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Pointers to a specific learning difficulty

It is quite normal for a child to struggle with skills such as reading, writing, spelling, and arithmetic in the first year or two of school, but after this period, he should attain a basic level of competence. If your child continues to struggle beyond this period, he may have a specific learning difficulty. This should be suspected if he seems to be out of his depth and is not showing signs of becoming competent in basic academic skills. It may also be apparent to you that he seems brighter than these difficulties in his academic work would suggest.

His reading may be slow and hesitant, with elementary errors. When reading, he may make up the story based on the illustrations to cover his difficulties, or he may guess wildly at words. He may be unable to spell the words in his spelling list, despite trying reasonably hard. His writing may remain very immature or illegible despite his best efforts. Another warning sign is a child who can write neatly, but only if he writes at an extremely slow speed.

If his arithmetic skills are affected, he will seem to be lost when asked to do the calculations expected of a child in his class. He may have great difficulties understanding the meaning of arithmetical operations such as addition, subtraction, and multiplication.

Another clue that a child may have a specific learning difficulty is speech delay. The child may struggle to express himself, or his speech may be immature and indistinct. Sometimes it is the child’s difficulty in understanding language that is noticed first. He may become confused if given a complex instruction, and may not understand stories that are appropriate for his age.

Parents may notice that their child has difficulties in other areas of his development. Clumsiness, poor organization, poor concentration, and lack of selfcontrol are all signs that a specific learning difficulty may be present. He may be restless and impulsive, and unable to concentrate on one task for an appropriate period of time. He may have great difficulty getting things in the right order, or learning to differentiate right from left. Skills such as learning to do his shoe laces and tell the time may be beyond him at an age when other children are mastering these with ease.

Sometimes a specific learning difficulty presents first as a behaviour problem, or as a difficulty with peer relationships. This is a trap for the unwary as the problem may be put down to naughtiness, and the underlying learning difficulty not suspected. The child may refuse to do school work or he may truant. He may become withdrawn, or aggressive and defiant. He may be rejected by other children and become socially isolated. These behaviours may indicate low self-esteem as a result of difficulties with school work, or they may indicate a social immaturity that is itself a form of specific learning difficulty (this will be described in Chapter 12). Difficulty with concentration that results in restlessness and impulsivity may also be misinterpreted as naughtiness.

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