Exams & Curriculum

Supporting A Child With Learning Differences In The Primary Years – One Parent’s Experience (Part 1)

In this article, an Oak Hill alumni parent and mother of two boys, one of whom has severe dyslexia, shares her thoughts about how to navigate the learning difference journey from initial identification.

Her opinions are her own and not based on research or qualitative data; rather they are one person’s personal experience of supporting a child with learning needs in the international school setting in Lac Leman. She very much hopes her comments will be helpful to other parents starting out on an unfamiliar path.

What kind of difficulties might a parent observe in the home setting?

A child with a learning difference or co-occurring learning differences may display challenges at a very young age, even before they start school. For example, when putting on shoes/balancing when walking (coordination), tidying up their toys/room (organisation), speech development (oral communication), recalling facts or names (memory), decoding words/phonics (early reading skills), sensitivity to touch/noise/ food textures (sensory) or having difficulties reading social cues (communication). Therefore, observing your child by comparing their development with an older sibling/family member or neighbour/friend can be a good starting point. In addition, assessing how they interact at playdates or settle into playgroups, etc. can provide a lot of useful information.

For me, I quickly identified differences because our son’s sibling was only 20 months older, which provided a gauge for comparison. By pre-school age, we noticed that our younger son was not absorbing or understanding the world around him as much as his older brother did at a similar age; he had no interest in books, jigsaws or TV for example. He did however love elephants and playing with a ball, which continues to be important in his life.

How do you really know if your child is finding things hard?

Regular chats with children can unveil many insights. How does your child feel, do they enjoy school, is it hard, are they making friends? You never know when they will tell you something important so it’s valuable to afford a listening ear during their downtime. Try not to bombard them with 100 questions at the end of a school day, although I admit I have been guilty of this at times! You may find they are more ready to ‘share’ something with you after a break/snack – even so, information tends to come gradually, not in one whole dialogue.

Our son was a nervous, shy, timid child outside of his family particularly during his primary school years. To feel stable and content, he required his whole family to be a constant; he was very sensitive to change. In year 1 he cried for 6 weeks solid when going to school – his friend had moved from Prep and his dad was travelling. Change was hard for him; it was a destabiliser. Thankfully, with the support of wonderful teachers, we pushed through these difficult times, providing a supportive environment at school and at home.

In class, our son was unable to recall keywords to the same level as his peers. He stagnated on the same set of reading words for weeks whilst others progressed in days; his spelling tests didn’t match his intelligence nor the effort he was putting into learning them. I knew there was more to investigate and that spurred me to continue my journey of finding out more.

Where should I start if I have noticed something is not quite right?

Consulting teachers and the learning support staff at schools is a great place to begin. Ensuring vision and hearing tests are up to date, whilst also discussing your concerns with a paediatrician is vitall.

It may also be helpful to consider having a psychologist assessment (WISC & WIAT) completed to provide an overview of your child’s cognitive profile and their learning potential; the report you receive afterwards will provide strategies to help and recommend next steps. This process may also help rule in/out co-occurring differences or reveal that further testing is needed. 

In our situation, following a very supportive chat with his year 1 teacher, we decided our son should have an assessment completed. As the testing began, I remember feeling nervous and wondered what his diagnosis was going to say, was he always going to struggle at school, did he have an illness? However, my husband and I were reassured to find out he had a good IQ level and was likely to have dyslexia, somewhere on the ‘severe’ end of the spectrum. Having a diagnosis was helpful and a big relief: now we had a place to start when discussing his needs at school and at home.

Are any other parents going through these sorts of issues?

Yes – there are many parents asking similar questions, so keep going! Although it can feel lonely and isolating at the beginning of identifying a learning difference, once

you start talking to teachers, specialists, and other parents, you may be surprised to learn about the number of experienced people around who can help. Taking those first steps to investigate your child’s challenges may seem daunting, however, having the data you need will ultimately lead to your child receiving the support they require in the classroom.

Should I wait a bit longer before trying to get some support in place?

Ideally, as parents, we’d prefer to limit change and hope that things will improve for our children. However, the reality is that students with learning differences who do not receive interventions to support them quickly lose their self-esteem as they struggle academically, and sometimes socially; they may also become quite adept at ‘masking’ their difficulties. Yes, it is a `brave’ decision to seek help and the process can be a little overwhelming for the child and parents initially. Nevertheless, the sooner an intervention is decided upon, the sooner the child can reach their potential.

It is a myth that children ‘grow out’ of their learning differences and in my experience, I can see that this statement really needs to be dispelled!

But I’m not sure I want my child to be ‘labelled’.

This is a comment I’ve heard many parents voice. However, it is our understanding and interpretation of what those ‘labels’ mean, and how we plan to use them to support our children that really matters. Labels in one form or another are a part of life, so it’s our role as parents to make sure the labels aren’t used as a judgement about a child, but rather that the terminology assists the process of teaching and learning in the classroom.

By sharing information with our children, their peers/teachers/support staff, we all become advocates for those with learning differences and we can help shift the mindset about how children learn. We have an important and ongoing role in our child’s education, and need to be organised, realistic, planned, inquisitive, calm and courageous (sometimes all at the same time!).

So how quickly can my child get support in the classroom if I do decide to go ahead with an assessment?

If your child is diagnosed with a learning difference, make sure you allow time to consider the options. You will become a master organiser and problem solver as you navigate through processes/people/departments in your child’s school. It may also be important to consider school visits, classroom observations, open mornings, fees, transport logistics, funding, timetabling and learning support availability as you make decisions about the school your child should attend.

Once you’ve talked with the school team working with your child and are ready to begin a plan/intervention, it can then be helpful to share the process with your child. Ensuring the ‘burden’ of choice about what to do is not put on your child is also important, especially when they are young, as they will probably prefer to opt for no change, which may not be in their long-term interest.

What school supports help during the primary age years?

Once a learning difference/s has been diagnosed, consider what accommodations might be available at your child’s school. Our son’s poor working memory and slow processing speed, due to his severe dyslexia, meant he struggled to recall facts and put his thoughts down on paper coherently. Therefore, to assist him in the classroom, he required additional over-learning and extra time to master the basics in reading, writing and maths. Writing tasks needed to be scaffolded carefully and working in small steps helped him enormously with maths problem solving. Multi-sensory approaches, using manipulatives, playing games and reading ‘touch/sensory’ books in the early years helped him understand concepts/vocabulary.

What other measures can help in the primary years?

Your child’s school is the best place to start. Identify what learning support is available and discuss the frequency/content of the sessions and what programmes they will be using. In addition, consider researching alternative specialists to assist your child’s particular learning difference. For example, our son attended Oak Hill for two years to develop strategies to support his reading, writing and maths. He really benefited from the explicit and predictable methodology used and his confidence and academic skills improved significantly. Our son realised he could learn just as well as other students but that sometimes he needed to do things in a different way.

When you know your child has a learning difference, it may also be time to consider whether they need a home tutor – as this action can support both parents and child alike! See if you can find a tutor who has worked with children with learning differences, as these professionals are equipped with a toolbox of approaches, as well as empathy and patience.

Do you have any other tips to help parents as they start on their journey to find out more about learning differences?

Yes, when assisting a child with learning differences I’ve found the following suggestions really help:

  • Make sure you learn as much as you can about your child’s learning challenges and ask lots of questions!
  • Talk with the school, other schools, specialists, research online platforms.
  • Remain positive – children are special for so many reasons, value it all.
  • Network with other parents and provide support for one another.
  • Set up a study area for your child that enables learning and supports organisation – put timetables on notice boards, check the school agenda for deadlines, organise their schoolbooks, label their books and devices, set alarm clocks, leave sticky notes on front door to aid memory etc.
  • Remember that your child’s school and the teachers/staff want to help your child and a collaborative approach is vital.
  • Start researching technology that might support your child’s learning e.g. keyboarding skills, speech to text software, reading pens, headphones etc.
  • Involve your child as much as possible, ask his/her opinion before any plans are made – ensuring they are a part of the decision making is very important and reassuring to them.
  • Finally, allow plenty of time to enjoy the things they love and try new skills/activities, whilst remembering to allow for rest and downtime. A child with learning differences can be very tired at the end of a school day!

In a future ISPM issue, read part 2 of this parent’s journey; how her son transitioned to secondary school, advocated for him in the larger school setting, and navigated key decision making on his journey.

If you would like to learn more about how Oak Hill can support students with learning differences, visit www.oakhill.ch.

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