My child is struggling with their learning in the classroom. How do I know if they have special education needs (SEN), and how can I support them at home and in school?
Let us first explore some possible reasons for your child’s struggles, besides SEN. For example, is your child sleeping well? We know that sleep can affect children’s ability to focus and learn. Has hearing and vision been checked? Is attendance in school regular? How about anxiety, bullying or other emotional factors that may be affecting learning?
Because SEN is an umbrella term that covers a broad range of needs, I will elaborate on the more common areas below. If you find that your child exhibits some of these behaviours, do consider raising the concern with your child’s teacher or seeking professional advice. With early identification and intervention, many of these challenges can be successfully addressed.
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One of the most common learning difficulty or disorder is dyslexia, which affects a child’s ability to read and spell, despite normal intelligence.
Some of the early signs to look out for are:
Although children progress at different rates, a child who consistently lags behind peers in reading or spelling despite adequate language exposure and reading instruction would be considered “at risk” of dyslexia. This warrants close monitoring and early intervention through systematic, phonics-based literacy instruction.
Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder is a common childhood condition. There are three sub-types of ADHD: Predominantly inattentive, Predominantly hyperactive-impulsive, and the Combined presentation. Symptoms may show up in kindergarten, with the hyperactive sub-type usually identified earlier due to more obvious signs. They may have trouble sitting still, get into trouble due to impulsive behaviours, talk excessively, blurt out answers or interrupt others. Conversely, children with the inattentive sub-type may be overlooked in large classrooms. They are not over-active nor disruptive, but are distractible, dreamy and loses focus easily.
A common misconception is that children with ADHD can’t pay attention. In fact, they are often able to focus on tasks that are new or interesting to them. As the ADHD brain is driven by interest or novelty, they can be easily bored and difficult to motivate for things that are important but uninteresting to them (like homework).
We also see children with ADHD who experience difficulties with emotional regulation and executive functions. They may be easily triggered and overwhelmed by strong emotions. They may also have trouble staying organised and completing daily routines such as getting ready for school. To help them, children with ADHD benefit from a high degree of structure with positive reinforcement and coaching in the skills they may be lacking, such as self-regulation skills.
Autism exists on a diverse spectrum. It can be harder to identify children with mild autism (or Asperger Syndrome), who may possess good language skills but have difficulties with social interactions. They may want friends, but lack the social awareness or competencies to form and maintain friendships. They may seem rigid or inflexible (e.g. insisting on their views, adhering to rules/routines) or engage in certain repetitive behaviours (e.g. talking about their favourite topics).
They often have sensory differences, and may avoid certain sensory input (e.g. loud noises, specific foods). Many children on the spectrum also experience motor coordination difficulties, which make writing or sports challenging. Children with autism often benefit from visual supports and explicit teaching of social skills through modelling and practice.
Given the diversity of children with SEN, therapy and support strategies should be customised to your child’s individual needs. At the same time, it is equally important to look beyond their difficulties to discover and embrace their unique strengths, such as creativity, persistence, memory, sense of humour and boundless energy!
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