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Why Is My Child Having Trouble Learning and What Can I Do to Help?

Doing well academically gives children a sense of accomplishment and self-esteem. Conversely, if they are struggling academically, it can lower their confidence. Often, children who struggle with learning think of themselves as “stupid” even when they are of average or above-average intelligence.

There are various things that can interfere with learning. Some of these things include: learning disabilities, language or memory problems, anxiety or depression, having experienced psychological trauma, changes in the family, being distracted or disorganized, lacking study skills, having missed instruction, or inadequate instruction.

If academic challenges are severe or have been a problem for a long time, it is a good idea to have your child tested by a psychologist. There are things you can do at home to help, as well. Here are learning strategies to start with.

There are three main aspects to being able to read fluently: (1) sight words, (2) decoding (phonics), and rapid automatic naming (RAN; also called speeded naming). If your child is having trouble reading, try having him practice each of these skills separately. Being able to read fluently is necessary in order for children to understand what they are reading (reading comprehension).

Learning Sight Words
Your child’s teacher can supply sight word lists to practice, or you can find them online. Have your child learn each word by printing it. He should say each letter aloud while printing it and then underline the word while saying the word. Have him do this five times in a row for each word. Having colored pens available to choose from makes it more interesting and helps keeps children engaged in the task.

Decoding- Phonics
Phonics programs are a staple of reading education. There are many phonics readers (small books) that allow children to practice. You can also find various websites that teach phonics. Make sure that letter groups are taught together, not just single letters. For example, “ea” can sound like the “long e” sound in the word “bead” or sound like a “short e” sound like in the word bread.

Rapid Automatic Naming (RAN)
RAN, also known as speeded naming, is the ability to quickly say what you see on the page, and is necessary for being able to read fluently. Some children know what word they are looking at but have trouble saying it quickly. Fortunately, this is a skill that can be improved with practice. You can make your own RAN charts, and they are also included in some reading programs. Start with objects, numbers, or letters, and then progress to sight words. Arrange the pictures or words in a grid and use a timer to time the child. Encourage the child to practice to improve their time.

Reading Comprehension
Some children have difficulty imagining in their mind what they are reading. Encourage your child to ‘make a movie” in their mind of the events they are reading about while they are reading. If they are having trouble with this, have them practice while you read stories to them (without looking at the pictures in the book). It can also help to pause periodically and ask your child to summarize what just happened or predict what will happen next.

There are several reasons why a child might have difficulty writing. The main reasons are: (1) fine motor problems that make it physically difficult for them to write, (2) difficulty transferring their thoughts from their mind to the paper, and (3) lack of confidence in the process.

Fine Motor Problems
Children with fine motor problems find it difficult to do tasks requiring precise movements of the hand and fingers, such as tying their shoes, fastening buttons, and working zippers. If you think your child may have a fine motor problem, he should be evaluated by an occupational therapist. Occupational therapy can help with building hand and finger strength and dexterity. Your child may also need to be taught how to grasp a pencil properly to reduce hand fatigue while writing.

If your child has fine motor problems, it is important to teach writing in a way that does not tax this problem. Teach your child to type, and when practicing writing skills, allow him to tell you what to write, and have him watch you while you do the writing. This way, you can still teach concepts such as spelling and constructing sentences without him actually writing, while he is working on the mechanics of writing in occupational therapy.

Transferring Thoughts to Paper
If your child has difficulty transferring his thoughts from his mind onto paper, start small, with one or two sentences at a time. Teach your child to plan out the ideas for a story or essay by making a simple diagram on paper and then putting these points in order to form an outline. Using a word processing program allows children to type their thoughts and then rearrange the sentences by cutting and pasting text. Some children benefit from using a speech-to-text program that allows them to speak their thoughts into a document.

Building Confidence with Writing
Some children avoid writing tasks because they lack confidence in their ability, or in how to get started. If this is the case for your child, you can provide help in the form of an intermediate step that helps them get started and gain confidence. For example, it may be helpful for a child to have a faint outline of letters to trace, or she may be able to dictate a sentence or short story to you for you to write, and then she can copy it. Try letting your child use a white board, since it allows kids to easily erase anything that didn’t turn out how they wanted it to.

Unlike reading, which improves with regular practice, math skills are built more like steps, with mastery of the lower steps needed in order to tackle more advanced steps. Therefore, if your child missed instruction of a specific math concept, or did not master the skill, he will have trouble with everything that builds on that skill. He will need to go back and master the skills he missed, before being able to proceed.

Math Concepts
In order for basic math problems to make sense, children need to first understand the underlying concepts. Try using stories and real-world situations to help your child understand what is happening. For instance, sharing an equal amount of something among friends can help with understanding division, and baking can help with understanding fractions. Once your child understands the concept or “story” of what is being done, learning computation is simply a matter of using symbols to communicate what is being done.

Math Computation
If your child is having trouble working math problems, a helpful approach is to use hands-on learning materials, commonly referred to as manipulatives. Something as simple as chocolate chips or Lego blocks can be used. Lay out the math problem using the manipulatives and then write the math problem on paper or a white board. Show the child how to work the problem with the manipulatives, and then how to show what he has done, in written form. Let him practice like this until he no longer needs the manipulatives. Then you can have him practice more problems of the same type until he can do them easily. Some children have trouble keeping columns of numbers lined up neatly; if this is the case for your child, try having him use graph paper instead of plain or lined paper.

Word Problems
Word problems in math can be extra tricky because they combine reading comprehension with math concepts and computation. The child has to first understand what is being asked, then choose a method for solving the problem, and finally, compute the answer and show how she arrived at this answer. If she has difficulty with any one of these steps, she will need to practice that skill separately. Even if she does not have any problems with the individual steps, the process can seem overwhelming. Show her how to: (1) listen for what is being asked, (2) create a simple diagram that shows this, and then (3) choose what computational steps are needed.

There are additional things that go into a child’s ability to learn and achieve academic success. The suggestions above are good places to start for building academic skills. Be sure to discuss any areas of concern with your child’s teacher. You can also request that the school evaluate your child if he is struggling to learn, or have your child evaluated by a Clinical Psychologist or a Neuropsychologist, depending on the nature of the concerns.

Try to make learning as fun and interesting as possible. You can engage your children in the learning process by supplying special pens and math manipulatives, and by creatively adapting the task to help them learn and practice skills more easily. With the right practice, they will build their skills, and with it, their confidence and self-esteem.

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