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Helping Children Overcome Learning Difficulties, 3d ed.

Children, like adults, differ one from another. None (with the exception perhaps of identical twins) looks exactly like someone else, none has a voice that sounds exactly like someone else, and none of them thinks exactly like someone else. The brain comprises billions of neurons; it is unrealistic to believe that any two brains are exactly alike in structure, organization, and function.

Schools are very much like one another. True, no teacher is exactly like another teacher, but most instructional programs are very much alike (indeed, many schools purchase and use the same instructional programs), most school buildings are organized much the same, and most schools use the same achievement tests (hence, the same instructional goals) that scale the children against national norms.

What happens when an unusually tall child enters a standard first grade classroom and the teacher finds that there are no desks that can accommodate him? She informs someone in the building that she needs a larger desk for this child. She does not feel the need to have a series of consultations and apply a label ("extra tall," perhaps) before she submits her request; the school custodian responds without questions. A larger desk is brought to the classroom and life goes on.

What happens when a left-handed child enters a standard first grade classroom that contains desks for right-handed children only? The teacher--without seeking someone else's opinion and without having a panel of experts testify that the child is truly leet-handed has a left-handed desk brought to her room.

What happens when a six-yearold with immature visual or auditory perceptual skills, or inept language ability, shows up in a standard first grade classroom? The teacher-- usually unaware of the deficits-- starts off by attempting to teach this child the standard curriculum in the standard fashion. By midterm, the teacher has become sufficiently frustrated and concerned that (if the school is located in a middle-class neighborhood) she requests conferences with the school diagnostician and the child's parents. (If the school is located in a poor neighborhood, she might simply shrug and accept the situation as not unusual. Isn't that unfortunate?) During the teacher-parent conference, mention is probably made of dyslexia, or attention deficit disorder, or something like that, and the parent is surprised and troubled. This is followed by more tests, conducted in and perhaps out of school, and more conferences. Finally, in the best of cases, the child acquires a label that earns him nonstandard circumstances for all or part of the school day. He is taught in different ways, with the methods decided by the teacher, who was prepared for her job by college instructors who rarely, if ever, have had direct teaching experiences with this kind of child. In even worse cases, the child is simply labeled. The label becomes the reason for his school difficulties, and that is that.

In all cases, the child's school difficulties are his problems, not the school's. If he has an idiosyncratic brain, then he must pay the consequences. Indeed, even if special instructional circumstances are provided, the problem remains his and he is expected to overcome it in a reasonable length of time because schools cannot accommodate idiosyncratic needs forever. After all, "he has to become independent sometime," and "the sooner the better."

Do his teachers expect him to "get better"--to reach a point where he will learn the way "normal" children learn? Some may, but they are rare. Usually the label once attached remains attached, and with it acceptance of the "fact" that this child will endure his problem for life.

This is wrong both in principle and in' fact. True, a good number of children enter school unready for the experience, and there is no reason to blame the schools for this. But neither is there reason to blame the child. He did not make the laws that condemned him to this fate, and he did not design the genetic, physiological, and experiential factors that made him what he is.

The job of the elementary school educational process is to teach children the information and skills they will need to perform satisfactorily in secondary school. Within this undertaking, the first major goal of the educational process is to teach the child how to be an accurate and fluent reader, speller, writer, and calculator (how to deal with information in symbolically coded form).

If that goal is achieved "on schedule"--typically, before the end of third grade--then the child has a good chance to go on successfully to intermediate and secondary education and, perhaps, beyond. If that goal is not achieved on schedule, then the child will be behind when he enters fourth grade, and the probabilities are that he will remain behind for the remainder of his school years. In fact, the gap between where he should be and where he is will widen, inevitably causing him frustration leading to anger toward the society that placed him in these circumstances, and toward himself and his failure.

The central theme of this book is that none of this need occur. If parents were aware of the importance of preschool development and how it influences early learning, and if schools were able and willing to identify and accommodate children who enter school not yet ready for standard conditions, then most of the children who bear the special education labels cited so often in [this book] would never have been so labeled. They would have emerged from the primary grades appropriately fluent in the basic coding systems of the classroom and been able to move into the learning demands of the intermediate and secondary grades successfully.

My chief argument then is that there is no such thing as a permanent learning disability (as the term is currently defined). Rather, there are children with special instructional needs who become disabled (the way any individual may become disabled after experiencing some harmful event) because of society's failure to identify and treat them properly before they entered school, and because of their school's failure to recognize and serve their special (but not unreasonable) needs once they did enter.

A learning disability is not forever unless we allow it to be.
COPYRIGHT 1993 EP Global Communications, Inc.
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Copyright 1993 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Publication:The Exceptional Parent
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Oct 1, 1993
Previous Article:No Pity.
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