"Without solid self esteem, learning is like being in a swamp." So says Jim Grant, educator and Executive Director of the New Hampshire-based Society for Developmental Education, an organization devoted to promoting success in school.
For children with learning disabilities, the swamp may be filled with alligators nipping at their self image, threatening to severely damage their feelings about themselves and their ability to do well in school. According to literature published by the Learning Disabilities Association, a national resource center, the Federal government defines the learned disabled as, "children with a disorder in one or more of the basic psychological processes involved in understanding spoken or written language."
Educating a learning disabled child requires a partnership between parent and school; the school provides the academics while the parent establishes the child's sense of importance and self worth.
Dr. Leonard Rappaport, Associate Chief of Ambulatory Pediatrics at Children's Hospital in Boston, Massachusetts and Director of the School Function Program expresses concern about the effects of a poor self image on these children. "Self esteem is hurt by learning problems. While self esteem may increase as learning problems are addressed, it is a slow process. The main issue for parents is to keep kids feeling good about themselves. There is a danger that parents may focus on academics and avoid the self esteem issue."
One of Barbara and Robert DeLeo's first clues that their son, Robbie, might have learning disabilities was his negative opinion of himself. "Robbie felt the reason he was failing in school was his own fault. He tended to blame himself and say, 'I'm not a good boy; maybe if I tried harder,' " explains Barbara DeLeo.
While the DeLeos suspected that Robbie might have some type of learning disorder early in his development, it was not confirmed until halfway through his kindergarten year. "Robbie was always bright and very verbal, but when it came to learning how to write his name or look at books and letters and numbers a wall would come up," says Barbara.
In addition to some warning signs such as his not establishing a dominant hand and his inability to connect words with the thoughts they represented, Robbie's learning disabilities manifested themselves in other ways. "Robbie had an extreme fear of what was not part of his world. He would tend to clam up," Barbara says. "He got into trouble a lot and often had no idea of what he had done wrong."
Before they were able to put a label on Robbie's learning disabilities and explain to him the problem, he got very frustrated with himself when he could not achieve what the other children in class were doing. "Once he understood that what he had was a difference in learning and that there are other children like this he built up more self esteem and confidence," says Barbara.
Following a battery of tests administered by both the public school Robbie attends and private doctors, it was determined that Robbie has a combination of learning disabilities and attention deficit disorder. Now in second grade, Robbie is progressing well in school in a specially designed program worked out between his teachers, parents, and psychologist, Lois Carra, a specialist in school problems based in Cambridge, Ma.
"Learning disabled children need a program where they can learn. They need structure," says Dr. Carra. "If a child is in a well designed program, his confidence builds and anxiety lessens."
In defining just what the role of the parent is in helping a learning disabled child, Dr. Rappaport stresses, "get help from people in school or outside tutors for academics, but work with the child to feel decent about himself."
Jim Grant adds, "Parents should be strong advocates to protect their children. Make sure the curriculum is a good match, but find something non-academic the child can excel at to build self esteem."