DNA & Learning
– What is the cause of learning disabilities?
– Why is this happening to my kid?
– How can we help our kid?
– Are we doing something wrong?
These 4 questions are the most common in learning disabilities context. During the last month, we have been working on this area, trying to provide information to parents regarding learning disabilities etiology and how to deal with them.
In this article we will discuss about developmental disorders which affect to language, learning and cognition. These include those affecting to language, arithmetic, reading, motor skills, attention and also social interaction. All these disorders have serious consequences for education, and thereafter for well-being in adulthood.
Specific Learning Difficulties VS General Learning Difficulties
It´s important to make a difference between specific learning difficulty and general learning difficulties; general learning difficulties involve difficulties acquiring a wide range of skills, a specific learning difficulty involves a restricted domain. IQ tests, let us know if the child has an average IQ scores (more often in children with specific LD) or scores below 70 (more often in cases of general LD). However the distinction is probably much more complex.
We work with DN-CAS (Das-Naglieri Cognitive Assessment System) which offers a lot of information about the cognitive functioning in children and adolescents focus on processes (panning, attention, simultaneous, successive); it offers an individual profile of strengths and weaknesses in learning, very useful while designing the intervention.
DSM-V considers SLD to be a type of Neurodevelopmental Disorder that impedes the ability to learn or use specific academic skills (writing, reading or arithmetic), which is the foundation for other academic learning. Neurodevelopmental Disorders also include intellectual disabilities, communication disorders, autism spectrum disorders, ADHD and motor disorders.
DNA & Learning; the 3 levels
Morton and Frith distinguish three levels of explanation for understanding developmental disorders. These three levels are biological, cognitive and behavioral. All this processes interact with a range of environmental influences.
The BIOLOGICAL LEVEL encompasses all the inborn characteristics, genes, genome, mRNA, proteins cells and the nervous tissue in our brains. Poor brain development causes learning disabilities; research showed that the frontal lobes pay an important role in self-control and focus, the left temporal and parietal lobes help with reading, the cerebellum is involved with movement and balance and the parietal lobes are involved with math.
The chart also points birth circumstances, complications during birth resulting in a lack of oxygen to the brain, premature birth, mother ´s illness during the pregnancy, mother drinking during pregnancy or other medical condition, debilitating illness or injury affecting brain development.
Nutrition is directly linked with health, the early years are very important for brain development and cognitive skills. It´s important to mention the special health needs of adults and children with learning disabilities in relation with nutrition as for example overweight, underweight, swallowing problems, regurgitation, vomiting or rumination. In many studies was proved the existent relation between lack of nutrients and cognitive deficits.
Early environment during childhood: Among the factors that affect young children at risk are: poverty, disrupted families or abusive parents.
Research shows that when early interventions are made available, children who are at risk dramatically improve (home visits, parenting training, parent group meetings or community referral services). The critical effect of the infant´s environment on the early development of the brain is demonstrated through scientific evidence (Dehaene, 2009; Gopnick et al, 1995; Huttenlocher, 1991). Child´s experiences during the earliest years of life play a major role in brain development and affect intelligence and the ability to learn.
Parenting styles and parenting practices are related with academic competence and behavior problems of children with and without learning disabilities. In educational psychology we recognize four parenting styles, including authoritarian, authoritative, indulgent and neglecting. For each of the four styles, we can plot the style along two dimensions, which are the level of control and support. The different parenting styles affect children in both environments, at home and school.
The COGNITIVE LEVEL; we regard cognition as the process of acquiring and understanding knowledge through our thoughts experience and senses.
Cognition and learning are key concepts in Educational Psychology. The various ways in which people think about what they see, hear study or learn matters. If we subdivide cognition we obtain cognitive processes (and we work with these tiny cognitive processes in order to develop learning strategies). For example, – How does a learner encode information? That´s an important thing to know when we work with learning disabilities; usually we assess perception, attention, memory and thinking. Lately we include metacognition and planning (executive functioning).
We talk about metacognitive beliefs, metacognitive skills, executive skills, higher-order skills, heuristic strategies and so on. “The higher order cognition about cognition” is the topic of my doctoral thesis, so I will write about this many times (as therapy for my article-writing-fights); just notice that we have included here planning, emotion and motivation; three key factors in LD.
The BEHAVIORAL LEVEL includes the results counted in observable behaviors. – Why my kid is unable to count as other kid? – It seems that she can´t understand the meaning of math symbols! – He doesn´t see the letters – His language skills are delayed if I compare with other kids… and so on.
Following Frith theory, probably behind learning troubles we have the biological component which affects to the cognitive component and both of them to the behavior.
Education & training, are important – how is the school? – Which methods do they use to teach in the classroom? – are they aware of the reading/math delay? – How do they engage the learners in the classroom? – are they working with the attention deficit/ phonological awareness?
The role as a parent is not “to cure” a LD, but to ensure the kid has all the resources available, and also to provide emotional and social tools he/she need to work through challenges, unconditional love, support and encouragement.
Parents should take in account the variety of special education services, support in regular classrooms, the presence of speech-language therapists, psychologists etc. When choosing a school, it´s important to consider the level of support the child needs.
Is it possible to improve or there´s a biological determination? Look at the blue arrow.
Yes, it´s possible to improve. Research taught us that thankfully “nature is working with nurture”, a LD isn´t insurmountable.
SEN teachers, speech therapists, psychologists, teachers, physicians can do an amazing work together to help children overcome all these difficulties.
Through the right attention to learning delays; brain development has to be seen as an extremely complex process that is characterized by CHANGE and INTERACTION. Performing and training any cognitive activity will depend upon one or more brain circuits, thousand of nerve cells communicating and interacting. The brain will develop following the genetic influence but also as a product of learning from interactions with the environment. Don´t underestimate the power of psychological experiences in brain development.
There´s a very interesting book Towards a Theory of Development which addresses the Waddington´s epigenetic landscape theory. It explains how the environment will play a role in determining the trajectory taken by a given cell.
Other day I will write more about how the experiences can change the gene expression. But the most important is…
– The answer is yes, they can improve, learn and develop skills! Sometimes parents forget the real meaning of success in life, rather than school success there are other important areas like the ability to form healthy relationships with others, the ability to help, to fight towards obstacles, a healthy sense of self and other qualities that we, psychologists can´t assess with an IQ test. Don´t forget that. – Make feel your kid as the most beautiful creature in the earth.
Thanks for reading!
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