There is a range of “normal” performance for development, social skills and behaviors. Most parents rather intuitively sense when “everything is OK” when they observe their own children or maybe more so when they compare their child to someone else’s child. Keep in mind, however, that what is “normal” for your child may be very exceptional for your neighbor’s child.
There are subjective ways to characterize “normal” used by every attentive parent as they observe the growth and development of their child. Then there are also more objective ways to determine what is “normal” in areas of academics and when it is time to seek help. In many cases, both are very important sources of information for considering whether a child’s performance in academic tasks requires more than just re-teaching, review or more strict study habits.
There are many kinds of “normal” learning differences, and a wide body of information is available within home school and other literature on topics of learner differences, commonly referred to as “learning styles”. There are other, sometimes more subtle, other times more obvious, differences from typical development and learning behaviors of a child at a certain age or grade range. We are going to explore the more commonly encountered difficulties in development, behavior and academic performance that have made it difficult for the child with average to above-average intelligence to perform up to their God-given capacity.
What Are the Characteristics of a “Normal” Student?
- The child is working somewhere within the age-appropriate grade-level materials.
- The “normal” student probably has some relative strengths and weaknesses that will be seen within the first year or two of school.
- The “normal” student makes progress in mastery of skills at a rate approximately equal to one grade-level of material per school year attended, given reasonably adequate instruction and curriculum.
- The “normal” student demonstrates increasing self-control, self-discipline and organizational skills.
- The “normal” student is not laboring under handicapping conditions of health-related limitations (such as hearing impairment, vision limitations, or severe emotional issues). The “normal” student is not trying to learn in a second language or new cultural setting, and does not have severe limitations in intellectual capacity.
- The “normal” student is making adequate progress in developing appropriate social skills for interactions, play, and communications in various kinds of situations.
- The “normal” student has a healthy, normally functioning brain as indicated by normal childhood progress through walking, talking, vision, hearing, self-help and social interactions.
With all those descriptors, most parents are probably wondering by now if there is such a thing as a “normal” student. When a child is not communicating or talking well in the early years, the mother and/or father is usually inclined to “wait and see” if the child matures. This can be a reasonable choice for some early academic problems, but in areas of language and communication lags, time is of critical importance. The earlier that the issue is evaluated, specifically diagnosed and therapies begun, the better it will be for the long-term intellectual and communication needs of the child.
What Are the Key Areas of Academic Difficulties?
First, the home-teaching parent typically notices one of two things:
- Difficulties with reading, writing or math processing – these are often associated in the parent’s mind with “learning disabilities” – but it may not be that simple.
- Difficulties with attention and/or activity levels – these are often seen as an Attention-Deficit Disorder with or without hyperactivity.
There may be multiple factors that can affect the child’s attention — behaviors that are not going to be diagnosed as ADD -even though they may appear to have many of the “behaviors” found in most “checklists.” For example, language processing may cause the child to appear distractible or inattentive, just as in ADD/ADHD.
There are many other conditions that affect children’s learning, and some are becoming more frequently diagnosed, such as autism and Asperger’s syndrome – a type of high-function autism, and there are some less common conditions, some of which are being found to be strongly linked to exposure to environmental toxins – both before and after birth. Some of these are lifelong disabilities that require both medical and academic remedies. Recent legislation has prompted more active research and protective action to both prevent and cure these conditions. Just to illustrate – our nation has approved over 25,000 chemicals to use as food additives, medicines, pesticides, industrial and farm uses. Only about 2,000 have ever been tested for their impact on the health of CHILDREN, and research is making a stronger case that some of our children’s learning and behavior problems may be linked to this “chemical soup” in which we live. The 2000 Learning Disabilities Association Convention spent over three full days addressing these matters.
What Are the “Danger Signs” for Early Communication or Language Processing Delays?
Difficulties may exist in either receptive language (what the child understands) or in expressive language (what the child can say and explain). Some common warning signs include:
- The child has difficulty expressing him/herself
- The child does not seem to hear you when you speak softly or from a distance
- The child has problems with normal speech sounds – at the normal age
- The child has difficulty maintaining eye contact with you in conversations
- The child does not seem to understand what you are asking or telling him to do
- The child makes gestures or only sounds instead of trying to speak at age level
- The child has trouble repeating simple sentences by age 4
- The child has trouble answering simple questions when read a story
- The child has had frequent ear infections and/or allergies as a young baby or toddler
- The child seems to be having an unusual number of behavior problems – defiance, acting out, or poor social skills. Research indicates that many children with emotional problems have poor language or listening skills.
Refer to: Childhood Speech, Language, and Listening Problems: What Every Parent Should Know, by Patricia McAleer Hamaguchi.
What Are the Warning Signs of a Vision Problem?
There can be several types of vision problems. The most simple is a lack of sharp vision, or visual acuity. The child does not have what is called 20/20 vision. In a school setting, however, there may be other factors affecting the child’s ability to use the eyes for reading, copying from the board or from papers on the desk, and following a line of print without getting lost or skipping words and lines. Children who are visually handicapped can have limited fields of vision or reduced accuracy in near or distance vision.
Many home-school parents have had their children evaluated and treated for vision therapy. Doctors who work with such problems are called “behavioral optometrists,” and they specialize in treating some vision problems with exercises that are said to strengthen specific functions of the eye and its ability to coordinate with the brain during a variety of visual activities. While there is a real lack of agreement in the research about the benefits from such visual therapy, there is no disagreement that children’s eyes are an essential part of the learning equation.
For children who are basically healthy and have healthy eyes, the following can be signs of a vision problem that contributes to learning problems. A vision problem is indicated when a child
- Holds books too closely
- Squints when working on “close” work
- Frequently loses place in copying from either board or papers up close
- Reports frequent headaches after eye-work
- Frequently rubs or blinks eyes during close work
- Seems bothered by working in bright lights or on certain colors of paper.
There may be more serious health issues that can also mimic or cause visual disturbances. These may be a result of traumatic injury to the brain, concussions, and cerebral palsy. Some problems associated with these causes can include blurred vision, sensitivity to light, reporting that words are moving, or difficulty with memory.
Parents interested in more specific details need to check the website for the Optometric Extension Program at http://www.Healthy.net/oep/BRAIN.HTM .
***Please note that the intelligence of the child is not related to whether they may have a vision or language/communication difficulty.
How Can I Tell If My Child Has ADD?>
Most parents do not have any difficulty agreeing that both vision and speech can be measured and assessed objectively. Another area that is less easy to measure is the wiggly or fidgety child. Many parents of young children begin to wonder: Is my child hyperactive or even ADD? There are criteria that may help you evaluate whether to seek a more formal evaluation. The American Academy of Pediatrics has put out a general recommendation.
Children who present with inattention, hyperactivity, impulsivity, academic underachievement, or behavior problems should be considered for more evaluations. Diagnosis should be based on the criteria found in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, which is published by the American Psychiatric Association. Called the DSM by most professionals, the book covers the entire spectrum of mental and emotional difficulties. ADHD was first included in the third edition, and the definitions have been refined since then in the fourth edition. The disorder now has several sub-types described, which more accurately describe the reality that some forms of attention deficit are found without hyperactivity or impulsive behaviors. The APA requires that six of more of several categories of inattention and hyperactivity be present for at least 6 months and to a degree that is maladaptive and inconsistent with the child’s developmental level. Impulsivity should have been causing impairment from more than one setting since before the child was 7 years old.
There are many checklists and many parent magazines describing ADD/ADHD that can be found on the internet, but proceed with caution and carefully research the most rigidly applied standards in trying to figure out if your child is truly ADD/ADHD. Consult a specialist. It is significant to note that even psychiatrists find it challenging to accurately identify ADD or ADHD in children under the age of 4 or 5 because of the wide range of “normal” behaviors, so their checklists must include very specific criteria that must be present at a certain frequency and intensity to find a diagnosis of ADD/ADHD. (Just a cautionary note – many pediatricians are not as familiar as psychiatrists with these subtle differences in types, and therefore hesitate to accept a diagnosis of ADD from a pediatrician, unless he or she is well trained in the specialty of ADD/ADHD behaviors and in managing both medication and counseling.)
The psychiatrist or psychologist observes carefully what is going on with external behaviors. One fascinating new area of research is the use of MRI (magnetic resonance imaging) scans on the brains of children. Research indicates that there are defined areas of the brain that are affected by ADHD. The part of the brain that is typically associated with “inhibition” is affected and in fact the entire right cerebral hemisphere in boys with ADHD has been found to be smaller than in regular, non-ADHD children. Some connection is seen with history of prenatal, perinatal and birth complications. Other researchers are looking into genetic markers associated with ADHD, and they are finding some evidence there – some researchers indicate there may be more than one gene responsible. Boys are up to 9 times more likely to have ADD-ADHD. It is also significant to alert parents that difficulties with attention, focus and controlling impulses continue into adult life, affecting job capability and relationships.
Often learning problems, dietary or environmental allergies, emotional issues or immaturity can masquerade as an ADD set of behaviors. Thus, one has to look at the “whole child” — in the context of the family setting and educational requirements — to consider whether ADD/ADHD is the major factor that may be affecting educational or social achievement.
What If My Child Has a Learning Disability?
When a child seems to be experiencing difficulty doing schoolwork, the typical questions most parents ask start with include: Am I doing something wrong? Is there something I’m not doing well? Is the child just “slower” than my other children? Does my child have a different “learning style” than I’m using?
All these questions are a useful place to start. If you have tried honestly and objectively to look at your skills in organization, and thoroughness in presenting information in a reasonably well-sequenced program (maybe you are following a set program), then you need to step back and look harder for an explanation to your child’s problem. You may need to look at the actual program you have chosen – not all curriculum packages are well designed or logically organized. Some just don’t give enough practice – others just don’t give the foundation skills your child needs to move ahead. (Note – the program may work just splendidly for another child. This does not indicate a deficit in your child.)
After you have examined the “external” considerations, as just described, then you should begin looking at your child. I have already described several essential factors that must be working in a healthy way for the child to benefit from your instruction. We have discussed several very common problems already — communication, vision, and attention. It should come as no surprise, since we are both fearfully and wonderfully made, that it may be impossible to come to a clear explanation for most children’s learning behaviors.
You may question the continual reference to the child’s “behavior” rather than the child’s learning. Behavior encompasses more than learning. There are some schools of thought that address the child’s neurological deficits and indicate that certain treatments can address those deficits. Topics here include “visual processing deficits” and the benefits of vision therapy. There may be some successes in using such approaches. However, a lengthy search for scientific studies providing an explanation for “visual processing deficits,” and the benefits of vision therapy, produced a stack of computer printouts that yielded no conclusive documentation for that one neurological condition. While many scientists are investigating objectively the infinitely tiny aspects of the brain’s function, they are struggling to understand the complex interactions and functions of the brain’s beautiful organization. Their efforts may eventually bear much fruit. It seems best at this point in time to focus on that part of a child’s learning problem that can be more easily seen and measured.
There is a well-known issue in educational research called a “Hawthorne” effect – it states that ANY treatment applied can produce changes, if only because the participants in a study are looking for changes, and there is no way to measure what would have happened without having done anything. The Hawthorne effect makes it difficult to prove that a “treatment” caused the changes in question. Some educational therapies fall into that category. If you personally have used particular treatment programs, and you are satisfied your child’s skills improved as a result, there is no argument with what you experienced. Anecdotal stories of success may indicate the utility of certain treatments in effecting improvements, but careful research may be needed to demonstrate that those treatments will be effective for others.
Typically, professionals evaluating a child for learning difficulties will begin by taking a history of the child, including birth complications, early childhood illnesses or emotional trauma, early learning behaviors, and social skills. They will then begin asking the parent to describe the specific academic behaviors that have caused concern. When you initiate a comprehensive evaluation of your child’s learning and physical history, try to be as thorough as possible in your replies to questionnaires. Small details are often of great significance to an evaluator or physician, and they can open up new diagnostic considerations that may be very important.
Once the history-taking has been completed, the child’s evaluator will make recommendations for a battery of diagnostic testing and observations to learn more about how the child performs under certain standardized conditions or on standardized tests. These evaluations are then scored and the composite of information carefully considered and weighed to form a diagnosis and recommendations for your child’s educational program. Your input is a valuable part of this entire process, and you should be certain that your ideas are included in the final report. The final report should provide you with specific and understandable ideas for working to help your child make progress in areas of weakness, as well as continuing progress in areas of strength. If you find you need more direction about working to help your child, seek further input from those who evaluated the child. Their expertise and experience should be available to you for creating an educational plan for your child.
Once you have current data about your child’s strengths and weaknesses, you would do well to seek the advice of an educational consultant to help you create a year-long plan of educational goals for your child. This plan for children with special needs is called an IEP –Individualized Educational Plan or Program. Within a well written IEP, you will find long-range goals for your child, based on present performance on selected areas of academic, social, motor, speech or behavioral skills. The IEP then breaks down the long-range goals into smaller units, which can be called “benchmarks.” These smaller units make it possible for you to know what to do first, what learning must come next, and what the child has mastered. A well-written IEP will also provide you with details about the accommodations and modifications your child requires to have a “level playing field” in learning and testing.
You know, as home educators, that public school administrators seek to monitor your child’s progress. Typically, their expectations are based on a normal student who is learning at a typical rate. The child with identified special needs may not be capable of maintaining that level or rate of performance. The IEP provides the individualized statement of expectations for your child and the manner in which both learning and testing will be conducted. The administrator should take into consideration the limitations and weaknesses that affect your child in determining if enough progress has been made. For example, a child with reading skills on the second grade level whose math skills are at the sixth grade level should not be tested on all sixth grade objectives. The IEP should state that math testing be carried out for sixth grade content, but that materials (even on math tests) that require reading might be read aloud to a child, and that reading itself would be assessed at second grade level. In this way, the child’s progress in each area of academic performance can be monitored individually.
If you believe your child needs special help, it is best to seek a comprehensive evaluation of his or her academic skills, overall ability, and areas of weakness. A well informed parent is always more confident and better equipped to help the child.