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Assessing Learning Difficulties

Children can have difficulties learning for many different reasons. Sometimes a child has learning delays, where learning is below a child’s peers but not to a significant extent. Sometimes children have a Specific Learning Disorder. A Specific Learning Disorder is a developmental condition where a child has difficulties learning and using academic skills, and these difficulties have persisted for six months despite intervention. A Specific Learning Disorder can affect Reading, Writing, or Mathematics. Sometimes there are other factors that are affecting a child’s ability to learn.

The first part of an assessment to understand learning difficulties is to ensure the obvious is not overlooked – that a child has normal hearing, vision, and language abilities. The next step is to look for any medical explanations like sleep, nutrition. Your paediatrician and Psychologist will consider whether co-occurring conditions like Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder, Autism Spectrum Disorder or Anxiety are contributing to learning difficulties. Your psychologist will also consider what assessmentis the best one to use given your child’s specific needs.

To understand learning difficulties, it is likely your child will be referred to a psychologistfor a cognitive assessment. This assessment is a three part process, involving:

Initial assessment This consultation makes sure the areas above are covered, as helps choose an appropriate test for your child. It is also an important opportunity for your child to meet the examiner so they can feel comfortable on the assessment day, by knowing who they will be seeing and what to expect for the assessment.

  1. Cognitive assessment A cognitive assessment is a measure of cognitive skills, also known as an IQ test that provides an Intelligence Quotient. This is an estimate of broad cognitive abilities that is a good predictor of how children will perform at school. It is important to understand a child’s cognitive abilities as these are the biggest predictor of learning ability. If a child’s cognitive abilities are lower than most of their peers, this will account for learning problems. If a child has strengths in some areas and difficulties in other areas, this can account for learning problems too.

  2. Achievement assessment An achievement assessment is a standardised measure of academic skills, including reading, writing and mathematics. These standardised scores show if a child has achievement lower than other children in their grade. Psychologists use results from the cognitive assessment to predict a child’s achievement, then compare these predictions with the actual scores produced.

  3. If a child has achievement below that of their peers, but not significantly lower – this indicates learning delays, and strategies can be recommended to help in the classroom.

  4. If a child’s scores are much lower than their peers, and lower than what their ability would suggest – this identifies a Specific Learning Disorder. Strategies for the classroom are provided, as well as recommendations for intervention and other supports.

Parents can often feel unsure of how to talk to their child about learning difficulties. It can be helpful to use a strengths and difficulties approach for this conversation. I like to explain to children that most people have areas of strength and other skills that don’t come so easily to them. Where people have an area that’s really difficult for them (like not being able to see), we can’t expect them to do everything without support (like wearing glasses). These assessments help identify what supports a child needs to make sure they can learn at school. Supports at school are helpful to ensure your child is not prevented from learning or showing what they know because of an area they find difficult. If children have difficulty reading, they can listen to information; if they have difficulty writing they can use voice totext software or a scribe. As children grow and develop, they tend to take more responsibility for their learning, and find strategies that work for them. If reading is hard, they may make sure to attend lectures, and listen to books on audio. Usually if a child is attending school without any additional difficulties like ADHD or anxiety, this is enough of an opportunity for them to learn. In this case the diagnosis of aSpecific Learning Disorder may be straightforward. In some cases, the child may be required to have some intervention for other conditions, and specific intervention for academics like targeted tutoring, small group intensive literacy programs or intervention with a Speech and Language Pathologist. This may lead to an improvement, or it may not – which helps build the picture of whether there is a Specific Learning Disorder.


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