Teaching Children Who Have Difficulty Learning

Originally Published: March 1999

Each child is unique, and his learning disability specific. However, there are general techniques that can be applied to most situations.

Explain instructions verbally:

  1. Be certain that you have the child’s attention by making eye contact before you explain instructions.
  2. Keep directions simple. Use words he will understand, but be concise.
  3. Have the student repeat the instructions before beginning a task in order to be certain that it is, indeed, understood.
  4. Any tasks that are carried out daily should become part of a routine. Schedule the tasks either at a certain time each day, or as part of an order in which lessons take place. That is, the task always follows and/or precedes the same thing.
  5. Patiently repeat instructions as often as necessary, using the same wording each time.

Choose multi-sensory resources:

  1. Use materials that involve as many of the senses as possible: seeing, hearing, and touching. Or, adapt materials already on hand. For example, read the word problems in the text out loud to the student, direct his thinking using manipulatives or illustrations as needed, and have him answer either verbally or by writing the equation and its solution.
  2. Try audio-cassette tapes that put rote facts to music: math facts, naming states and capitals, phonic rules, and so on. Put charts on the wall for these same facts, as well, to provide regular visual reference.
  3. Frequently reinforce skills and concepts being taught with games. This provides an enjoyable multi-sensory avenue for regular practice. And weak areas always need extra practice!

Reward desired behavior:

Struggling children need plenty of positive reinforcement.

  1. Set small goals and continually reward their attempts to focus and achieve with specific, not vague, praise. That is, let them know you are pleased, and exactly what was done to please you. “You stayed focused for ten whole minutes!! Good for you!” followed by a hug is more specific than “Okay, good job. Let’s move on.” Regular, specific, sincere praise motivates children to persevere. The ultimate goal is to teach children to monitor their own behavior. They need to develop the habit of giving themselves small goals and then patting themselves on the back as each goal is achieved. Over time this helps develop a sense of accomplishment, resulting in greater self-confidence.
  2. Also use nonverbal rewards. Allow students to earn privileges by proper behavior. Determine the privileges-what do they want to do? Play a game with you? Have some free time? Have a friend over? Then negotiate the behavior required for each privilege. The student should be part of this process in order to increase his motivation. Sometimes a written contract is helpful. When used frequently, this technique helps prevent the “poor me” attitude that can come from continual discouragement, replacing it with a sense of control.

Regularly evaluate expectations and resources:

  1. If the student fails at a task be sure the instructions are understood and use concrete materials. If the student continues to fail despite regular help, reevaluate the appropriateness of the assignment.
    For example, the student may need review of background material before he will be able to understand what is now being taught. Or, he may need a greater variety of experiences before he will be able to succeed. In that case, look for videos and/or field trips that will make the concepts more concrete. If the problem seems to be an inability to maintain attention, the length of time spent on the lesson could be decreased, replacing one long lesson with several short sessions throughout the day.
  2. Provide continual and specific feedback. Point out what was done correctly, any errors, and what must be done to correct those errors.
  3. Maintain a dialogue with the student. He should become comfortable telling you what he does and does not understand, sharing what seems to work (“I remembered better last time when I . . .”) and even suggesting ways to try to achieve his goals. This will increase his ability to work independently as he matures. It will also increase his sense of control and self-confidence.

As a teen-ager, my son recognized that as much as he wanted to be around people, he accomplished more if he could severely limit distractions. One day a week he had a music lesson followed by a group lesson about an hour later. He suggested that he spend that hour in a practice room rather than returning home. At first he would telephone every five or ten minutes. I provided a sympathetic ear, and encouraged him to get back to work by suggesting specific goals. As he gradually became productive for longer periods, the phone calls decreased until they were occasional, not constant.

Finally, experiment to find methods and materials effective for your specific situation. As your child matures, his needs will change. Determine priorities according to his age and future goals. Be a patient and positive influence, keeping your eyes on the long-term goal whenever you become discouraged, and frequently reminding yourself, and your child, of all of his good qualities. Your efforts and his will be rewarded.