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Learning Curves

Learning Curves

Published: 08/01/2010 by Broward Family Life staff

» Education

If learning were as easy as 1-2-3, all of our kids would be straight A students headed to Harvard. But learning is far more complicated than that.

For some kids, the structure and delivery methods of traditional schools work very well. But a large number of children struggle to reach their potential — not because they aren’t smart, but because they aren’t served by the one-size-fits-all approach of an education system that seems to value standardized test scores above the ability to comprehend, synthesize, apply and extrapolate new ideas from material presented in class.

Many parents — who, truth be told, love few things better than being able to brag about their children’s academic achievements — tend to focus more on grades than on learning. In part, that’s because few of us have other yardsticks by which to measure our children’s progress.

Understanding how children learn — and why they may actually be achieving admirably even if their grades are not A’s — is one of the most important and un-celebrated jobs a parent can have. Here are some insights to give parents a good start. Yes, there will be a test later on this material. It’s called your child’s future.

Medication and ADHD: Statistics to help parents decide
Parents whose children are diagnosed with attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder often feel a mixture of relief – finally, an explanation for their child’s behavior! – and befuddlement. Now what? Despite the large number of kids with the disorder, there is still a certain stigma associated with giving kids medication to help manage their symptoms.

Some critics say the drugs are more geared to help frustrated parents and teachers who are at the end of their rope than the children themselves. But a study published by the American Academy of Pediatrics calls that premise into question.

Tracking a nationally representative sample of almost 600 elementary children over six years, the study found that the children with ADHD who took medication scored 2.9 points higher in math and 5.4 points higher in reading than their unmedicated peers with ADHD.

The finding is important, the researchers said, given the high prevalence of ADHD and its strong association with lower academic achievement. Such improvement is notable as early academic success appears to be critical to later school progress.

Attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) affects an estimated 7.8 percent of the school-aged population. It is characterized by developmentally atypical levels of inattention, activity and impulsivity. Affected children also exhibit deficits in academic functioning. Relative to their peers without the condition, children with ADHD earn lower grades and have lower test scores; they also experience higher rates of grade retention, special education placement and dropout rates.

Despite the academic improvements among the ADHD students who took medication, the gains were not great enough to eliminate the test-score gap between children with ADHD and those without the disorder. Researchers said this suggests the continued need for active parent and teacher involvement plus tutoring.

Approximately 4.4 million children in the United States have been diagnosed with attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder, and 56 percent of those children take medication to treat the disorder.

The other learning disability
You’ve probably heard of dyslexia, a reading disorder that can make it difficult for even highly intelligent children to succeed in school. Much less recognized is dysgraphia or Written- Language Disorder. Very limited research has been done on Written-Language Disorder compared with the voluminous literature on reading disabilities. But a large study published by the American Academy found Written-Language Disorder (WLD) is at least as frequent as reading disorders.

The study, entitled “The Forgotten Learning Disability,” included 5,718 children. It found rates of written-language disorder varied from 6.9 percent to 14.7 percent, depending on how the disorder was measured. For the analysis, WLD was defined as writing skills that fell significantly below those expected given the child’s age, measured intelligence, and appropriate instruction in spelling and writing.

Learning to spell and write sentences, with correct grammar, is a critical skill for academic success. Written Language Disorder typically involves problems with handwriting (dysgraphia), capitalization and punctuation, spelling, vocabulary, word usage, sentence and paragraph structure, production (inability to write a lot), overall quality, and lack of fluency. Problems in writing can seriously affect a child’s performance in traditional classrooms, which typically require students to demonstrate what they have learned through writing. Children with WLD may very well be learning, but they have trouble showing it.

Writing is a complex task requiring the mastery and integration of a number of subskills. The process of writing connects cognition, language, and motor skills. Some children have difficulties in one aspect of the process, such as producing legible handwriting or spelling, whereas other children have difficulty organizing and sequencing their ideas. Difficulties in one area can delay skill development in the other areas, impeding the practice of all writing skills. Children often experience this disorder as thoughts that move faster than their hand can translate them into written ideas on the page.

Children with written expression difficulties can find essential school activities, such as copying off the board or note taking, to be insurmountable tasks. And the further they progress in school, the more difficult and frustrating their experience becomes. Note taking, for example, is actually a very complicated process that requires listening, comprehending, retaining information while continuing to process new information, and summarizing the important points into a useful format. The physical acts involved in writing notes must occur simultaneously with these cognitive processes. All of this must be accomplished with sufficient speed, automaticity, and with production quality of writing legibly enough for the notes to be useful later.

Strategies for early elementary age children with written language problems include writing readiness exercises, instruction and practice using appropriate pencil grip, formation of symbol skills, practice to increase fluency, and direct instruction to improve writing organization. Tutoring or individualized remediation by a skilled and trained instructor is helpful.

At the upper elementary or secondary levels, accommodations may include shortening assignments, increasing performance time, grading on the content of the work rather than its presentation, using oral exams and allowing oral presentations from the student, and giving tests in untimed conditions. Computers and other assistive devices are also helpful for students with written language disorders.

By pointing out the frequency of this neurological problem, the authors of the study said they hope their research will increase the efforts of medical and school professionals to identify and provide timely intervention for students with this “forgotten learning disability.” Parents should not assume messy handwriting, perpetually poor spelling and disappointing writing means their child is not trying hard. A child with WLD may have struggled twice as hard as the average student to produce even that work.

Good intentions gone wrong
For most parents, soothing a child’s anxiety is just part of the job. But for a parent whose child has obsessive-compulsive disorder, soothing anxiety and helping with behaviors linked to the disorder could lead to more severe symptoms, University of Florida researchers say.

Often, parents of children with OCD will help their children complete rituals related to their obsessions and compulsions, such as excessive bathing or checking things like door locks, according to findings published in the Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology. These accommodations can be anything that makes the symptoms of OCD less impairing, from reassuring a child that his hands are clean and his baby brother is OK to even doing his homework for him.

“Parents do that because that is what a parent whose child doesn’t have OCD would do,” says psychologist Lisa Merlo, a UF assistant professor of psychiatry and the lead author of the study. “If your child is upset, you try to comfort them. But what we know is, for patients with OCD, if they get an accommodation, that reinforces the OCD to them. It’s validating the OCD in the kid’s mind, and that’s what you don’t want to do.”

About one in 200 children and teenagers in the United States have OCD, according to the American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry. Some children have symptoms so severe it prevents them from playing with friends or even going to school. In these instances, parents often feel they have to do whatever they can to help their children function, from doing their homework for them to buying specific items that make them feel safe. “You would think if parents are helping, the kids would be less impaired,” Merlo says. “But what we are seeing is that it snowballs and makes it worse and worse.”

Instead the study supports a type of treatment called cognitive-behavioral therapy. This form of therapy involves exposing children to their fears and teaching them better ways to respond and cope. During the sessions, therapists teach parents how they should deal with their child’s OCD, too.

The value of being a good listener
Does your child roll her eyes when you ask about her day at school? Keep asking anyway. Not only do we need to keep those lines of communication as open as possible, but research from Vanderbilt University reveals that children learn the solution to a problem best when they explain it to their mom. The research was published in the Journal of Experimental Child Psychology.

“We knew that children learn well with their moms or with a peer, but we did not know if that was because they were getting feedback and help,” says Bethany Rittle-Johnson, the study’s lead author and assistant professor of psychology at Vanderbilt’s Peabody College of Education and Human Development. “In this study, we just had the children’s mothers listen, without providing any assistance. We’ve found that by simply listening, a mother helps her child learn.”

Rittle-Johnson believes the new finding can help parents better assist their children with their schoolwork, even when they are not sure of the answer themselves. Although the researchers used children and their mothers in the study, they believe the same results will hold true whether the person is the child’s father, grandparent or other familiar person.

“The basic idea is that it is really effective to try to get kids to explain things themselves instead of just telling them the answer,” she says. “Explaining their reasoning, to a parent or perhaps to other people they know, will help them understand the problem and apply what they have learned to other situations.”

The researchers also found that children experience the benefit of explaining a solution at an earlier age than previously thought. “This is one of the first studies to examine whether or not explanation is useful in helping children under 8 apply what they’ve learned to a modification of a task,” Rittle-Johnson says. “We found that even 4-year-olds can use explanation to help them learn and to apply what they’ve learned to other tasks.”

Moving beyond a basic understanding
Do you have a wiggle worm? There’s more at stake than just your child’s conduct grade. Although the model for most American classrooms requires kids to sit passively at their desk, moving around might actually help kids process information.

Proof can be found in a University of Chicago’s study that showed gesturing can help kids develop new problem-solving strategies. What’s more, when given later instruction, kids who are told to gesture are more likely to grasp the concept and solve problems correctly.

The researchers conducted two studies with 176 children in third and fourth grade. The children who were told to move their hands when explaining how they would solve a new math problem were four times as likely to hit upon a correct new strategy. They didn’t always get the answer right, but their gestures demonstrated an implicit knowledge of mathematical ideas.

In a second study, the researchers assessed how students performed after subsequent instruction. The children who had been told to gesture about the math problems solved 1.5 times more problems correctly than the children who had been told not to gesture – a significant advantage.

“Telling children to gesture encourages them to convey previously unexpressed, implicit ideas, which in turn makes them receptive to instruction that leads to learning,” the authors concluded. Gesturing appears to help children produce new problem-solving strategies, which in turn gets them ready to learn.

The findings extend previous research that body movement not only helps people express things they may not be able to verbally articulate, but actually to think better. At the same time, the researchers say, gesturing offers a potentially powerful new way to augment the teaching of math. Strategies for math problems have focused on externalizing working memory, such as writing things down in certain ways; however, children often find it hard to recall and use those strategies. Gesturing may be more accessible, and may help break through the roadblock.

Academic problems can create social issues
Children and adolescents who lack social skills are more at risk of becoming bullies, victims, or both, says new research published by the American Psychological Association. But those who are also having academic troubles are the most likely to run into trouble.

Researchers from the University of California at Riverside examined 153 studies from the last 30 years. They found that boys and those with poor problem-solving skills are more likely to become bullies. But more than anything else, the research found, poor academic performance predicts those who will bully.

The study sheds light on just how alienating academic difficulties can be for kids. “This is the first time we’ve overviewed the research to see what individual and environmental characteristics predict the likelihood of becoming a bully, victim or both,” says lead author Clayton R. Cook, PhD, of Louisiana State University.

According to the authors, most bullyingprevention programs use strategies that favor removing the bully from the environment. But the more promising interventions target the behaviors as well as the environments that are putting these young people at risk of becoming bullies and/or victims. And that includes bolstering their academic skills. “Intervene with the parents, peers and schools simultaneously,” Cook says, adding academic help could be a key.

Early births linked to autism and dyslexia
Babies born just one or two weeks before their 40-week gestation due date are more likely to develop learning difficulties such as autism or dyslexia, according to a British study reported by Reuters. Scientists in Scotland, analyzing the birth history of more than 400,000 schoolchildren, found that while babies born at 40 weeks have a 4 percent risk of learning difficulties, those born at 37 to 39 weeks of gestation have a 5.1 percent risk. “There was an increasing risk of special educational needs as the gestation date fell, so as deliveries got earlier, the risk went up,” Jill Pell, an expert in public health and health policy at Glasgow University, told Reuters. “Even being just a week early put the risk up.”

Pell called into question the growing practice of planned cesarean births scheduled a week early. “If you make a decision…for an elective pre-term delivery, then it has to be a balance, weighing up the risks and potential benefits,” Pell said. “What this study shows is that special education needs are another factor that need to be considered."

Wondering if your child has a learning issue?
Your child has the right to a free and appropriate public school education. If you suspect your student has a learning issue, getting involved in his or her education is among the most important things you can do. In order to make sure that your child gets the help he or she needs, you may have to request the help of the public schools.

Here, from the National Center For Learning Disabilities (, is a list of some of your rights mandated by the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA).

• You have the right to request in writing that your child be evaluated to determine if he or she is eligible for special education and related services.

This evaluation is more than just a single test. The school must gather information from you, your child’s teacher and others who would be helpful. An assessment of your child must then be conducted in all the areas that may be affected by the suspected disability.

• If the public school agrees that your child may have a learning disability and may need special help, the school must evaluate your child at no cost to you.

• Teachers or other professionals can recommend that your child be evaluated, but the school must get your explicit written consent before any part of the evaluation is started.

• If the public school system refuses to give your child an evaluation, they must explain in writing the reasons for refusal, and must also provide information about how you can challenge their decision.

• All tests and interviews must be conducted in your child’s native language. The evaluation process cannot discriminate against your child because he or she is not a native English speaker, has a disability or is from a different racial or cultural background.

• Your child cannot be determined eligible for special education services only because of limited English proficiency or because of lack of instruction in reading or math.

• You have the right to be a part of the evaluation team that decides what information is needed to determine whether your child is eligible.

• You have the right to a copy of all evaluation reports and paperwork related to your child.

• You have the right to obtain an Independent Education Evaluation from a qualified professional and challenge the findings of the school evaluation team.