Children are generally seen as a special gift of God to their families. They bring bundle of joy and happiness to every home. The birth of a child is an event that induces celebration, not just to the immediate family, but also to the society at large. As days turn to weeks and weeks turn to months, there are age-appropriate behaviours that are expected from the child, ranging from neck control, sitting, crawling, standing, walking, talking etc. The expectations peak when the child is enrolled in school, from kindergarten to nursery, primary, then to any level of choice. Most parents do not miss the opportunity to take a picture of their child’s first day at school, when the school and lunch bags are usually taller than the child. At this stage, parents and caregivers burst with excitement when their children return home and are able to replicate what was taught in school either by singing, reciting, counting, calculating, reading, or writing age-appropriate materials.
Unfortunately, some parents or caregivers have to wait so long for their children or wards to master some key learning skills, which comes so easily to their peers. These challenges are called learning disorders, which means difficulty in one or more areas of learning, even when overall intelligence or motivation is not affected. It implies that the child may be intelligent or literally “smart” and has the desire and zeal to learn but finds it hard. It can also be seen as an information-processing problem that hinders a child from learning and using academic skills effectively, resulting in school underachievement.
Signs of learning disorders include problem with reading or writing or solving math. The child may have difficulty remembering things or have poor memory. He or she may have challenge paying attention or understanding and following instructions. There can also be difficulty in understanding time. The child can resist going to school or doing homework or any school activities. Also, he/she can exhibit poor coordination in gross and fine motor activities like walking, sports, or skills like holding a pencil. In addition, there can be issues of frequent loss of school materials or homework, acting out or exhibition of excessive emotional reactions at school or while doing academic activities.
There are some common types of learning disorders – dyslexia, dysgraphia, dyscalculia, dyspraxia. Dyslexia is present when a child has challenge with reading or figuring out relationships between letters and sounds, and with spelling and recognising words. It is suspected in a child that reads very slowly or spends a lot of energy in reading simple things. He/she may lose interest in reading longer materials. Some of them have difficulty in reading aloud, understanding, and recalling what was read. They also have challenges pronouncing words.
Dysgraphia occurs when a child has trouble in writing or has very poor handwriting. It can make him/her to get nervous when writing. It manifests when a child has poor grip of pen or pencil or feeling of pain or sore hands after writing for a short while. The child has poor handwriting that is very difficult to read, writes very slowly and spends a lot of energy in writing. He/she frequently erases words or sentences written, leaving their books very untidy. There can be strong hatred or dislike for writing or drawing. Also, the child can write inconsistent letter and word spacing, make serious errors in grammar, spelling, punctuations and can omit words, or leave sentences unfinished while writing. Some can say words aloud while writing or have difficulty writing their ideas down.
Furthermore, dyscalculia has to do with challenges understanding basic arithmetic concepts and numbers. It occurs when a child has problem understanding how numbers work and relate to each other like value, carrying or borrowing numbers. He/she may find it difficult to understand word problems and the use of math symbols. Also, some children may have challenges engaging in cash transactions, giving, or collecting balance or understanding the time sequence of events.
Finally, dyspraxia is specific to fine and gross motor skills. This usually has to do with balance and coordination difficulties. A lot of children have some of the symptoms of dyspraxia but have been mistaken for either laziness or lack of strength. It is present when a child has poor balance as manifested in difficulty riding a bicycle, going up and down hills or stairs. He/she may have trouble standing for a long time or may have flat feet. Some children have poor hand-eye coordination like difficulty catching a ball or writing in a line or lacing of shoe. Also, they may not be able to dance to the tune of music. Some of them may fall often while walking or running or changing direction and have tendency to trip or bump into things and people.
Similar to most neuro-developmental or childhood disorders, there is no definite or single cause of learning disorder, but some factors have been found to influence its development. Firstly, a child is at risk of developing learning disorder if there is any family member with similar disorder, a parent, sibling, uncle, aunty, grandparent, or cousins. This is because the disorder is genetically transmitted. Secondly, occurrence of negative events during pregnancy and delivery like poor fetal growth, mother’s alcohol or substance use during pregnancy, premature birth and very low birth weight can predispose a child to develop learning disorder. In addition, a child can be at risk if he/she is exposed to physical trauma like head injuries and nervous system infections or psychological trauma like emotional abuse and neglect early in life. Also, exposure to high levels of toxins like lead can increase the risk of developing learning disorder in a child.
Unfortunately, a lot of children have been physically beaten or deprived by their parents or teachers for not doing well in school. A great number of them have been given different names like “olodo”, “onuku”, “block head” “Iberibe” etc. by their significant others and peers. It is also a normal thing for parents to deprive their child of either birthday or Christmas gift, because he/she did not pass exams. These unhealthy reactions fuel a lot of psychological distress in a child, like anxiety – fear of trying and getting it wrong again, depression – sad or unhappy feeling for not performing optimally, low self-esteem – belief that one is not good enough or worthless, chronic fatigue or loss of motivation – resulting from unfruitful efforts or lack of improvement in their academic ability after putting in a lot of efforts. These distresses are not limited to children alone, but extend to both the parents and teachers, who struggle and wait for the child’s improvement.
Obviously, early intervention has been found to be very effective in the treatment of learning and other childhood disorders. If you observe that your child, ward or pupil/student is experiencing any of the above symptoms, then he/she will need professional assessment to diagnose the type of disorder and rule out other possible causes. Then, the child will need special attention from his/her teachers in school, as he will not be able to learn in the same capacity as his mates. Individualised education program that suits the need of the child can also be adopted in teaching him/her. For example, if the child has difficulty writing, then his curriculum should be more of speaking and little of writing. In addition, audio-visual materials are very helpful in enhancing their learning.
Additionally, there may be need to get a specialised teacher or enroll the child in a school that has provision for special education. In some cases, he/she may need to undergo occupational therapy to improve his/her motor and language skills. Finally, if the child has developed any psychological distress, then behavioural therapy can be done to manage such distress.
In conclusion, learning disorders are challenges associated with academic activities, not because the child has low intelligence, but due to either genetic or environmental factors beyond the child’s control. Thus, such children need special care and support from the parents, teachers, communities, and peers to navigate this challenge and achieve their goals.
Ms Okafor is a Clinical Psychologist based in Lagos.