Roadblocks to Learning: Understanding the Obstacles that Can Sabotage Your Child's Academic Success
By Lawrence J. Greene
A learning disability can undermine performance exclusively in one subject area, such as reading, or in multiple academic subjects. In most cases, the tendrils of a learning dysfunction will invade every content area. For example, dyslexic children are likely to have problems not only with deciphering words but also with spelling and language arts. Their decoding difficulties will probably affect their ability to solve word problems in math and their reading comprehension in history, science, and English.
Children with auditory-discrimination deficits (i.e., difficulty differentiating the sounds that individual letters and blends produce) invariably struggle to master phonics and spell accurately. Those with auditory- and visual-memory problems can be expected to have difficulty retaining the information they read in their textbooks and hear in class. Those who cannot follow instructions or pay attention are destined to be confused when their teachers give directions about how to do an assignment or when they explain such procedures as finding the common denominator when adding mixed fractions.
The marginal academic success experienced by children with learning disabilities produces predictable consequences that include frustration, discouragement, diminished effort, poorly developed skills, and reduced self-confidence. To avoid work they find painful and cope with feelings of inadequacy, many of these students compensate by resorting to counterproductive behavior and attitudes. They may procrastinate, submit sloppy, incomplete, and late assignments, blame others for their difficulties, and resist help. These misguided defense mechanisms provide no real protection and only exacerbate the educational challenges.
Having to do homework is a dreaded experience for children with deficient skills. Many of these academically defeated youngsters choose the path of least resistance and do anything possible to avoid studying. They then unconsciously rationalize and justify their behavior by deluding themselves into thinking that they aren't really failing if they aren't really trying. Despite compelling evidence to the contrary, these children often deny that they have academic problems and argue instead that school is "dumb." Their transparent defense mechanisms and the attendant lack of effort and motivation produce predictable consequences: poor grades, diminished self-confidence, test-taking and learning phobias, and diminished expectations and aspirations.
The downward academic slide of students who have difficulty learning efficiently usually begins in first grade. By fourth grade, many of these children have already acquired an entrenched pattern of self-defeating habits. Described by their concerned and exasperated teachers and parents as lazy and unmotivated, they appear oblivious to the consequences of their behavior. Unless they are provided with effective remedial intervention, their academic fate may be sealed by the time they enter middle school.
As many as 15 percent of American students are wrestling with learning problems. Another 25 percent are working below their full scholastic potential, but only 3-4 percent of these children are typically identified as having specific learning disabilities. The vast majority of these underachieving students haven't a clue about how to learn efficiently and study productively, but because their problems are deemed "nonincapacitating," they are not evaluated or do not qualify for formal learning assistance.
Children who do poorly in school usually bear deep emotional scars. Nonachieving and marginally achieving children quickly learn to devalue their talents and minimize their intellectual capabilities. Skills may never be fully developed. Motivational goals may never be established. Rewarding careers may never be launched. Potential contributions to society may never be actualized.
In the following section, you will learn about the specific academic implications of learning disabilities and about issues that can obstruct the full development of your child's natural aptitude and abilities.
Refers to an inherited ability or natural talent in a specific area.
Often referred to as "natural talent," aptitude is an inherited, genetically based ability that may manifest as a mechanical, scientific, mathematical, musical, creative, expressive, linguistic, athletic, socially interactive, or artistic skill. Although aptitude and intelligence often overlap, children may have superior natural aptitude in a specific area or areas without necessarily possessing superior general intelligence (as measured by an IQ test). Other children may be exceptionally intelligent but may possess no demonstrable specific aptitudes. Some children are doubly blessed. They are bright, and they also possess specialized aptitude. They may be able to solve advanced algebraic equations in fourth grade, and they may also have excellent expository writing skills and a facility for learning foreign languages. Other children may have exceptional mechanical aptitude and be capable of taking apart a malfunctioning engine, identifying and correcting the problem, and rebuilding the engine, but they may struggle in school because of a learning disability that causes decoding, comprehension, and/or retention deficits.
Children tend to identify, gravitate toward, and develop their natural talents. This impetus is intuitive and instinctual. For example, a child with musical aptitude is likely to begin "fooling around" with a piano or guitar at an early age if an instrument is available. She is also likely to request formal lessons.
Psychologists can administer an IQ test such as the Wechsler Intelligence Scale for Children III (WISC III) to measure overall intelligence and identify specific school-related aptitudes. These tests, however, provide little information about a child's non-school-related natural talents and are not designed to assess mechanical, musical, artistic, athletic, leadership, or interpersonal aptitude. These abilities can be vital self-concept-building resources for students who are not succeeding scholastically. Once identified and developed, nonacademic abilities can provide critically important opportunities for achievement and can help orient children toward vocations that capitalize on their natural talents. This process of figuring out what they are good at can be of critical importance to youngsters who are unlikely to pursue a career requiring an advanced college degree.
Helping children cultivate their natural aptitude is especially important in the case of children who are struggling with learning problems. Often frustrated, discouraged, insecure, emotionally vulnerable, and psychologically defended, many of these children are at risk for giving up and shutting down in school. Encouraging them to develop their abilities in nonacademic areas and urging them to establish short-term and long-term performance goals can provide them with an oasis where they can achieve and experience a sense of pride. Children who attain a black belt in karate or who become accomplished dancers, computer whizzes, or consummate chess players are less likely to become demoralized by the battle to survive academically. Their successes in the nonscholastic arena can significantly build their self-concept and sustain them emotionally while they are working to improve their academic skills.
School psychologists, clinical psychologists, and school counselors can administer a range of tests that can help teenage students better understand themselves and identify their vocational interests. Their identified interests and preferences will usually be congruent with their aptitude and talents.