Supporting a Sense of Learning Competency for Children with Language Related Learning Disabilities

By: Augusta Gross

April, 2001

Throughout their cognitive development, children's thinking abilities undergo many changes; how well they absorb and understand the world around them depends on their growing abilities to process information in a more complex and integrated way. As we know, children are busily engaged in learning skills in all kinds of areas both in and outside classroom situations. Developing good language and communication skills is a central task for children, and contributes to their making sense of their own experiences internally as well. Children develop a positive self concept in part through their sense of industry, and purpose, provided they achieve an inner sense of growth and success in their endeavors.

Children who experience mild to moderate language-related learning disabilities have to cope with learning difficulties that vary widely in scope. Given the importance of mastering basic language and communication skills, it is not surprising that children with specific language related learning disabilities are prone to experience feelings of inadequacy in tasks that do not come easily to them.

Each child's language related disabilities translate into an array of weaknesses in specific processing skills, ranging from subtle to more obvious effects. It is widely understood that Phd children with language related disabilities are vulnerable to periodic experiences of frustration and disappointment when their language weaknesses interfere with learning basic skills. Language related disabilities can occur in discrete areas confined to basic reading skills, but frequently they also affect other areas of language functioning such as written and/or oral language communication. Because language disabilities affect such a complex interplay of cognitive processes, it is often difficult to generalize how the disabilities will impact an individual child's mastery of particular language skills. Even the most "mild" of language processing problems can have a significant impact on children's language and communication skills, and thereby on their sense of competency as a learner.

Much valuable understanding has been gained in identifying ways to promote these children's self esteem. For example , when children with language difficulties get frequent and encouraging feedback about their areas of natural talent and interest, they can identify positively with a sense of competence. Another avenue for approach is to engage in ongoing dialogues with children about their interests, their learning challenges, their internal experience of learning and their evaluation of their learning competencies. Such one-on-one conversations can help children develop a more positive identity as a competent learner.

We know that children with language difficulties need individualized attention to their learning difficulties and part of that attention consists of explaining their difficulties to them in ways they can understand and use. It is often recommended that children do better when they have an awareness of their learning strengths as well as their learning weaknesses. In time, they can find out more about their individual style of learning, and what they need in order to learn well.

How children interpret their learning experiences is critical; a child who can make sense of his overall learning abilities has to be able to find ways to integrate his learning strengths and weaknesses. We can help children develop their inner resources by identifying their strengths, and additionally, by focusing on the learning process in specific, concrete ways. Talking about the learning process is a challenging task, because it requires helping children to identify their thoughts and feelings, and in so doing, explore perplexing dilemmas about why learning feels efficient in some contexts and not at all in others.

Just as each child's profile of learning strengths and weaknesses varies, so does the child's individual capacities for emotional resourcefulness. In order to help build a relatively stable inner sense of competency, we have to consider what kind of self-understanding makes the child feel more able in approach learning tasks. In examining how best to approach talking about the child's inner experiences as a learner it helps to keep in mind several considerations:

  1. The child with language problems can be quick to assume he is not doing as well as others are doing, and therefore, feels he may disappointing us as well as himself. This theme of undervaluing his overall competencies can color his self perceptions, and impede his learning further. The more consistently we approach the child respectfully, aware that he likely knows more than he can actually demonstrate, the more we can expect the child to respond positively
  2. Specific phrasing is key in talking with children about their experiences as learners. This means that certain types of conventional descriptions of feeling are unlikely to be helpful; phrasing needs to be reworked in order to be vivid and communicative. Children can be encouraged to find the vocabulary that best describes their own learning experiences.
  3. Tuning into the small details about the learning process with the child, can often have a bigger impact than talking about generalized strengths and weaknesses. Recognizing learning problems that we all have in common can be helpful in order to normalize the child's reactions.

Keeping these general guidelines in mind when we talk with children, we can look at some specific suggestions for the kinds of approaches which can be helpful. How the conversation is introduced will vary according to the situation; it can be relatively brief, as way of pausing for a few seconds to reflect on the learning process, or it can be more detailed depending on the context and the child's level of understanding. In itself, taking time out to reflect on the nature of the child's learning experience is an acknowledgment that the child's inner experience counts. Below are some suggested starting points.

  • When a child experiences strong negative reactions to a learning situation (such as trying to avoid the task, or refusing to engage), the child may look uncooperative and stubborn. But the child may also be "saying" something important about how difficult the learning process feels at that moment. For example, a child who claims "I'll never learn this" in response to a difficult reading assignment, may be referring to a real fear of "never" being able to know what is required. In responding to such a statement, it can help to acknowledge the feelings implied e.g. " It must be scary when you find that book so tough to understand"; while also addressing the child's unrealistic predictions born out of fear e.g. "Sometimes it can feel like you'll never, ever, get it; imagine how we'd all be in a jam, if we never got better at something we practiced so hard !"
  • When a child is evidently frustrated in a learning situation, it can help to address elements of the task, or situation, that may be making it difficult for the child to learn efficiently. For example, a child with reading difficulties who is struggling to read a story may find it especially difficult to pick out what is important if the wording is complicated. In this case, focusing on the author's writing style may be a way of adding to the child's awareness what's problematic about the task, rather than what's problematic about his learning!
  • When the child reacts to a conversation in a slow or hesitant manner, we must recognize implicitly any strain on language skills that may occur because of the child's particular language difficulties. We may need to slow our pacing of the conversation, or we may rephrase or repeat our questions for example. The child is likely to be aware of that our level of communication competency vastly exceeds his own. We must recognize that the child has much to tell us about his reactions that we are interested to know, and that we could not possibly know without his help. We may need to tell the child explicitly that "when we talk about how we learn, it's not always so easy to explain what we're feeling or thinking". We can then try to offer some alternatives so the child does not have to initiate the dialogue, and can "correct" our suggestions with some words of his own.
  • We can expect that the child may wish to reverse roles to be the one who is relatively more "expert". We can look for opportunities to offer the child a chance to describe and explain what interests him. We can ask the questions to invite more elaboration. We can encourage children to 'show off' their own "teaching capacity" when they are in charge of telling us things that they have learned. We can also expect that children may occasionally enjoy putting us in situations where we are puzzled about how to react, just as they themselves may often feel in new learning situations.
  • It can help to share our own learning difficulties in a cautious manner, designed to help normalize the child's own experiences. For example, for a child who may have difficulty retaining comprehension of a reading passage, it might help to counter with a simple example of one's own retrieval problem, as well as to suggest a possible solution. "When I read the newspaper stories about the environment, even though I want to remember everything I can't, so I read it over and over, until I get the basic information I need".
  • We can pinpoint positive aspects of the child's learning process, at that moment when learning is taking place. For example, a child who has decoding difficulties may be surprised to learn that he has an excellent " reader's" eye when it comes to visual processing of the book, it's design, it's format and illustrations. In another example, a child who stumbles over individual words in reading a story may enjoy hearing about how well he does in other aspects of the task, e.g. that he may understand the character's motives unusually well, pointing to strengths in his social sensitivity.
  • It can be useful to address the ebb and flow of subjective feelings that go with learning well and compare them to times when learning feels more awkward. A child can usually identify with feelings associated with kinesthetic sensations like gliding, flowing, slipping. For example, a child who works well in assembling a building block display, might enjoy hearing a comment which acknowledges his sense of "ease", e.g. "When you put those pieces together it looks like your mind just slides right along to know what goes with what..." Or a child conversant in a computer game could be told "When you tell me how to play this game, you're like a skater who knows all the steps in his head and doesn't have to stop skating to remember!"
  • We need to watch out for the child's individual reactions to critical self-evaluations, words or terms such as "lazy" , "disorganized", "slow". Often , children are prone to internalize an overly critical judgment about themselves, using potent words like "stupid" that distort their judgment about their abilities. Children also react to negative phrases such as "needs to try harder"; "needs to pay more attention", which unfortunately have a way of appearing in formal reports such as teacher evaluation comments, testing results, and teacher and parent comments. Such negative descriptors can become words that wield a punch far more damaging than we can imagine.

For example, a child who describes himself as having a "stupid" brain, presumably related to his reading difficulties, needs to find ways to express his feelings and get feedback that counters his false 'beliefs' about his competency. It can help to pose questions such as "When exactly do you feel that way?", or "what makes you think that idea?" in setting up a dialogue where such feelings can be addressed, and challenged.

There are many different ways to approach conversations with children about their learning disabilities and their self perceptions. How we communicate with children about their learning experiences will depend on the individual child, and will need to be modified e.g. according to his age, his understanding of his difficulties, his preference for images and words that describe his own experience best. Each child needs to find strategies of maintaining emotional equilibrium, in order to recapture a sense of inner reliability when learning frustrations arise.

In any dialogue with children about their language disabilities we can expect that issues of competency are delicate and ever-present, in part because children may encounter language difficulties within the conversation itself. Conversations will be different with each child, and will depend on the learning context. As vulnerable as children may feel about their learning disabilities, they can also get support and relief in being able to articulate their inner experiences as a learner, and to have those experiences validated. They can also benefit from being in a conversation where their words, thoughts and feelings about learning, are deemed worth listening to.

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Augusta Gross (2001)