Starting school is one of the very important moments in the life of children and their parents. Requirements imposed on the child who naturally strives to win success and acknowledgement increase with start of school. Starting school may not always be a joyful event; there are various problems we may encounter after. A child's failure in one of the school disciplines may be caused e.g. by one of the specific learning disorders.
Specific learning disorders or developmental learning disabilities cause problems in the educational process. The group of learning disabilities includes dyslexia, dysorthography, dygraphia and dyscalculia. There are 4-5% of individuals suffering from some of these disorders in the population. The percentage is higher in boys.
Occurrence of such learning disorders may influence personality formation; a child suffering from learning disorders often feels inferior and may even manifest neurotic symptoms, e.g. trouble with sleep and falling asleep, loss of appetite, anxiety attacks, etc. The psychosocial status of the child is influenced by the approach of their classmates and teachers, by fear of rejection and anger from their parents. Symptoms of learning disorders are most frequently discovered after the child enters primary school.
Causes of Learning Disorders
These specific learning disorders are not caused by developmental failures, by motor, visual, hearing or other impairment, not even directly by the environment. Origin of these disorders has not been completely and exactly clarified. It may be a combination of various influences. There probably is a hereditary propensity to these learning disorders; however, they may also be caused by different activity organization in the brain or by non-typical dominance of brain hemispheres. The disorders are often related to a certain brain dysfunction or its slight damage. There is also a certain undesirable influence of the environment, mainly the emotional climate in the family, attitude of the parents to school and to the educating process.
- Heredity: there are cases in the immediate family when relatives or directly parents suffer from these problems.
- Intrauterine development: Negative influence of imbalanced hormonal levels in the mother during pregnancy or more severe illness the mother has undergone during pregnancy. Of course, intoxicating the fetus with harmful substances - alcohol, drugs, nicotine or hazardous medical drugs - also has negative impact on the child later. A significant negative factor is also long-term stress in the mother during her pregnancy.
- Complications during the birth or immediately after it: a difficult childbirth with hypoxia – insufficient blood circulation to the baby's brain, more severe neonatal hepatitis
- Negative influences on the baby's life up to 1 year of age: severe infectious diseases, head injury, etc..
- Lack of stimuli: little-stimulating home environment, retarded speech development, insufficient help to the child when learning to read and write.
Specific learning disorders manifest in children across the intelligence quotient range, i.e. both in above-average intelligent children and in below-average intelligent children.
The most frequent learning disorder is dyslexia. Dyslexia is a learning disability consisting in understanding a read text in a commonly intelligent child. Such a child or an adult usually has problems reading long texts, understanding the meaning of the text even though they know all the letters. The entire reading ability is affected; the speed, correctness, reading technique and understanding the text. Usual symptoms of dyslexia are: affected reading speed, i.e. long time spent syllabicating, conjecturing words, misunderstanding the read parts, making mistakes in the text read: interchanging similarly-shaped letters (A/E, M/N, B/D/P) or similar-sounding letters (S/Z, T/D), interchanging the letter order in words, reading technique: excessively long lingering in the stage of syllabicating, not smooth, thick reading with frequent pauses.
Dysorthography is a specific disorder of orthography; the child interchanges similarly-shaped letters or similar-sounding letters. People suffering from it have impossibly unorganized exercise books, they are unable to keep up with a dictation, they often have trouble with vowels, syllables such as dy-di, ty-ti, ny-ni, sibilants, etc. This disorder is closely related to dyslexia and dysgraphia.
Dysgraphia is a specific writing disorder. It is closely related to dysorthography and these two disorders usually manifest together. At the beginning, people around the affected person may take this disorder for laziness, because writing is very tiring for the affected individual and gets them exhausted very quickly. Their handwriting is messy, tangly, lumpish, often mixing handwriting with block letters.
This disorder is characterized by impaired mathematical abilities; it affects operations with numbers, mathematical ideas, spatial ideas, etc. It concerns mainly mastering the basic arithmetic operations.
Dyspraxia is a specific developmental disorder of motor functions in children; it is also called developmental coordination disorder (DCD). The disorder is defined as an impairment or immaturity in movement planning or organization which leads to related problems in language, perception and thinking. A child with dyspraxia shows a difference between his/her motor abilities and age. Gross motor control begins late in the development and the child has problems imitating movements he/she sees. Subsequently, the child has difficulty mastering tasks requiring fine motor skills.
A child with dyspraxia is often called clumsy, lumpish and maladroit. Symptoms may vary. The clumsiness manifests in the field of self-service, i.e. in dressing up, putting on shoes, dining as well as in writing and arts and crafts. The child's speech may be more difficult to comprehend, especially when pronouncing sounds difficult to articulate. At the same time, so-called motor restlessness is also frequent in dyspraxics; the child is unable to be still, he/she moves about constantly and his/her movements are uncoordinated. Dyspraxics often feel inferior, lonely, misunderstood by people around them, powerless; these often lead to secondary behavioural disorders by which such children try to draw attention to themselves.
Apart from the aforementioned disorders, there is also dysmusia (tone deafness, inability to remember or reproduce music, melody and rhythm), and dyspinxia, a drawing disorder where drawings are very low-level.
Treating Specific Learning Disorders
Correcting and mitigating specific learning disorders in children is usually a long-term process requiring a lot of patience. The base for treatment is an expert diagnosis by a special pedagogue and a plan for treatment and skill training. According to the contemporary legislation, specific learning disorders are diagnosed by the following institutions: Pedagogical-Psychological Counseling Centres and Special-Pedagogical Centres. We must keep in mind that it is suitable to motivate and support the child. Comparing with a more successful sibling or classmate is not helpful. Specific learning disorders do not affect only the actual success rate of the child at school but usually has secondary impact on their entire personality. Repeated failures and feelings of inferiority may make the child to put themselves into the position of an outsider.
The child is not responsible for the specific learning disorders; it is not his/her fault he/she was affected by them same as it is not his/her fault their nervous system develops later. It is not always simple to determine causes of these disabilities as they are influenced by many factors. Sometimes, parents may make the situations worse by themselves by putting excessive pressure on their children; a so called pseudodyslexia may be triggered e.g. by the fear of the teacher or by the fear of failure in comparison to other classmates.
Although the number of children with specific learning disorder keeps increasing, we need not worry about their future. Nobody is going to write such a child off today. They study and become successful in fields that suit them. When they fail to succeed in the field of mathematics, they may become very successful in humanities, etc.
Significant and Famous People with Specific Learning Disorders
Specific learning disabilities are by no means limiting people in their further development and work activities. Both history and contemporary time offer many significant personalities who had problems with learning in their childhood but emerged to be excellent in various fields.
Albert Einstein: Probably the most significant scientist of the 20th century who was capable of timeless ideas was hopelessly low in grades at school because he had big problems with reading and even in adult age, written text was a troublesome matter to him. Einstein himself spoke about his belated speech development. "It is true that my parents were worried because I started talking fairly late and they addressed a physician about it. I am unable to say how old I was at that time, but I must have been at least three years old." As a child, Albert Einstein showed some attributes of behaviour typical for autistic children. One of them was that he constructed sentences in his mind first, then recited them quietly and uttered them only when was sure everything was in order. He graduated from highschool in Aarau, Switzerland. The Aarau school was renowned for its modern teaching methods; however, Einstein encountered misunderstanding again when he went to the university. He didn't go to lectures; he borrowed written information from his friends and devoted his time to self-study and independent work. His preference for independent work stayed with him his whole life. These attributes - belated speech development, obsession with issues of science, troublesome starting of social relationships, etc. - even rose some theories that Einstein suffered from a form of the Asperger's syndrome.
Thomas Alva Edison: was dyslexic. At school, his teachers described him as "confused" and he was a part of the lower-grader part of his class. He never truly mastered the basic skills of orthography, writing and arithmetics. Despite that, this "confused pupil" became the inventor of the electric bulb and more than a thousand other patents.
Georg Gamow: Physicist and author of the popular science book Mr Tompkins in Wonderland allegedly suffered from dyscalculia and other learning disorders. Vera Rubin, astronomer and doctoral student under Gamow said about him: "He couldn't write or count. It took him a while to tell you what does 7 times 8 make. But his brain was able to comprehend the universe."
The developmental reading and learning disorder has manifested e.g. in the famous statesman Winston Churchill or Bill Gates, the founder of Microsoft. Other famous personalities suffering from the reading disorder were e.g. Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Leonardo da Vinci, Gustav Flaubert, Walt Disney, Hans Christian Andersen, Tom Cruise, Whoopi Goldberg, Pablo Picasso, Alexander Bell, gen. George Smith Patton or John Fitzgerald Kennedy.
Even contemporary successful scientists, writers and artists include many people who suffered or suffer from a specific learning disorder. Despite that, their contribution to our society is undeniable. So let's not judge those who may seem impractical or awkward - there may be an underestimated treasure within.