A new study released in April 2012 in Current Biology has found a significant causal link between Visual Spatial Attention and Reading Acquisition. In plain English, what this means is that parents and clinicians may now be able to identify as well as intervene to better prevent a child from being held back by the handicap that dyslexia can cause for them as they grow older.
The study found that poor readers demonstrated an impaired ability to scan and search through visual material when they were prereaders. In addition, the study reports that 60% of poor readers displayed visual-attention deficits when prereaders. The causal relation was made that visual attention in preschoolers specifically predicts future reading acquisition.
This study can be tremendously helpful to parents, teachers, and clinicians in our ability to identify and help these children. Parents can take notice of their child’s ability to maintain visual attention and practice these skills in a fun manner such as ‘Visual Search & Find’ (i.e.: Where’s Waldo type games). Preschool teachers and programs can make it a point to incorporate such activities into their curriculum to help build these skills in children. Lastly, clinicians can focus greater attention on the use of visual scanning assessment tools as one of the various measures used to identify dyslexia at a younger age.
For parents who are interested in practicing these skills with their young children but who need some guidance in how to begin, a good starting place is to discuss it with your child’s teacher. Another option would be to work with a psychologist who specializes in educational assessments and can tailor a plan for you to work on these skills with your child. In addition, if your child is demonstrating significant difficulties in his/her visual attention at a young age (approximately 3-5), you may want to closely track their growth in attaining reading skills as they grow older and get them evaluated for dyslexia in early elementary school if you are concerned. Never dismiss your gut feelings as a parent… if you feel like something is not right, it’s important to get them evaluated early. After all, nobody knows your child better than you do.
Our kids are our first priority in life… we put their health and their happiness over our own in the hope that they will go further in life than we did and be able to turn their dreams (as well as our dreams for them…) into reality. Whatever problems they have… we are ready to fix…. If they’re sick, we take them to the pediatrician, if they’re having trouble seeing, we take them to the optometrist, if they have a tooth-ache, we take them to the dentist… so if they are having trouble in school, why is it that we hesitate before going to a professional for help?
Learning disabilities (LD) and Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) are neurological disorders which have significantly more successful outcomes if identified and addressed early in life. LD and ADHD commonly occur together in children (30-50% of the time) and are primarily due to differences in the way a person’s brain is ‘wired’. Children with these disabilities are equally smart or even smarter than their peers but have specific difficulties. These difficulties may be in academic areas such as reading, writing, & math, or they may be in executive functioning skills (i.e. their ability to follow directions, manage & organize their time, impulsivity, etc), or in both. In a real life scenario, this might be a child who is good at math and hands-on tasks, but has difficulty paying attention when required to read an assignment and answer questions and has to be reminded several times before getting started on tasks. In most cases, parents get frustrated with these children because they have the ability and intelligence to succeed across certain domains, but in other areas, it appears as though they are not trying. The truth, however, is that if a student has a Learning Disability or ADHD, they may be trying harder than all their peers to succeed, but that their biological make-up is preventing them from ever being able to excel in their area of weakness without the use of direct intervention.
LD and ADHD have social consequences in addition to the academic ones. Many students who have difficulty staying focused in class, paying attention to the teacher, or understanding the material being presented turn to dysfunctional means of compensating for the low self-confidence their deficits have created in them. Research has found that boys tend to divert attention off their disability by drawing attention to something they have control over… their behavior. They tend to become the class clown and act out in classes as a means of masking the low self-confidence and getting their peers and teachers to think that they are purposely trying not to do well. In girls, the low self-confidence tends to cause them to isolate and internalize their feelings. As a result, they become quiet, shy, and unwilling to discuss their feelings which can lead to depression in the long-run. As they grow up, these negative coping skills can lead both males and females with LD and ADHD into self-destructive patterns of drug use, violence, and oppositional behavior.
There are many learning strategies and interventions which can be used to help students with LD and ADHD to function better both academically and in society. However, the first step in getting help for your child is to have them undergo a psycho-educational evaluation to identify their strengths, weaknesses, and to diagnose the disability if necessary. This can be done by a psychologist who will create a report with recommendations of what steps should be taken to help your child to succeed. Some of these steps will likely be referrals to educational therapists and community resources to help rehabilitate the student in their area of weakness. Behavioral tools can also be employed to better control impulsive behavior, etc.
In the end, it is important to understand that although it is difficult to accept that our children might have difficulties with learning and functioning in the academic environment, it does not always mean that they are deliberately behaving that way. Once parents can accept this notion, it takes a load off both their shoulders as well as their child’s and opens the door to a path of various options and interventions to help them succeed. Once Learning Disabilities and ADHD are identified for children, it not only validates their feelings but it can also give them hope in their ability to achieve in school and break the label of being the ‘bad student’ for the rest of their educational endeavors. As for parents, it can once again give them hope in the future achievements of their children.
When I look back at my elementary school education, an aspect of it which sticks out in my mind is all the spelling instruction we used to have. I have clear memories of taking my spelling lists home and memorizing how to spell the words and then trying to remember them the next day as my teachers read them aloud for us to spell. It was not something I necessarily enjoyed doing, but I knew that it was necessary for me to learn how to spell as a means of advancing to the next level of my education. That’s why I was very surprised when I read the following article regarding the de-emphasis of spelling in elementary schools today.
Spelling is one of the essential building blocks that sets the foundation for successful writing. Not only does it contribute to your child’s ability to be a good writer in the future, but it also affects the speed of their writing. Your child’s ability to spell appropriately also has an indirect link to their ability to read correctly, quickly, and to comprehend the content of the material. Finally, spelling and reading are very significant in building a child self-esteem and confidence in school. If they grow up to be embarrassed by their ability to spell or to read, it is going to cause them to avoid such tasks and divert attention away from themselves by either becoming the class clown or by being socially withdrawn as a means of not getting noticed.
Spelling is an issue which is going to follow your child for the rest of their life. Being a Learning Disability Specialist at the Los Angeles Community College District, I am constantly meeting with college students who are able to understand the content of the courses they are enrolled in, but are held back by their lack of ability to write at age-level. Many of these students choose to get tested to determine if their weakness in the area of writing would qualify them to be eligible for accommodations under the title of a learning disability. Although these students may qualify for services to help them get through the writing aspect of their courses more effectively, these services do not solve the problem but instead put a Band-Aid on them. If the foundation of spelling skills is lacking, it is very difficult to progress in the stages of writing. When a college student is not confident in their ability to spell and use grammar correctly, they automatically lose their confidence in conveying their knowledge and understanding of the course material within the body of the essay.
Therefore, it is essential that students are given a strong foundation in spelling at an early age. If you feel that your child’s school is not addressing their writing skills, please discuss this with the administration. You will not only be helping your child, but every other child in that school. If the spelling instruction is appropriate but your child is having difficulty grasping the concept, it is wise to have him/her evaluated for a learning disability in spelling as soon as possible. The sooner the weakness is identified, the sooner it can be addressed and remediated. This is not something that your child needs to live with forever. Once a learning disability is identified at a young age, various methods of instruction can be introduced to help them grasp the information in a why that is effective for them. However, the longer that you let it go or wait it out, the more difficult it becomes for your child to catch up academically.
For more information or if you have questions regarding learning disabilties, please feel free to call my office at 818-523-9394 or visit my webpage at http://www.lapsych.com/psycho-educational.asp.
-Dr. Sheyda Melkonian