By Kate Pierson
A little girl is born and she struggles for breath, as a toddler she struggles to crawl and as a pre-schooler she struggles to write her name. When she becomes a teenager, she struggles to fit in and as an adult she struggles with life.
This struggle is a reality for many New Zealand children as they face the perils of an undiagnosed learning difficulty; lost and alone in dealing with the repercussions of such an existence.
There are many types of Special Learning Disabilities (SLD) that affect a child’s speech, arithmetic, reasoning and writing and memory. While the causes are still being explored, they are often the result of a difficult or premature birth, a brain injury sustained in childhood or maturational lag – where the child is maturing and developing slower than his or her peers.
For any child, the social, intellectual and emotional tests they face in life are significant obstacles but for children whose cognitive learning is impaired, the obstacles are much greater and far more difficult to navigate.
We know self-esteem is the catalyst for confidence. We know it is a delicate and fragile thing, easily broken and vulnerable to the trials and tribulations of life.
But what we are yet to learn and fully appreciate, is how easily a child’s self-esteem can be stifled and damaged by an inability to learn and understand.
A familiar story tells the tale of a child with an undiagnosed learning difficulty, being disciplined for non- participation or bad behaviour in class.
All too often in mainstream education, a demanding class size means the teacher’s time and resources are limited and children with greater need are not given the extra educational oxygen they need to survive in this environment.
Without a support network to identify the specific learning tools these children need to succeed, they will fail time and time again.
With that failure and demands to ‘try harder,’ ‘pay attention’ or ‘stop being lazy,’ will come a feeling of innate inadequacy and anger; perhaps the child will act out in embarrassment or frustration and then be typecasted as naughty or a ‘problem children’.
The problem is further exacerbated by the social consequences of such a label and we need only look at the high statistics of learning disabilities prevalent within our prison population to make the connection. The Dyslexia Foundation of New Zealand says between 30 and 50 percent of the New Zealand prison population have learning difficulties.
A light in the darkness
A child with a SLD can feel like they are lost in the darkness; unable to see a way out. In this darkness, one school is offering a hand to these children and showing them a way towards the light – Seabrook McKenzie Centre for Specific Learning Difficulties.
Seabrook McKenzie aims to provide information and support to people with SLD and their families by offering professional services and intervention.
The courses offered by the Jean Seabrook Memorial school established in 2004, include speech language and occupational therapy, one to one tuition, social skills and a touch type, read and spell course.
Seabrook McKenzie also offers parent support services and a full time primary school for children with severe SLD. There are two classes of 12 pupils at Seabrook McKenzie and each class has two teachers in the morning for literacy and numeracy amd in the afternoon there is one teacher and a teacher aide. All students also receive occupational and speech therapy once a week.
Seabrook McKenzie registered psychologist and clinical director, Anne Stercq says the school’s objective is to give children with SLD the tools they need to survive and succeed in the mainstream education system.
Having been involved with the industry for many years, Stercq says public understanding is improving but when the SLD conversation first came to the fore, there was great resistance to recognise SLD.
Stercq says the path to progressive change is through understanding. In terms of how society can play their part, she says it is about “learning as much as possible about SLD and not judging too quickly”.
“And for the many successful people with SLD to be very open about their SLD to help remove some of the stigmas that are still attached to the condition.”
While Seabrook McKenzie provides a unique and needs-specific education, Stercq says the intervention provided by the school is not intended to replace the mainstream curriculum or be an alternative to it.
“Our programmes are highly individualised and intended to lessen a student’s barrier to learning and equip them with strategies to enable them to benefit fully from the education they receive in the classroom,” she says.
Stercq believes better teacher training is essential within the education sector so the needs of all children can be recognised and catered for.
“This will not only help students with SLD, but will make the classroom a less stressful place for everybody by lessening frustration, anger and resulting behavioural manifestations.”
Like any child, children with SLD have dreams and often these children possess an incredible creative or intellectual gift or talent.
In June 2009, Professor Linda Kerger Silverman, founder of the Institute for the Study of Advanced Development in Denver, Colorado, spoke at the ‘Speld’ conference in New Plymouth. Doctor Silverman said that one in six of the gifted population suffers from learning difficulties, something she terms, “upside down brilliance”.
If we are to give all our children the right to live their dream, we must move forward in our thinking and in our education.
Because in the words of author Robert Fritz, “Too many young people are being taught to give up their dreams before they have any experience attempting to pursue them”.
For information and advice you can email or phone the school at (03) 381 5383 or firstname.lastname@example.org