It is important to remember that the population of children with learning disabilities is heterogeneous. The children are similar because they all have adequate hearing, vision, mental ability, and many strengths, but their specific disabilities and symptoms differ. Therefore, not all of the suggestions provided below are applicable, but we begin with general recommendations.
Focus on the child’s strengths, not the weaknesses
Every child is unique; all can contribute to the joys of family life. Find special times and jobs that allow the child to contribute to the group.
Set reasonable expectations
Try not to expect more than the child is capable of doing, but expect the best that he or she can produce, with and then without assistance. This may mean that the child will have to be taught simple skills, and that complex tasks will need to be taught step by step. For instance, learning how to button may begin with the last movement – just pulling the button through the button hole. Learning how to set the table for a meal might begin with putting a fork by each plate. Cleaning one’s room may require showing which toys will fit on a particular shelf or in the correct box. Many of these skills are needed to help the child gain independence. Provide the initial assistance and then gradually reduce the supports as the child makes progress.
Provide the guidance needed for independence
Many children want to be independent, long before they are capable of doing some things on their own. Parents and teachers are often ambivalent about letting children perform certain skills independently. For example, climbing the steps on a sliding board requires some degree of sure-footedness, as well as visual and visual-motor skills. Crossing the street requires very careful visual scanning and time estimation. Some children with learning disabilities will need careful guidance and instruction in order to master these skills because of attention and processing weaknesses. Gradually the supports can be reduced so the child can perform independently.
Maintain consistent discipline
Give clear, simple explanations, particularly if children have language problems. They may not understand the vocabulary, lengthy instructions, and complex sentences used at home or in school. Our guideline is firmness with warmth, together with consistency.
Foster intellectual curiosity
One of our primary goals is to excite children about the learning process. Parents and teachers who enjoy learning themselves can convey such an attitude to their children. Many infants and toddlers seem to be naturally curious as they look at objects, explore them, turn them, try to move them, etc. By watching their eyes and hand movements, long before they can talk, children seem to be asking What’s this? What can I do with this? How does it taste? Can I push it, roll it, bang it? As they sit in a high chair banging with a spoon, they become aware of the sound of metal against metal, or metal against wood. When taking a bath, they learn how to splash in the water, and, if given certain toys, they may acquire the rudiments of the concept of floating and sinking. As they play with pots and pans, they learn about shapes, sizes, and the beginning of seriation, an important concept for early mathematics.
Some researchers in the field have found that children with learning disabilities are inactive learners. While the bases for this inactivity are not clear, adults can develop a spirit of inquiry by guiding the child’s listening and looking, by showing excitement and wonder about even simple events in the world. Some parents do this automatically. I remember seeing a mother and toddler looking intently at something on the sidewalk, and as I approached, I noticed they were studying a caterpillar. Mother was guiding the child’s looking and using words such as fuzzy, crawling slowly, etc. She, like many other parents, was fostering learning, language, and intellectual curiosity. One does not have to have fancy toys to excite children. Many children can be content with a pail, a shovel, some sand and water if we guide them to see what can be done with such objects. Take a walk around the block, look at the trees and the bushes, feel the bark of the tree, smell the flowers, look at the grass, the gravel, the cement and talk about what is hard, smooth, rough, and pretty. One of our goals is to provide the basis for life long learners as suggested by Calkins with Adellino (1997).
Help children classify and categorize objects
Many children naturally put groups of objects together because they are the same color or shape, or because of their use. If given blocks, toy cars, cups and saucers, they notice similarities and differences, a critical skill for all learning. However, some children with learning disabilities have problems with conceptualization (Lewis, Strauss, & Lehtinen, 1960). They do not notice similarities or observe the most relevant attributes. If given groups of objects they tend to sort on the basis of an insignificant detail (e.g., they all have lines on them) or they are inflexible which means that if given sets of blocks, they may be able to sort by color, but not shape. Because categorization is such an important part of learning, we include it in most of our lessons. We guide children to note how shoes, pencils, apples, coats, and other objects are alike because words represent concepts. In order to understand apple, children must note that they can be different colors and sizes, but are alike in many ways. Parents can help with this categorization process when they go to grocery stores, parks, zoos, and other places to note how things in certain areas are similar. The grocery bag can be used for many conceptual and language tasks. When putting things away, encourage the child to help and to note which things go in the freezer, in the refrigerator, and in cupboards. Note which things are in bottles, cartons, or cans, and call attention to foods that need to be cooked before they are eaten and which do not. The same type of classification activity can be done with the laundry, or objects in a workshop, and even in the child’s own room. The important thing is to help them categorize, and reclassify objects so they become flexible thinkers. Later, we encourage them to note how words are alike.
Provide good language models and stimulation
When children have delayed language, some parents tend to talk less to them. While some reduction of language may be helpful, children need good stimulation. In his book, Talk with Your Child, Wiener (1988) emphasizes the importance of informal, unstructured conversation to guide children’s learning. Although his focus is on normally developing children, he said that parents should talk while they are doing things with the child to enhance vocabulary and concepts. For example, if the child wants something to eat, the parent might externalize his or her thinking – Let’s get a banana; uh, oh, this one is not ripe; it is too green. How shall we peel the banana? I can’t eat the peeling. What color is the peeling? It’s yellow; what color is the part that we eat? – it’s white. Wiener says that when carrying on such dialogues, even if the child cannot speak, parents should wait for some type of response. This kind of social interaction strengthens the interpersonal relationship as well as verbal learning.
Guide the child’s language comprehension
Many parents of children with delayed language are concerned about their lack of ability to speak or to put words together in sentences, but in reality, the first step is to make certain they understand language. We do not ask children to say words that they do not understand because they will not be able to use them for communication.
When helping children comprehend new vocabulary, we emphasize that words are concepts. As stated above, words are not simple associations. Often, normally developing children as well as those with language problems use overextensions. That is, they call all liquids juice. Others may use underextensions; all juice is orange. Gradually, with varied experiences, their word meanings approach those of adults. However, vocabulary acquisition goes on throughout life.
It is important to remember that in English, the same object can have more than one name (e. g. , rug, carpet), and the same word may have several meanings (e. g. , bill, back). Many children with learning disabilities have problems understanding words with multiple meanings, particularly those that change with the context . For example, children probably first learn the word letter when it refers to an envelope that is sent or received in the mail. Later, however, the word letter will refer to a part of the alphabet. Most normally achieving children seem to abstract these word meanings more easily than those with language learning disabilities. Therefore, when children start to school, teachers and parents need to make certain they understand word meanings in new contexts, particularly the language of instruction (Johnson, 1999). We have seen many 7 and 8 year olds with learning disabilities who did not understand the terminology used in reading instruction. For example, when asked to point to a letter or a word, they were confused. Many also have difficulty with words representing time and space (e. g. , before, after, between). When this is the case, they might fail tasks they could otherwise master if the vocabulary in the instructions were clarified. Words representing time, space, and quantity are often difficult. Children may have difficulty comprehending words such as in, on, under, over, and between; some comprehend these words in three dimensional, but not two dimensional, space. Simple demonstrations while saying in the box, under the box, etc. may be helpful.
Many words are difficult to comprehend because the referent is not visible. Unlike words such as table, big, or sharp, which can be observed, abstract words are learned in context from other words. For example, a parent might say that an honest person tells the truth. In order to understand honest, one must understand the other words in the sentence. We try to reduce the amount and level of language so children understand new and difficult word meanings. It may be necessary to help your child with the language of feelings. Some do not understand words such as sad, angry, or embarrassed. Let your children know how you feel in various situations also.
Help the child comprehend and remember longer units of language
Some children can comprehend single words or short phrases, but they have difficulty understanding the meaning of sentences and stories. When children have difficulty listening to stories, it is often helpful to speak slowly, to repeat phrases or sentences, and when necessary, use pictures to illustrate the meaning.
Verbal discipline may also be problematic. Make certain the vocabulary is clear and that directions are not too lengthy. Show the child what to do if he or she does not understand verbal instructions.
Do not call attention to expressive language weaknesses
Language is first and foremost a form of communication. We recommend that parents and teachers never interrupt a child’s flow of thought when he or she is trying to communicate. In certain instances, when children cannot recall a word, it may be helpful to give a multiple choice question, or the first sound of a word. For example, if the child is trying to recall the word juice, the parents might say, Do you want juice or milk? This type of question will allow children to use the word and to provide practice. In general, we think the parents should not correct grammar or pronunciation. Although many parents attempt to correct occasional mistakes, when problems are evident, a specialist should provide the instruction. Meanwhile, the parents should make every effort to communicate in other ways, through gesture and pantomime if necessary. Never bribe a child to say a word or sentence correctly. Make the verbal interactions as pleasant and meaningful as possible. Listen to children. Make certain they have opportunities to contribute to family discussions.