Spotting your child's learning disability early


Parents should be aware of important developmental milestones so that they will know if their child is not progressing as they should. — Photos: Positive Parenting

When it comes to learning, every child learns at a different pace.

Any gaps in a child’s ability to learn usually show up once he or she starts going to kindergarten.

One yardstick used to measure a child’s academic capability is known as 3M (menulis, membaca, mengira), which refers to the core skills of reading, writing and arithmetic.

Over the past 18 months, some parents of young children who had to transition from kindergarten to primary school may have had worries because of the closure of kindergartens and pre-schools due to the Covid-19 pandemic.

While this disruption may have affected the learning process, these challenges can be addressed, and by working together, parents and educators can assist a child to overcome any learning lag.

That said, if you notice that your child is consistently struggling to learn or understand things, then it’s crucial to find the underlying root cause.

Spot it early

Parents need to know if their child’s growth and development is progressing normally.

This is only possible if you keep track of your child’s key developmental milestones starting from birth.

Consultant paediatrician Datuk Dr Zulkifli Ismail explains: “Parents, especially first-time parents, should be familiar with important milestones, such as when an infant should start talking, recognising letters of the alphabet and so on.

“This will help you quickly identify any significant delays or difficulties in learning how to read, talk or associate letters with sounds.”

If you notice any significant delays, don’t ignore it or “wait and see”.

Developmental delays (especially reading, language or social skills) are sometimes caused by problems with a child’s hearing or vision, so it’s best to spot these problems early on.

Highlight any concerns with your child’s paediatrician to get professional help in confirming if this is the problem, or if it is indeed a learning disability.

Dr Zulkifli, who is also chairman of the Positive Parenting programme, suggests: “If you’re not sure what to ask your paediatrician, just voice your concerns.

“Be as specific as possible in describing your observations of your child’s development and behaviour, as these are very helpful clues.”

Do note that while children with Down syndrome, autism spectrum disorder and brain trauma/injury often face problems with learning, these conditions are not considered a learning disability.

There are specific types of learning disabilities, such as dyslexia (affects reading/writing), dyspraxia (affects motor skills) and dyscalculia (affects math ability).

In 2015, a screening of Malaysian students by the Education Ministry estimated that 7% had dyslexia.

He adds: “Parents must continue to remain vigilant.

“Some learning disabilities such as dyslexia may only become apparent from kindergarten onwards.

“Continue spending quality time with your child – not only will it be a boon to establishing a closer parent-child bond, but it also makes it easier for you to quickly identify any potential problems in her future development.”

Learning differently

Teachers should be trained in early intervention programmes to be able to effectively help children with learning disabilities.Teachers should be trained in early intervention programmes to be able to effectively help children with learning disabilities.

A learning disability (also known as specific learning disability) is a significant and ongoing difficulty with one or more areas of learning.

This can lead to greater learning difficulties, but in no way is it due to low intelligence.

Intellectual disabilities are caused by impaired general IQ, which can lead to learning difficulties and is not limited to just academic performance, but can be seen across other areas of development as well.

Signs of developmental delays include delays in early language, fine motor skills and independent self-care from an early age.

Developmental and behavioural paediatrician Dr Cindy Chan points out: “A child with a specific learning disability often has a normal IQ – indeed, some are very bright intellectually.

“Yet, without the right support, he will struggle to keep up with his peers.

“This can affect his self-esteem and have a negative long-term impact on staying engaged with school or learning.”

It is important to identify the underlying intellectual and learning profile of each child.

Some children may have more than one type of learning disability, thus accurately identifying them will help in planning an effective education plan.

However, it is far more crucial that your child receives extra support, compared to confirming the diagnosis of what he has.

Coping with your child’s learning disability will often comprise several approaches.

There is no one-size-fits-all approach to intervention, as it should be individualised and must allow for an intensity and length of time according to the child’s needs.

Practical strategies include behavioural approaches (e.g. building in regular physical breaks during lessons), compensatory accommodations (e.g. use of voice-to-text apps for dyslexics or keyboard and laptop for students with significant handwriting difficulty) and environmental accommodations (e.g. preferential seating near the teacher’s desk or allowing a small fidget item for kids who have trouble focusing during lessons).

Do talk with an expert to prepare specific interventions to help support and remedy your child’s issues, e.g. using systematic instructions to teach literacy.

By providing early and effective support for a sufficient time, it can really help narrow the gaps in his school readiness, and promote crucial foundations in literacy and numeracy.

Approach it systematically and take baby steps, while providing clear and systematic instructions on how he is to achieve them.

Repeat as often as required and have regular revisions consistently.

Communicate closely with your child’s teachers and paediatrician.

At the same time, keep track of whether the methods are helping your child cope with his learning.

This information will be useful to continuously fine-tune goals and strategies.

ALSO READ: Tips for parents with children who have learning disabilities

The role of teachers

The school environment and educators also play a large role in helping children with learning disabilities stay on track academically.

Parents need to actively work hand-in-hand with teachers, so don’t miss parent-teacher meetings and keep tabs on how your child is doing at school by communicating regularly with her teacher.

Association of Registered Child-care Providers Malaysia (PPBM) president Anisa Ahmad says: “Children with learning disabilities should ideally be enrolled in an appropriate school, as attending a ‘normal’ school will not be conducive to their learning.

“They may face problems such as being bullied or alienated by their peers, and teachers in a regular school may also lack the experience to handle kids with learning disabilities.

“There are inclusive programmes for early childhood care and education in Taska (Taman Asuhan Kanak-kanak, or nursery) and Tadika (Taman Didikan Kanak-kanak, or kindergarten) where children will have empathy and recognition towards their special needs peers.”

She adds: “Childcare providers and teachers need to learn early intervention programmes, so that early detection and stimulation can be done.

“PPBM, together with the Health Ministry, are working together to create a module for this and we have already submitted a proposal to the Women, Family and Community Development Ministry to train childcare providers and teachers.”

Sending a child to a private school specialising in teaching children with learning disabilities can be expensive.

While there are public schools that cater to children with learning disabilities such as dyslexia, not all families may have access to such schools geographically.

The 2019 National Health and Morbidity Survey (NHMS) found that 4.7% of children in Malaysia (about 430,000) have disabilities, but only 74,694 have access to inclusive education in public schools.

As a Taska advisor, Anisa adds: “It’s also been shown that parents and caregivers of children with learning disabilities face greater stress and negative caregiving consequences than those with typically-developing children.

“Do consider joining parental support groups.

“Facing hardship with the support of other parents who have encountered similar difficulties can make a big difference, even if it is just someone who can lend an ear to your troubles.”

Love and support

Regardless of what your child’s learning disability may be, stay focused on nurturing his gifts and interests.

Be supportive, and most importantly, provide him with unconditional love and support too!

Provide positive feedback and approval based on positive behaviours.

Any praise you give should always be honest, and most importantly, specific.

Just a generic “good boy” loses any meaning after numerous repetitions.

Also, when it comes to your expectations, be careful to match them with his aptitude and capabilities.

As parenting can be demanding and stressful, be sure to take care of your own health and mental well-being.

Take occasional breaks from your day-to-day routine to help you maintain the right state of mind, and to enable you to continue providing proper care for your child.

Yes, life might be tougher, but with the right support and preparation, you can do it!

At the end of the day, the most overwhelming key to a child’s success is the positive involvement of parents.

This article is courtesy of the Malaysian Paediatric Association’s Positive Parenting programme in collaboration with expert partners. For further information, please email starhealth@thestar.com.my. The information provided is for educational and communication purposes only and it should not be construed as personal medical advice. Information published in this article is not intended to replace, supplant or augment a consultation with a health professional regarding the reader’s own medical care. The Star does not give any warranty on accuracy, completeness, functionality, usefulness or other assurances as to the content appearing in this column. The Star disclaims all responsibility for any losses, damage to property or personal injury suffered directly or indirectly from reliance on such information.

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