Addressing Specific Learning Difficulties and Maximising Potential

Specific Learning Difficulties – Maximising potential and addressing them

Every parent wants their child’s time at school to be a positive and successful experience, where the student can achieve his potential. Sometimes, the difficulty is knowing what that potential is and how best to maximise it. A student with specific learning difficulties may not be receiving failing grades but he may still be under-achieving for a variety of reasons. There are many easily avoidable interferences to classroom performance including tiredness, cold, hunger, and over-stimulation. Others, such as, loneliness, depression fear of failure, difficulties with language or co-ordination, may need the attention and skills of a specialist e.g. school counsellor, or therapist.
Additionally, it is thought that 10 to 15% of students experience Specific Learning Difficulties. These students can be very intelligent but they process information differently and will learn best when their environment takes this into account. An assessment by an educational psychologist can provide detailed information on how your child learns and what processing difficulties, if any, they are experiencing. It will also highlight any discrepancies between cognitive abilities and current achievement.  It is an invaluable document for teachers, who use it to inform their planning and delivery. Skilful teaching techniques, classroom accommodations and support options can mitigate processing difficulties and ensure learning and performance match potential. The assessment results can alter parental expectations and behaviours, as they see where their child’s strengths lie. Often, the student is relieved to receive a diagnosis. It explains their difficulties and highlights their strengths. With greater understanding the student can begin to advocate for himself. A specialist diagnosis also allows for certain useful and appropriate accommodations on tests and important external exams.
What are the indicators of a Specific Learning Difficulty? All children have areas of strength and areas of challenge. You will have noticed the activities and skills your child excels at when he is with you. Does this mirror his achievements in school? Does the student’s reading and writing level reflect his oral communication? Does he have difficulty following directions? Does he seem confused at the start of a new task?  Is completing homework an issue?  Is he taking much longer than his peers to complete homework? Is he reluctant to go to school? Most young children enjoy the stimulation, challenge and social adventure of school, if all is well, your primary age child should not be exhibiting school- avoidance behaviours.

Parental support

If you suspect your child may be experiencing from specific learning difficulties, communication is the key. Listen carefully to what your child says about his learning, ask his teacher about how he learns, find out about his learning behaviours in different subjects – is he enthusiastic and chatty in class discussion but reluctant to write more than a word or two on his favourite subject?
It is even more essential for children with Specific Learning Difficulties to look for creative ways to maximise learning.  Many are highly intelligent and their vocabulary and comprehension is frequently above that of their peers and need to be cultivated. Supporting and developing their interests will be key to maintaining their self-esteem, creativity and imagination. All children love to acquire knowledge and understand new concepts but for those with Specific Learning Difficulties, information needs to be presented in a manner accessible to them.  It is important to remember that if a child finds it difficult to read they will need to access grade level (or above) information in a visual, auditory or kinaesthetic way. Trips to art galleries, museums and places of interest, such as historical and geographical landmarks, will offer them a practical way of acquiring information enabling them to converse with their peers on an equal level. Listening to tape recordings of books will expose them to the rich vocabulary that, perhaps, they cannot decode in text.  They will be able to develop their comprehension and learn about writing styles, through listening. Your child may not show an interest in documentaries but by watching them together he enjoys your company whilst expanding his general knowledge, understanding of concepts and exposure to current affairs. Through discussion, he can be challenged to form opinions and draw conclusions commensurate to his intellect. This is not to say that he should avoid practicing the basic skills of reading and writing but support from home does not need to be a replication of that provided by school.
It is important to understand all the particular implications of your child’s specific learning difficulty in order to create opportunities for them to feel successful. The teacher will do this at school but similar strategies can be employed at home to avoid frustration and failure in everyday tasks. For example; if attention is an issue, create small, achievable steps with a reward system to a complete a task. Honesty is often the best policy in ensuring children understand why something will be particularly difficult.  The child with AD(H)D for example would need to know why they may find it difficult to remain attentive for long periods of time and be encouraged to put strategies in place to complete long or arduous tasks e.g. Tidying his bedroom might need to be broken down into bookcase, then desk, then wardrobe to avoid frustration and ‘giving up’. Gradually transfer the responsibility of devising strategies to your child, so he learns independence, responsibility and good work habits. This also improves the ‘working’ relationship between yourselves.
Reward positive behaviour more often than carrying out consequences for poor behaviour. This may mean you need to look carefully at behaviours you may have been taking for granted. For some children, just getting through the day and arriving home with all their text books, notes, homework, sweater and P.E. kit is an achievement. Help them to put systems in place to remember to take homework back to school in the morning and encourage them to develop systems for themselves. The more stable the daily routines are, the less mental energy your child needs to organise himself and the more he can focus on the task. He also doesn’t spend time worrying about things he has lost and apologising to you and/or his teacher for items forgotten.
Work at home takes, on average, three times longer to complete than the same work at school. This can cause frustration for both you and your child. Work with his teacher. Find out the main purpose of the homework to see if you can assist without influencing the demands of the task e.g. If the main purpose of the essay is to show knowledge and understanding, perhaps you could be allowed to scribe for your child. If the purpose is to check layout, paragraphing and spelling, then your child needs to do the mechanics independently but perhaps you could help him come up with the content so that his focus remains on the correct task.
When it comes to a learning difficulty it is not uncommon for the negative aspects to become all consuming.  Take care that the tutoring and specialist support you may be providing outside school doesn’t take excessive time away from enjoyable activities or necessary ‘down time/family time. As parents, it is important to look at the big picture and focus on the child’s strengths, of which there will be many, without dwelling on the things that they find challenging.  Your child is not defined by his or her difficulties, nurture activities where he or she excels and make plenty of time for them.


The contribution of self-esteem to learning cannot be over-estimated. Students with Specific Learning Difficulties can have fragile self-esteem.  They don’t understand that their difficulties are not a reflection of their intelligence. They can be vulnerable to negative comments regarding their academic performance and their self-confidence must be nurtured.    This can be accomplished by acknowledging your child’s strengths, being specific about them and commenting on them at the time. Parents and teachers need to communicate high, realistic, expectations. Often students with low self-esteem will ask ‘Do you think I can do it?’
Encourage social competence and friendships with like- minded peers. If lack of self-esteem is leading to behavioural issues and difficulties with friendships, seek specialist help. Poor behaviour, and its consequences, will certainly affect learning at school.
You may need to let your child know that you appreciate he has to work harder than others sometimes to achieve the same result. Young children are naturally curious but not necessarily intrinsically motivated to persevere with challenging tasks. You can encourage and model this behaviour. You might want to mention activities he finds easier than others, to remind him of his strengths and others’ challenges. If possible, allow him to follow his favourite activity to the highest level. Encourage him to be an ‘expert’ in something. Make sure his out-of-school achievements are communicated to his teacher who can share this with his class.
It is easy to under-estimate how much your child needs to hear your approval, even more so when he is finding life difficult. Clearly and regularly communicate that you enjoy spending time with him. Value his opinions and ideas. Whenever possible, give him real-life problems to solve at home.

Home/school relationship

Many parents of students with learning difficulties become highly involved in school life. This serves to strengthen links within the school and demonstrates your commitment to its wider purpose, but most importantly it shows your child how important their education is to you. When this is not possible, making the child aware of the ongoing dialogue between parent and teacher is a powerful tool.
Although every teacher has a duty to meet the needs of the students in their care, parents must be realistic in their expectations of how much can be done when the needs of perhaps some twenty other students have to be accommodated too. At the outset, both parents and schools need to be honest about how much support is needed and how much can be provided. If you have questions or doubts about the effectiveness of your child’s support programme, speak directly with the school but remain positive in front of your child. If you do not show confidence in the school, he will not value it and this will have a detrimental effect on the effort he makes.  Parents should develop the habit of acknowledging positive outcomes from classroom experiences as well as sharing difficulties. Work together so you both communicate high but realistic expectations in terms of academic performance and behaviour.

School Support

Early intervention is key to remediating difficulties. Students with specific learning difficulties are unlikely to make one year’s progress in one year. If they start the second year of school without support, they are unlikely to ‘catch up’ on their basic skills or learn strategies which will help to keep them level with their peers, let alone reach their potential.
Once a teacher has identified that his student is having difficulties, he will try a variety of supports in class. For example, he may present information differently and modify the assessment method. Teachers may request additional support from the Special Needs staff to help identify the student’s area of learning difficulty and target support accordingly. A range of provision is available and a detailed programme of support may be suggested, with short and long term goals identified. For students with specific learning difficulties the ultimate aim of any provision is to enable the student to reach their potential whilst being as independent in their learning as possible. The support team will consider this when making a recommendation from the range of provisions available. All options have their advantages and disadvantages, for example, in-class support allows them to remain with their peers but could result in a reliance on the assistant, withdrawal periodically separates the students from their classmates but enables them to cover basic skills no longer covered in that grade and may allow the student to work independently on their return. Out of school provision is more discreet but the student is already tired from the school day. For students with Specific Learning Difficulties, support should be delivered by a professional with experience in learning difficulties, who will have a range of strategies available to employ immediately the smallest difficulty is observed.
Knowledgeable, experienced teachers can quickly identify the areas of difficulty for a student but a study of academic history and completion of an educational psychologist’s assessment may be required to clarify why these difficulties are occurring and how much they will influence the student’s future progress. Are substantial gaps in their knowledge or misunderstandings of basic principles and concepts a result of long term absence from school, skipping a school year when moving countries, too many changes of school, language barriers or enduring processing difficulties? It is essential that parents share as much information as possible with the school on entry, or after an assessment, in order that appropriate provision is offered immediately. For example, if a student has already had a long period of English support in his last school, it is likely that his continuing difficulties will not be solely a language problem.
Even if a student is no longer receiving support services, but has an educational psychologist’s report, it is still helpful to share this with his current teacher. Certain deficits, for example in processing speed or working memory, will inform the teaching strategies and allow the student to continue his independent learning. For example, the teacher will know to allow the student extra processing time, in order to formulate verbal answers to oral questions during debate. He will be aware that repeating or re-phrasing the question in an attempt to help the student, may interrupt their train of thought, further confusing, rather than clarifying, the situation. Many students with Specific Learning Difficulties find complicated instructions difficult to remember; straightforward, sequential steps being more likely to produce a successful result. The repeated practise of learned processes and skills until they are completely mastered, may enable students to increase their automaticity in certain areas (over-learning), reducing the demands on working memory. The use of a variety of approaches may improve understanding of newly-introduced concepts. These techniques are often employed within good classroom practice but highlighting a student’s challenges and strengths will enable the teacher to address his needs more quickly.
The Oak Hill Team; Sue Elliott, Jayne Crawshaw, Rita Waddell, Ian Booth & Johanna Winterson-Hartley
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