we find out that the eLearning environment is a perfectly natural environment for students with learning disabilities.