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Mendo Lake Family Life

5 Strategies for Kids with Learning Challenges

By Sandra Gordon

School is your child’s work, but like most jobs, there are good days and bad, great bosses (teachers) and not so great ones, and classes that are easier than others.

However, for some of even the brightest kids, like my youngest daughter, every test can seem difficult, every teacher hard, and every assignment a major hurdle.

How can you help your aspiring scholar reach her or his potential? I asked these educators and learning experts for their top tips. Here are five of their best answers.

1. Seek out testing early. If your student gets extra help at school but isn’t making academic progress, seek out an evaluation at school and/or at a private neuropsychology assessment center.

“Learning disorders occur throughout the range of intelligence. Even very highly functioning students can have them,” says E. Mark Mahone, director of the Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities Research Center at the Kennedy Krieger Institute, which is a partner of John Hopkins Medicine.

Learning disabilities are biological conditions that lead to a set of behaviors that can be challenging. They tend to run in families. “Kids can’t help it,” Mahone says. If your child has a learning disorder, it’s important to diagnose it early, if possible, to prevent harmful repercussions. Continually tanking on tests and quizzes or not understanding the material can affect your child’s self-esteem and brain development. “The average child with a reading disability doesn’t get identified until the second or third grade. By then, that child has two, three, or four years of failure before getting the appropriate intervention,” Mahone says. Intervention, which may include medication and behavioral treatment, can help the brain reorganize more efficiently so that academic skills build naturally over time.

It’s important to note that learning disabilities don’t typically occur in isolation. “Whenever you find one learning disability, you should look for others,” Mahone says. “For the best outcome, everything should be treated concurrently.”

2. Teach kids to make oatmeal. “It takes tremendous energy to learn, but many kids are running on empty,” says Sharon Rose Sugar, author of Smart Grades: Every Day an Easy A (2010). Cold cereal for breakfast doesn’t cut it. Sugar says, “What can make a big difference in the morning is just a bowl of oatmeal,” topped with nutritious add-ons, such as walnuts, blueberries, cinnamon, honey, or maple syrup.

Kids also should fuel homework sessions with wholesome study snacks, such as an apple or rice cake with peanut butter, or carrots and hummus and water.

3. Preview homework, then take a brain break. If your child is typically anxious about homework, teach her or him to go over homework assignments, including questions that need to be answered, when she or he gets home from school and then to take a break before diving in. “Kids aren’t under any pressure to answer those questions right away, but their brain starts working. When they come back to their homework, it’s a lot easier for them to start their work because they’ve previewed it,” says Katherine Firestone, founder of the Fireborn Institute and The Happy Student podcast.

4. Turn reading into a workout. Kids have so many facts coming at them. To help them retain key ideas for a test, they need to be active readers.

Before reading a chapter in their textbook, students should read the chapter title, all of the headings and subheadings, and the questions at the end. “Reviewing chapters first helps kids understand the key ideas,” says Firestone. Then, while they’re reading, they should underline the main idea and jot down notes to review before a test. Active reading takes more time and effort, but it can make all the difference, as Firestone, who was diagnosed with ADHD in high school, knows firsthand. “It resulted in a huge transformation for me,” she says.

5. Help them talk themselves into better grades. “When you get As or Bs, school is more enjoyable. But some kids, especially those with learning disorders, have emotional roadblocks to getting good grades,” says Paul J. Hughes, author of Change Your Grades,
Change Your Life (2016). Early on, kids can form negative self-perceptions, such as “I’m bad at taking tests,” which get hardwired into their subconscious, programming them for failure. “Our thoughts affect outcomes,” Hughes says.

To help his struggling students talk themselves into doing well on tests, Hughes teaches them to write and recite affirmations, which are questions that address their specific academic concern, but are stated as a positive, such as: “Why am I so comfortable and confident taking an exam?” and “Why do I always perform up to my expectations on an exam?”

“The why at the beginning is what the brain picks up and runs with, reprogramming the subconscious to believe what you’re telling it,” Hughes says. He advises his students to read their affirmations every day. 

Sandra Gordon writes on health, medicine, nutrition, parenting, and consumer issues. Find her at