28 Sep 2017

How parents can support kids who struggle to learn

From Nine To Noon, 11:27 am on 28 September 2017

New Zealand children are expected to learn to read in the first three years of school, then it flips over to reading to learn, says speech and language therapist Christian Wright.

But while many do learn to read in that three-year window, a number of children don't get there.

How can parents support kids who finding learning difficult?

A child who struggles to learn in these first years of school has commonly had delayed speech and language development in the preschool years, Wright says.

Once at school, they may have difficulty reading, which often translates to writing.

They may also have what Wright calls 'working memory issues', such as only being able to remember one part of a 2-step instruction.

Sometimes these kids will also have a hard time making friends or understanding the complexities of group games in the playground.

"They often can feel that not only is school hard, but the social side of things can be equally as challenging."

With these kids, the first thing to look at is their thoughts and feelings about learning.

For children with this challenge, learning is first and foremost an emotional event in which their brain's stress response 'shuts the door', Wright says.

"These children almost view learning as a threatening experience, particularly if it's reading or writing. And their brain essentially responds to that by going into survival mode. Their limbic response lights up and you see that 'fight, flight or freeze' response being to emerge, so they're on high alert.

"Threat is threat, as far as the brain's concerned. A lion versus a text I can't read… My brain doesn't necessarily say 'A book is not going to kill me'. The brain just says 'threat is threat' and it engages in its threat response.

"Now the child is having great difficulty trying to interpret what's happening in front of them because all of their energy is going into keeping themselves safe from this threat."

The brain's 'fight, flight and freeze' response can take different forms, he says.

Some children become aggressive, fold their arms and say they won't do the schoolwork.

Others become evasive and change the topic or move away from the desk.

Some will freeze and just sit there staring at the page.

"It looks like the child's willfully being disobedient but actually they've become frozen."

"The outcome is these children typically come to a logical conclusion, which is 'I'm dumb. I'm not good at learning'.

So how can parents support kids and edge the door of learning back open?

Wright recommends teaching them about their 'upstairs' and 'downstairs' brain – an idea explored in the book The Whole-Brain Child by Daniel Siegel and Tina Payne Bryson.

"I teach them there's a part of your brain that's responsible for keeping you alive – that's helpful – then there's a part of your brain that's responsible for learning. Your survival brain trumps your learning brain."

Work on separating the child's behaviour from their sense of who they are as a person, and they can then begin to understand that to fail is to learn, he says.

It can be helpful to let the child lead the learning and teach you about something they're really interested in.

"I'll find something they're really good at and I'll base the learning around that. For some of them its Minecraft, for some of them its a high interest in unicorns, it could be anything."

Demonstrates to the child how impressed you are with their specialist knowledge and praise them, Wright says.

"It's not about learning, it's about other factors impacting on your learning and we need to address those. But you are a learner and you are a successful learner. I need to convince you of that first before I approach your failures."

Always praise effort above ability and at the start, reduce the demands on their ability, he says.

"If I've got a task and I know where their strengths are in the task, there are some words they know and some words they don't, I always bring the words they know so essentially 90 percent of what they're seeing or engaging with they're successful with, 10 percent they struggle with, so that it's stacked in their favour."

Wright also makes mistakes in front of the child as they work together.

"I will deliberately manufacture mistakes and then correct myself to show that I'm failing and I'm learning."

To build trust he wants them to enjoy the experience of learning from and with him.

"From the trust comes the confidence to take a risk, and the risk gives you new learning."