My youngest is one of kind. Actually, he’s nearly a carbon copy of his dad, but according to the teachers and specialists he’s met with, he’s definitely unique. He learns differently than the average youngster and his only definitive traits are that he is consistently inconsistent. They haven’t been able to pigeonhole him yet. He has some traits of dyslexia, some trait of dysgraphia, a speech delay (but advanced vocabulary) and small motor control problems. He can change the oil in any truck, tractor, or ATV we own, and often helps his dad troubleshoot mechanical problems in the equipment barn. He carries on intelligent conversations with adults, gets along well with his peers, and prefers to be outdoors at the crack of dawn – working. Last week after a rough day doing creative writing, he announced he was quitting school and getting a job fixing cars. Did I mention he’s seven years old? Yeah, he’s unique all right.
Because he doesn’t fit into any existing patterns for learning disabilities, we’ve resorted to creating a hodgepodge of adaptations to deal with issues as they arise in the classroom. And since he doesn’t fit the traditional diagnoses for typical learning disorders, we’ve had to pay for much of his treatment out of pocket, unless we wanted to wait until he failed a grade at which time the state would step in and fund a more robust and aggressive set of learning interventions. We decided we weren’t willing to sacrifice a year of his education and worked his treatment into the family budget.
He’s now in second grade, and has straight A’s. He works four times as hard as the average student and sometimes takes days to complete a seemingly simple assignment. But we’ve found a combination that works for him, and what we’ve learned from our struggles may help some parents out there who are feeling overwhelmed and perhaps don’t have room in the budget for specialized treatment. Here’s what we learned.
Attitude is Everything
Attitude is everything. The first thing we did was let both boys know it’s OK to fail, as long as they gave it a good shot. We provided heaps of encouragement, cried with the little guy when he was having a bad day, and sometimes skipped out on school early to have ice cream during a particularly rough session. We learned what our limits are (as a teacher and as a student) and learned to respect those limits. We set up an environment of positive attitude, encouragement, love, strong work ethic, and change. We learned early on when dealing with any learning difficulties, change is an inevitable part of the treatment, and embracing frequent change helped us weather the frequent transitions.
Motor Control Matters
Most of us don’t need a degree in Occupational Therapy to know kids need small motor control to write well. But what we learned is that more often than not, kids with learning difficulties also have problems with motor control. One specialist gave my son exercises to do every day. They included skipping rope, doing jumping jacks, moving his fingers in and out in order, and bouncing on a small trampoline – all of which he had difficulty with. He would bounce with his hands over his heart, on his head, over his eyes, and at his sides. All these exercises were to stimulate the nerve connections in his brain that were lacking, which were the root of his poor motor control and some of his learning difficulties. Honestly, it sounded like a load of B.S., but when we started seeing improvements in his handwriting and reading, we were speechless. And we kept after him to do those silly exercises every day. (You can read about rebounding and learning disabilities here.)
The Eyes Have It
Another important part of treating his learning problems included eye movement therapy. For us, this included several trips to the optometrist for specialized testing. While my child has excellent vision, he has a type of double vision when focusing on items up close, like words on a page while reading. The solution was reading glasses with prisms and eye movement exercises to train the eyes to work together.
We also took the advice of the specialist and invested in the Brain Age games for his Nintendo DS. These games were fun for him and helped improve his visual tracking and memory retention skills. He’s now a sudoku master.
Some iPad apps that we regularly use with him are:
1. Articulate It! by Smarty Ears (for practicing his speech therapy at home, which includes the option to email recordings to his SLP teacher)
2.Word Wizard by L’Escapadou (for phonics and spelling)
3. Dyslexia Quest by Nessy (adorable games to improve visual and auditory memory and sequencing skills)
4.Dexteria by BinaryLabs (fun exercises for small motor control)
5. Feel Electric by Sesame Street (to help deal with emotions during difficult days)
Another technological aid we utilize during the school day is a software program called Kidspiration. This program uses visual learning techniques for creative writing, math, science, and social studies. This program decreased our creative writing time down from 12 hours a week to 6 hours, and was well worth the $60 purchase price.
While many of these interventions were tailored specifically for my son and may not apply to your child, most of them employ a solid approach to enhancing learning that should benefit all children – even those without learning difficulties. Strengthening memory and muscle control and sparking interest with technology are good investments in any educational enhancement plan.