Special needs education for children with learning disabilities

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When parents are advised or when they discover through their own observation that their child does not seem to develop as expected and have their anxiety confirmed through diagnosis, the news will be traumatic and seem at first to threaten to engulf the family with insurmountable future obstacles.

Fortunately much has changed in the last thirty odd years. Above everything we now know that by setting up a so-called "early intervention program" we can have significant impact on enhancing the future of children with learning disabilities.

It is very important to note that practically all children with a learning disability can learn.

The disability usually affects certain specific and often limited areas of a child's development. In fact, rarely are learning disabilities so severe that they impair a person's future of living a happy, fulfilling life.

A diagnosis (confirmation) of a LD should be made by an appropriate "expert", and for young children a good starting point for help is the family physician.

The term Learning Disability (LD) covers a large number of causes and symptoms.

There are some well-known disabilities like Down's syndrome and Autism. There are many different treatments and outcomes. Learning Disabilities can be difficult to diagnose, let alone pinpoint the cause. There are no known cures.

"Even though a learning disability doesn't disappear, given the right types of educational experiences, people have a remarkable ability to learn. The brain's flexibility to learn new skills is probably greatest in young children and may diminish somewhat after puberty. This is why early intervention is so important."

What is known to help

Health and educational professionals do make the point that since no one really always knows what causes learning disabilities, it doesn't help parents to keep looking backward to search for the reasons of the "problem" but to focus on how to reduce the learning difficulties for their child and how to enhance the opportunities for successful learning. Although it is important to have a proper diagnosis it is more important to have a plan of action of what to do for and with your child. The United States National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) states:

In the United States (and in many other countries) laws now support many initiatives to develop support programs for children with learning delays. It is therefore generally agreed that young children who have a learning "disability" or "learning problem" are best catered for by what is termed an "early intervention approach". But many people still do not have access to such resources, either because of lack of financial or structured "governmental" support or because of geographical isolation. There are many families who live miles away from the nearest early childhood service let alone a professional support service for children with disabilities.

One of the avenues to offer support to families is to provide access to a knowledge base of what to do and when and how. Early intervention strategies should focus on the knowledge that all children learn through the same developmental sequences, but their speed of learning will be different. The key issues for parents will remain the need to access information quickly, because parents’ time may be limited, and cheaply, because most families do have limited financial resources. Additionally very many governments in the world state that finances for early intervention programs are inevitably limited. Crucially then the "power" to intervene must be available to the young babies’ first teachers, their parents. The logical and most cost effective tools for "parents-as-first-teachers" could be the computer and the Internet.

The worldwide web is the ideal forum to empower parents, to provide access to expertise and to provide an instant tool to measure a child's developmental progress, and or to determine any additional resources or specialist help. Of course additionally the web will provide parents with a platform to meet and consult with each other as well as providing parent-to-parent support.

What would be really useful and practical for every parent to have?

1) Access to meaningful information - what can a child do now and what should they learn next. Parents’ time is precious, making a living and dealing with complexities of everyday life will leave limited time to become an "early intervention teacher". Information tools, which are based on utilizing parental observation of their children's developmental achievements, should be accessible to every parent. To be able to record what a child can do today and then to use this information to instantaneously create a learning program will surely be most welcome. Such a program should also be financially affordable.

2) To teach and to guarantee success for a child's learning will also make a difference. A system whereby a parent can access information of "how" to teach, using proven and sound teaching methods, will save time, and prevent frustration and disappointments for parent and child. Sound teaching technology of instructing children in small, easily absorbed steps of success does exist; all that parents need is rapid access to the information. Recipes of teaching and learning tried and tested, instantly available through the net.

3) To know when to ask for extra resources. One of the frustrating aspects of any child developmental program is to determine at what point a usually tried method of teaching will not work, that because of unknown, additional and undiagnosed problems a specialist support structure is needed. Only a developmental program, which uses a " data-base" approach of measuring a child's learning, can quickly point to objective data and therefore prove a need for additional support. For example if a parent is able to collect objective information, which indicates that a child has a potential hearing-loss, support can swing into action to access augmentative technology or assistance by a speech/language therapist.

4) Access to computers and the Web. Many parents do have access to a computer and the Internet, however there are many additionally avenues for those who do not have the technology as yet. Schools, public libraries, maybe even corporate sponsorship to provide access to the net during "company/school/library down-time" might make a lot of difference.

The availability of services is often controlled by the cost of human resources, the available numbers of therapists, teachers, etc. Neither "geographical or social isolation" nor "costs" should prevent families being able to access meaningful services.

The Internet based http://www.mylittlesteps.com program for example can provide parents with a multitude of "child development information", which is based on decades of observations of how children develop. The advantage for parents of using for example "developmental schedules" lies in finding out that childhood development is predictable, occurs in sequences of skills, which build on top of each other (for example: crawling leads to walking, running, skipping etc.) and that the developmental schedules permit the parent to monitor (measure) their child's progress, making sure they are on track. These rules also apply to children with developmental delay, the order of development will remain the same but the speed of development may differ compared to their non-disabled peers.

Such tools allow us to be very pro-active about all our disabled toddlers’ development, to maximize their early learning experiences, even when "time is precious". Of course pre-school children keep a parent very busy (and often exhausted), but by introducing some "developmental structure into our children's lives" we will lay down a positive developmental path for them. All children do love the "routine" of learning, and they can be taught new, relevant skills, in short ten-minute bursts. Surely everyone, in even the busiest life can find ten minutes per day.

What should be the outcome of an early intervention program? Any child with a disability having experienced successful learning within the family environment in the first five years will generally have satisfactory experiences during their actual schooling years. A child with disabilities who has many successful experiences of mastering skills and acquiring knowledge will become a teenager with a sense of "joy of learning", and research suggests that it is the "joy of learning" which matters, rather than just inherited intelligence (IQ).

We as parents cannot afford to leave things to chance. We need to exploit available knowledge and technology to maximize skills and competence of our children who have developmental or learning disabilities. Their future role and inclusion within their communities will be shaped as much by their self-esteem and ability to adapt and cope as by the legal and social safeguards created on their behalf.

Inclusion of people with disabilities depends on many things but we can help cement the progress made over the last 30 or 40 years by giving our little ones the best possible start. Parents are their children's first teachers, and society owes them the empowering through knowledge of parenting.

Parents-as-first teachers, a principle accepted everywhere; using a " what to do, when and how" approach, with instant information, and time and labor saving systems will give parents the ability to provide their own "program quality assurance", by measuring their "inputs and their outputs", they will be able to change the future for their child with a disability, and will substantially enhance our collective knowledge about early intervention programs.

To see one such parent empowering option in action, you might like to visit the mylittlesteps online program by clicking on the link below. Michael G. Ahrens is a parent, teacher, researcher, writer, consultant and former government adviser, and program developer of the mylittlesteps program, a powerful online parenting tool that ensures learning is fun, interactive and a worthwhile experience for both the parent and the child, irrespective of the child's abilities.

Your own early intervention program for only US$ 19.95 per year

Children with developmental and learning disabilities (even severe ones) can learn like other children. Appropriate developmental stimulation in the early years is crucial. In fact it is known that early intervention programs in the early years of a child's life can show dramatic results in helping children develop many important foundation skills. mylittlesteps makes it possible for parents to run their own early intervention program from home. Just click on the link to find out more: http://www.mylittlesteps.com/english/1/frontpage_a.htm

Negotiating the Special Education Maze: A Guide for Parents & Teachers by Winifred Anderson, Stephen Chitwood, and Deidre Hayden. Negotiating the Special Education Maze gives you the knowledge to protect childhood education rights and better ensure the best possible education for your special needs child. No parent with a child entering special education should be without this book.

Teaching Students with Special Needs

Successful IEP Meeting by Lisa Simmons

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