I must start by thanking Mohamad for inviting me to write a guest blog. It’s a great honour!
My inspiration for this post is taken from our original interaction back in February this year, when Mohamad was the very first parent to comment on my blog. I started blogging to share information and ideas with mainstream classroom teachers and parents. I wanted to raise awareness and share tips that can make our lives simpler as parents and teachers, but more importantly, I hoped that my blog might support some students who otherwise could get lost in the vast labyrinth of education. Mohamad’s comment on that early post let me know that the task I had set myself was worthwhile.
As new parents we have so much to be grateful for: often we are consumed by a brand new kind of love that we had not anticipated, no matter how many friends had tried to explain the overwhelming nature of this emotion, this primal need to care for, protect and nurture a new life. Each new milestone is celebrated and recorded and now, more than ever, shared globally via social media. Where before parents might consult a single, rather dry, parenting manual, and dusty annual photographs of themselves for reference, new parents today are bombarded with competitive images of their infant’s peer group. It is possible to know each intimate detail of someone else’s child’s development, from sleepless nights, teething and first words to school and university graduation.We know that every child is an individual, that each develops in their own unique way. One may walk early but talk late, another may progress from sitting to walking, bypassing any stage of crawling. Some will be petite, others tall, eye, hair and skin shades vary, as do hands, feet and noses. It’s easy to accept that some will be gifted performers, artists or athletes from an early age, whereas others will find their talents later on. What’s often harder to grasp, is that the development of skills necessary for academic success can be just as varied. In a class of 30 four and five-year-olds, the age difference between the youngest and the oldest can be 25%. If we accept that any two children who are exactly the same age will not have identical patterns of learning, then we have to recognise that two children who are a quarter (or a fifth, depending on the perspective) of their own lifetimes apart, are likely to need significantly different input to achieve similarly, let alone equally.
So, parents and teachers can sometimes wonder whether a particular child’s apparent difficulty with a certain classroom task is due to a developmental difference. Whilst I would argue that it is important to understand as much as possible about a child or student in order to best support them, the reality is that there are many techniques that can be implemented at home and at school, whether a perceived delay is due to age, experience, individual stage or a difference in learning and development. What is vital is for parents and educators to communicate openly and to agree on and implement support strategies, if necessary, as early as practically possible. This will not necessarily eliminate the need for referrals for specialist assessment and individually tailored intervention, but, crucially, it can prevent further gaps opening and the ensuing risk to self-esteem. Children may have co-occurring developmental differences, or they may experience a single area of difficulty.
Development and learning – and a few ideas for support
Children develop speech at very different rates, and it can be dangerous to compare individuals. It’s really important for adults not to correct errors children make in speech, as this can lead to loss of confidence and result in slower progress. Instead, adults can repeat the word or phrase accurately in a responding sentence. This reassures the child that they have been understood, as well as providing an error-free model.
Have you ever watched something on TV where the sound is out of synch? It can make the dialogue much harder to process. We often don’t realise how much of our communication is tied up in watching the people we are speaking with. Whenever possible, try to speak with children where they can see your face. This also helps them to learn and understand facial expressions.
Speech, language and communication needs can be assessed and supported by a qualified speech and language therapist (SaLT) in the UK. Routes to referral will vary from country to country, but your local health or education department will be able to advise. Remember that speech is closely connected with hearing, so a referral to audiology may help.
Children sometimes need longer than we think to process what we have said. This applies to all children, but particularly to those with learning differences, including attentional difficulties, speech, language and communication needs, and e.g. dyslexia. When it appears you have not been understood, or if an answer does not come immediately, try to resist the urge to repeat or rephrase. Give more time (10 seconds seems like an eternity) and, if necessary, repeat with the same wording, modelling (acting out) where appropriate.
Imagine you are listening to someone speaking a foreign language. You know enough to get by, but you are at the stage where you have to translate in your head before you understand, and again to translate in your head before you can speak. A kindly foreigner, instead of giving you time to answer, begins instead to ask the same question again, perhaps in another way, before you have finished processing what they said the first time. You have to start all over again. It’s embarrassing, demoralising and frustrating.
At home, and at school, it can be very helpful to set clear routines and expectations for listening times. Whether this is a bedtime story at home or whole class story time at school, listening skills may not always develop automatically. This is not about mindless discipline, but about having explicit cues and clues that it’s time to listen. That might be a sound (spoken phrase, piece of music) or a set of actions, or something else entirely – the choice is yours, but it’s important to be consistent.
Auditory and attention skills develop differently for individual children, but if home and classroom adjustments do not make a difference even when given time to bed in, it is wise to refer to audiology for concerns regarding hearing or a paediatrician for attentional concerns.
As with all areas of development, some children may find certain activities easier than others , or they may take longer to gain confidence and require support as well as time to acquire skills. Many old fashioned games, toys and activities promote fine motor skills, and grandparents will often bemoan the proportion of time spent in front of a screen rather than outside or enjoying crafting activities.
The pace of life nowadays can often mean that there simply isn’t enough time to do many of the things that earlier generations took for granted. Our modern sensibilities do not encourage banging kitchen pots with a wooden spoon, and I certainly do not have a button collection to equal the one my grandmother allowed me to play with, develop a pincer grip for pencil control as well as sorting skills. I’ve written at length on fine motor, with suggestions for home and classroom activities. Where there are concerns regarding coordination that is not age appropriate despite access to and experience of a range of suitable activities, a referral to occupational therapy (OT) is advised.
The role of vision in learning and development cannot be underestimated. Hand-eye coordination plays a huge part in traditional academic tasks and sporting activities. So much is communicated to us by what we see in those speaking. For instructions to be clarified, we often benefit from some kind of visual stimulus, whether that is in the form of a poster, or someone demonstrating what we need to do. All of that before we even mention reading and writing.
When children do not make the expected progress in learning to read and write, their parents are almost always recommended to book an optician appointment for a thorough assessment of vision. For some, a pair of glasses will unlock a world previously shrouded in mystery. But visual processing is more than sight.
Visual processing includes the ability to spot patterns and make sense of visual stimuli for reading. Children with visual processing difficulties may have perfect 20/20 vision, but they are not able to access visually presented information with the ease and efficiency of their peers. This makes the process of learning to read and write quite exhausting. Copying from a classroom whiteboard can be torturous, and mistakes may be almost inevitable. This may co-occur with other learning differences, such as dyslexia or ADHD, but it can also be the only processing difficulty a person has.
Someone with visual stress may find it easier to read from or write onto pastel rather than bright white paper. Sans-serif fonts are more readable, and it is helpful for text to be larger and well spaced. People with visual stress describe symptoms such as text swimming in and out of focus, individual letters and words moving on the page and blurring. Coloured overlays can make a huge difference, and some people find specially prescribed tinted lenses essential. Not all opticians are familiar with visual stress, so it is important to find someone properly qualified to assess.
Colour vision deficiency (colour blindness) can also have a big impact on learning. Consider the bright colours of a classroom, the use of graphs, charts and other diagrams to illustrate a point. Imagine the frustration of a colouring task for a young child or decoding data graphics for a budding scientist. Most opticians can check for colourblindness, but it’s worth remembering to ask for this to be done, if vision is being tested anyway.
Thank you for reading this far! I’d love for you to visit me over on Beacons Unique, where I’ve gone into more detail on these and other areas of learning and development.
I hope that some of the information I’ve shared is helpful. Please feel free to ask any questions you may have in the comments.