All parents worry about their kids at school; but what happens when your child has trouble focusing on work, may be acting out or just doesn’t seem to be learning like he or she should? Could they be dyslexic (or whatever you heard in your parenting chat group)?
What are learning disorders, anyway? We asked Jae Tan Lyn Lee, an educational psychologist and registered psychologist, who works with the Dyslexia Association of Singapore (DAS).
For starters, she says, you should know the difference between a learning difficulty and a learning disorder. “Some psychologists see learning ‘difficulties’ as more broad-based problems that affect a person's ability to learn. These could include social and emotional issues such as anxiety and depression, as well as a lack of exposure to adequate learning opportunities.”
In other words, your child might face “difficulties” in learning if they feel worried about doing well, then may refuse to do their work or even try to do it at all — simply because the child is afraid to get it wrong. Another way a child might face “learning difficulties” is if your family has a Mandarin-speaking environment and your child (who has limited exposure to English) is then required to use English to learn in school. Both these situations would affect their learning but would not be seen as a learning “disorder”.
“Very often, a delay in speech or other motor skills milestones, such as crawling and walking, at a young age (0 to 3-years-old) can signify possible learning difficulties and these concerns should be highlighted to a doctor.”
“Learning disorders, on the other hand, are often seen as more significant lifelong conditions that affect a person before adulthood.” She explains that common learning disabilities include dyslexia, dyspraxia (developmental coordination disorder), attention deficit hyperactivity disorder or ADHD, and autism spectrum disorder. In her work with DAS, Tan focuses mostly on dyslexia, of course.
1) Signs to watch for in babies, tots and school kids
Tan says: “Many households today have both parents working, often leaving the care of the children to grandparents, domestic helpers or childcare providers. Nonetheless, it is crucial for parents to familiarise themselves with the normal development of children so that they can be alerted to any anomaly in their own children.”
One such list of milestones to check against your child is KK Women’s and Children’s Hospital’s milestone list — but do leave your child (and yourself) a little wiggle room and don’t panic if your child doesn’t do these things perfectly at two-months-and-one-second on the dot.
Toddlers: Tan explains that, “Very often, a delay in speech or other motor skills milestones, such as crawling and walking, at a young age (0 to 3-years-old) can signify possible learning difficulties and these concerns should be highlighted to a doctor.” The doctor can carry out further testing to see if it is a physical problem rather than a developmental one.
Older preschoolers: “For older preschoolers (4 to 6), difficulties with following one- or two-step instructions, inability to recite frequently heard songs, such as nursery rhymes or the alphabet song, as well as an inability to identify the letters and sounds of the alphabet would be causes for concern. Other areas of concern include difficulties with learning numbers, days of the week, colours and shapes, writing their names and fine-motor tasks such as beading and colouring.
School-age children: “School-age children who find it difficult to repeat multi-syllabic words or decode single words, who write with letter reversals, inversions, transpositions or word substitution [ed: Basically, getting the normal word order mixed up in various ways] and show poor reading comprehension compared to their listening comprehension may also have a specific learning difficulty.”
She suggests that children who have difficulties with planning and organising their materials and homework or learning facts should prompt a parent to seek help from professionals to determine the nature of their difficulties. “Of course, parents should also be aware that other aspects such as motivation and attention could also affect learning.”
2) Learning disorder or other physical problems?
“Although both may affect a child's ability to read and write, the former, such as dyslexia, affects a child in many different areas such as in their organisational skills, memory and word retrieval along with their reading and writing. These differences can be assessed using appropriate psychometric tools,” says Tan.
Hence, it is best to take the child to see an expert. “Learning disorders are very distinct conditions from myopia which is the eye’s inability to properly focus. Testing and treatment for myopia can easily be done by a licensed optometrist where eye glasses can be prescribed.”
“Dyslexia affects a child in many different areas such as in their organisational skills, memory and word retrieval along with their reading and writing. These differences can be assessed using appropriate psychometric tools."
Parents are encouraged to ensure that their children’s vision is checked and suitable glasses are used before they are tested for learning difficulties. But they should also note that other visual-perceptual difficulties that are not identifiable through eye checks may be detected by qualified occupational therapists or psychologists through the use of appropriate psychometric tools.
3) Are there any tests or assessments for my child?
Yes. “As an educational psychologist, assessing children who have learning difficulties forms a large part of what I do at DAS. My colleagues and I typically look at the cognitive (IQ) and achievement (literacy and language) profile and understand other background factors to determine whether a child has any learning difficulties. Clinical psychologists at government hospitals are also trained to identify learning and other developmental difficulties.”
For more information about dyslexia, visit the Dyslexia Association of Singapore or pick up the DAS book Embrace a Different Kind of Mind: Personal Stories of Dyslexia at Kinokuniya and via the DAS, to learn how dyslexics and their families have found success!
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