Jump on learning difficulties early

Psychologists have seen a marked increase in referrals for children with possible learning difficulties over the course of the Covid pandemic, according to two Melbourne neuropsychologists.

Speaking on a recent Healthed podcast, Dr Amy Scholes and Dr Bernice Dodds said the widespread prevalence of home-schooling during lockdown had given many parents the opportunity to closely observe the learning habits of their child, and had resulted in an increased number of parents becoming aware and concerned about struggles with learning their child faced.

Previous research has estimated the prevalence of learning difficulties among school aged children to be between five to 15%. The two experts both emphasised the importance of early identification and intervention, not only to improve academic success but also because of the strong association between learning difficulties and mental illness.

According to Dr Scholes, evidence from Headspace suggests more than one in four children (27%) being treated for mental illness has a comorbid learning difficulty. It makes sense, a child who struggles with learning is likely to feel stupid and inferior to their peers, which will undermine their self-esteem and exacerbate(or indeed trigger) anxiety and depression. And, it is also known that the longer the situation continues, the harder it is to change making it imperative that learning issues be identified and treated as soon as possible.

So how does one identify a learning difficulty?

Well aside from the obvious – failing tests and not achieving results in school, the neuropsychologists suggest there may be other signs that a child might be struggling. A child that may be increasingly anxious, or in a low mood or having sleep problems might be having issues with learning. Teachers reporting the child is disruptive, silly, distracted or day-dreaming in class might warrant a closer assessment of learning skills. And even children who come home from school and then start acting out might simply be exhausted from the effort of trying to learn all day – which for them is harder than for most.

The message is simply, if in doubt check it out because the potential to effect change is much greater if the problem is addressed early.

Specialist psychologists are best placed to assess these children with learning difficulties, if they are available and if the patient’s family can afford them. In general, they assess children utilising a wide range of validated surveys and in-person interviews with both the child and ideally the child’s carers. They look at, not only capacity and memory, but also the impact of any concurrent mental health issues and where their strengths as well as their weaknesses lie.

All this information is then utilised to devise strategies to help that individual child maximise their learning capacity. For example if a child has been assessed to have an issue with their working memory, one of the major challenges they will face with schoolwork is planning. Strategies to overcome this might include pre-reading and discussion prior to commencing the task such as writing an essay. These children will also be helped by very structured approaches such as essay frames where they decide before starting the essay what should go in paragraph one, and what needs to go in paragraph two etc.

It is all very treatable once the problem is recognised, identified and appropriately addressed.

For those interested in accessing help for children with learning difficulties Dr Scholes and Dr Dodds were able to recommend some good resources currently available. They included Learning Difficulties Australia (ldaustralia.org), Auspeld (auspeld.org.au) and Multilit (multilit.com) as well as the Australian Psychological Society (psychology.org.au), especially if someone is trying to find a psychologist specifically trained in this area.

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