Learning Difficulties


DSC_0461Schools expect children to be able to learn. When children can’t learn something fairly easily, and they aren’t ‘backward’ or clearly brain damaged, some part of the learning process isn’t happening according to plan.

The good news is that, once we know what is preventing the child from learning, we can ‘re-wire’ the brain and bring about learning success. This is due to the wonderful plasticity of the brain, which is recognised by all neuroscientists today.

Brain plasticity refers to the ability of the brain to restructure itself, repair damaged areas or to ‘grow’ new neural pathways to connect essential areas of the brain.

This is why we prefer using the term learning difficulties, rather than learning disabilities. A disability suggests that one is unable to do something. Very few children are unable to learn. Some have difficulties with aspects of learning and these can be overcome.

+ What does learning involve?

All learning requires a process made up of three basic steps:

  1. The first involves the process of sensation. This means that all incoming information to the brain occurs through the senses (sensation). The senses consist of those well-known to all of us, such as touch, taste, sight, hearing and smell. Those less well-known, but equally important, consist of knowledge of where the parts of the body are (proprioception), and the sense of where our bodies are in relation to the constant pull of gravity (vestibular sense).
  2. The second step involves perception which means that the information from the senses is organised meaningfully (i.e. interpreted or given meaning) in the brain. Once the ‘raw data’ from various sensory organs has reached the brain, it is forwarded to specialized areas which make sense of these different ‘bits’ of information. They have to sort, mix and match new information with what has been received before: in other words, the brain has to try and make sense of new information in the light of what has been remembered from earlier experiences.
  3. After this, we usually have to respond to the information that we have taken in. This requires us to react – either consciously or unconsciously – in the form of an action (movement).

To simplify, we receive input, process the input and then show a response (output). This somewhat simplified version nevertheless explains how the nervous system works.

To illustrate this, I am borrowing from the wonderful work done by Barbara Pheloung and Jill King in Australia, who wrote the book entitled Overcoming Learning Difficulties, published in 1992 and available from Doubleday Publishers in Australia and New Zealand.

These authors give a great example in their book of a confused motor car driver with some learning problems (pp. 25-31):

This man has poor control of his car. He grips the steering wheel tightly, he has difficulty judging distances, hence he has a few scrapes on his car. Road signs are hard for him to read quickly. He’s not automatically sure which is left or right.

He can’t remember the order to doing things, such as first putting his indicator on, then getting into the correct lane and then turning. Traffic noise prevents him from hearing what his passenger is saying.

Many of these things should have become automatic – the ability to judge distance, eye focusing, knowing left from right, knowing order, listening against background noise.

It is hard for many of us to imagine how terribly difficult driving a car is for this man as we do those things without consciously thinking. One way of understanding his predicament is to remember what it was like when you were learning to drive. You had to think of all the mechanical things to do such as changing gears or finding the brake pedal and worry about traffic at the same time.

For experienced drivers the mechanics have become automatic and all they have to do is worry about the traffic. They’re on automatic drive. Our poor friend still has to make a concerted effort to think about everything. He finds it a strain to drive and, therefore, difficult to avoid serious accidents.

+ What does learning to drive a car involve?

First of all, we need to be able to balance easily behind the wheel so our hand can be free to feel for the indicator and our feet for the brake and accelerator pedal without our eyes leaving the road. (Vestibular system).

We depend on our eyes to see how close we are to other vehicles and to watch out for pedestrians and road signs. Our ears give us signals about the approach of other vehicles and we should be able to hear what our passenger is saying in spite of traffic noise.

All this information goes to our brain through the various senses and then the brain sorts it out and relates it to what is already known. This process should be quick and automatic so the final step is a suitable response.

For instance, we might see a big hole in the road at the same time as we hear a car coming up to overtake us on our right side. A snap decision has to be made based on the information the brain has received. Our response should be to veer quickly to our left into the shallow ditch rather than to the right and into the other car.

There are other skills needed for driving. Pre-planning enables us to end up in the correct lane when we want to turn off the main road. We also find it handy to know our left from our right, particularly if someone is giving us directions….For both driving and learning in the classroom it is necessary to be able to do several things at the same time, otherwise strain and confusion result.”

+ What made the car driver confused?

As explained previously, the nervous system works by having information coming in, storing, mixing and matching information, and making the appropriate responses. Often the errors start with inadequate information reaching the brain.

Firstly, he has difficulty balancing so he has to hand on tightly to the steering wheel. He has difficulty finding the brake with his foot. He can’t judge accurately how far he is from other things. He can’t focus his eyes quickly enough to read a sign as he drives by; his eyes just get focused by the time he has passed it.

He can’t concentrate on what his passenger is telling him. His brain is receiving confusing information and nothing he does is automatic. His responses are therefore unsure, even inappropriate, and sometimes cause accidents.

+ What was the car driver like as a child?

Imagine this boy as a child in the classroom. Imagine him trying to copy numbers from the blackboard into his notebook. The only way he could balance on the chair was with his legs in a strange position. One of his arms hangs down his side instead of holding the notebook.

The teacher is telling the class to put the numbers on the left-hand side of the page, to put them in a certain order and hurry up. At the same time there is normal classroom noise. He’s terribly slow because his eyes don’t focus and refocus easily from the blackboard to the notebook and because his notebook keeps slipping.

He can’t judge distances so his work is crooked, untidy and jammed up. He puts the numbers on the right side of the page instead of the left. They are in the wrong order and he’s not sure what the teacher said anyway Way back then he was looking confused.

Those same mechanical skills were never on “automatic” drive. His entire system was continually overloaded by the demands of the school day. No wonder he grew increasingly tired and stressed.

+ Mixed messages

The brains of many children with learning difficulties are not getting accurate information from the world. This doesn’t only apply to visual and auditory information but in the other senses as well.

There is trouble with information coming in, or with the way the information is sifted and related, in memory and the association of ideas in the brain or with the way the brain controls the body’s response. Of course, it’s also possible that a child may have trouble with all of these areas.

It isn’t easy to tell from children’s behaviour exactly at which point this complex communication process breaks down. However, it is possible to get enough clues to make valid assumptions about what kinds of movement the child needs in order to reorganise the brain.

By specific exercises and activities, it is possible to restructure the neural network that makes up the brain and nervous system. When this happens, the brain begins to receive more accurate information, is able to mix and match the information in a meaningful way and consequently, the responses of the child become more efficient and effective.

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