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Supporting emotional needs of children with learning difficulties

The Most Helpful Type of Comfort to Offer a Child with Learning Difficulties

Takeaway: Children with learning difficulties often think of themselves as being ‘stupid’, which stirs up a storm of frustration, anger, stress, and sadness. But with the right set of social and emotional coping skills, they can craft a new life and rebuild their self-esteem. So, support your child by teaching her the essential skills of (1) Self-awareness, (2) Social awareness, (3) Responsible decision making, (5) Self-discipline, and (6) Relationship building.

It’s important to spot a learning difficulty. But that’s just the first step.

Learning difficulties usually get noticed in the classroom. A teacher sees that a child is taking longer than usual to read and write, can’t follow along in maths class, or struggles with her homework. A specialist may then be called in to make a diagnosis. Problems with language-based skills could be a sign of dyslexia or developmental language disorder (DLD), maths issues could signify dyscalculia, bad handwriting and poor fine-motor skills might point to dysgraphia, and so on. But diagnosing and working with the learning difference is just one part of the problem.

A bright and intelligent child might really be hurting on the inside. And we need to address this pain.

Learning difficulties often set off an emotional domino reaction that the child tries to battle on her own.

1. She’s probably dealing with a sea of emotions.

Some children are able to see their problems as being classroom-based. But others internalise the struggle and start thinking of themselves as ‘stupid,’ which carves inroads into their self-esteem. And thinking that no-one understands them, they might begin to feel lonely and isolated. Also, since they feel helpless in class, they might start feeling anxious about life in general — as if most of it is out of their control. This stress, frustration, and anxiety might even lead to depression.

2. These emotions could then make her life worse.

The anxiety and stress she feels might mean she withdraws from life or acts out. So, in class, she may get disruptive and be branded as a trouble-maker. Or she might daydream, as a way of escaping — which means she’ll learn even less than before. Or with friends, she might get into fights, which would then isolate her further.

3. The emotions could also distract from her learning difficulties.

She’s likely not going to be able to process everything she feels. But she might find that complaining about a stomach ache can get her out of going to school. The problem is, now no-one believes her when she gets these stomach aches. Or, she might ask hundreds of questions in class, just so that the lesson won’t get started. But now her teacher thinks she has attention issues — which she doesn’t, really. She’s just stumbled upon a poor coping mechanism.

4. The emotions could even worsen her learning difficulties.

There’s some evidence to show that anxiety and depression can affect the brain’s ability to think and process information. So, the child is stuck in a vicious cycle: She has a learning difficulty, which causes her a lot of stress, and this stress makes the difficulty worse, which causes even more stress, and so on.

Your child doesn’t have to stay helpless, though. She needs comfort, but comfort of an unusual kind.

Every parent wants to hug their hurting child and promise to take away her pain. And you do need to do this. But there’s a different kind of comfort you can offer, too. You can teach her to cope with her emotions and craft a new life. She’ll learn to set goals, take action, and find supportive friendships. And along the way, she’ll begin to understand herself better and develop a well-grounded sense of self-respect.

There are 5 skills that can help transform your child’s life.

  1. Self-awareness. Does she know an emotion when she feels it? Or a thought when she thinks it? Does she have a general idea of which values most matter to her? Is she honest with herself about her strengths and weaknesses? The more she’s in touch with herself and where she’s headed, the more confident and optimistic she can be. It sets the stage for steady, unstoppable growth.
  2. Social awareness. Can she empathise with people even if they’re very different to her? Can she think things through from their perspective? Does she try and show them respect? Does she know how to behave in different social situations? The better adapted she is to her community, the healthier her life will get.
  3. Responsible decision-making. Can she analyse a situation, spot the problems, solve them, evaluate her efforts, and reflect on the lessons she’s learned? As she develops these skills, she’ll learn to make better decisions, which will improve the quality of her life.
  4. Self-discipline. Can she focus on the task at hand? Manage her reactions to things that happen to her? Deal with stress? Control her impulses? Set goals and work towards them? And keep herself motivated? These are crucial skills to make her more independent, which will help her feel empowered.
  5. Relationship building. Can she nurture and develop healthy, rewarding relationships with the people in her life? She’ll need these people for support, so she’ll have to learn how to listen to them, help them, work alongside them, sort out disagreements, and yet stay true to her values and resist peer pressure.

If you look carefully enough, you’ll find ways to teach your child these skills as part of her day-to-day life.

Here are some examples:

  • For preschoolers: If she has a friend over, you could teach cooperation by getting them to read together. Show them how to hold the book so it’s equally close to both of them, and how to take turns flipping the pages. Each element of the exercise teaches important lessons — like sharing, perspective-taking, and showing respect.
  • For primary schoolers: Ask her to list the things she’s good at and the things she’d like to get better at. Here, you’re making her aware of her strengths and weaknesses but also teaching her that just because she’s not good at something, it doesn’t mean it has to stay that way.
  • For middle schoolers: When she’s with her friends, ask them about their weekend, but moderate the discussion so that everyone gets a turn speaking and no-one gets bullied or teased. You’ll be helping them model good group behaviour, which is likely to spill over to their time away from you, too.
  • For high schoolers: If she’s reading a book, you could ask her more about the main character. Focus on what the character might be thinking, feeling, and hoping. Or ask why the character did a particular thing. If this sort of perspective-taking becomes a habit for her, it’ll likely translate into real life as well.

To label or not to label: How much should you tell your child about her learning difficulty?

You don’t want to reduce your child to a label, but you do want her to understand herself better. Just remember, many children are labelling themselves already by thinking of themselves as ‘dumb’ or ‘stupid.’ So, it’s worth taking the time to talk things through with your child. Explain that having a learning difficulty means she’s not performing to her potential. This, by definition, means that she has potential, that she is intelligent. She’ll just need to learn how to use a few new mental tools.

Do you feel like you need help providing your child with the right emotional support? Consider contacting a specialist.

The Ed Psych Practice offers consultation, advice, and problem solving for parents, nurseries, schools, and colleges, in London. We have educational psychologists and therapists, who can help.

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