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July 2005

Assessing a child for learning difficulties - Who benefits from it?

Barbara Pheloung
Move to learn

One of the most harrowing experiences for a mother of a child with learning difficulties is to spend one or two hours watching her child stressed and hurting as he/she demonstrates all the things they can't do and feels like a dummy trying to do them. She already knows her child is a poor reader and/or handwriter and can't concentrate so it's fairly meaningless to know that they performed at a 6.5 year's level or at 7.2 - when they are already 12. Their child just needs help!

And maybe you know how the child feels!

Some forms of assessment are not so torturous. They may involve only watching a child at play and talking to mum - out of the child's earshot. This form of assessment can be extremely helpful because it probably is looking for the base causes of the problem. Unfortunately this latter type is not hugely common.

Many, many times I have been privileged to do an assessment over the phone.

"But that's not an assessment!" you might say. "How can you find out what a child is like without even seeing them!"

That is a valid remark, if, in fact we are trying to do an assessment. You can't find out all that much in 15 minutes of talking with a mother. Or can you?

It all depends on the question you want answered. I only ever want to know one thing - where to start with therapy? Whom should they see first, and possibly second?

The questions I need to ask the parent

If there are strong 'yeses' to the last four questions then I need to go further into the allergy and medical questions listed in my book, Help Your Child to Learn, pgs 63, 4. (This can be got at a library)

If it then seems likely that this aspect needs to be dealt with or the child's diet adjusted, then this is the place to start. Appropriate referral is made to a doctor, naturopath, homeopath etc. Many families are unable to address quickly the questions of diet, allergy and natural physical health. There are, however, a number of easy adjustments to diet and supplements that can make an enormous difference, even if done slowly, eg adding a zinc tablet.

Another basic area to check has to do with the structure of the body. The nervous system can't develop naturally if the body is tilted. The answer to question 8 above, might lead to further examination by the questions on page 69 and possibly a referral to a knowledgeable osteopath or chiropractor.

Sometimes this is all that can be done at first without stressing the family. Sometimes it is ALL that needs to be done. If, however, there is not too much indication of problems so far, I would then look more deeply into the next rung on the ladder of learning. This means that we find out about the accuracy of messages going to the child's brain from each of his senses. This is how he learns about the world and if messages are blurred or slightly inaccurate, even from one of the senses, then the child's brain will be confused. For instance, when a child sees a hairbrush as being hard but it feels soft then their brain doesn't know what to believe. Or, if someone is even slightly slow at processing what they hear, then they may still be trying to making sense out of what they have just heard at the same time as the next word or sound appears. One of my own children couldn't even see the whiteboard because of glare, let alone read it. No one was aware of what was happening, including herself.

From the initial 13 questions I can pinpoint quite easily which of the child's senses or pathways are either playing up or underperforming (questions 3,4,5,6,7,12). For instance, if he/she gets carsick I will say 'Ah ha!' and then ask questions 8 to 12 on pages 75 and 77 in my book which are about 'the post office' or vestibular system for learning.

If the child doesn't like maths he/she probably has poor body awareness, which leads to poor spatial awareness, and trouble with placing figures in straight columns and/or hopeless geometry. Or the maths problems could be rooted in poor sequencing abilities, or a new teacher.

One of my grandsons was fearful of climbing, got carsick and had a totally messed up neurological system instead of an easily functioning movement pattern to his body. He couldn't read at all at seven years. How could he, with a post office like that! Fortunately his Nanna (me) had the opportunity to get him crawling, doing sequences on the trampoline, swinging, and tilting his head every which way, two hours a day for three weeks. A few years later and lots of cross country running, cricket and soccer and he popped up to the top of his class as if he belonged there.

I never need to go any further than this in an 'initial assessment' because every one I've seen or heard about will have one and most likely several immaturities in the first three rungs of the ladder.

Pre and post testing

It is useful to do a small test that is short and quick - even a handwriting sample - and a list of nonsense words to read and spell. This is useful for the student, their family and teacher, so that the child's success can be seen and congratulated after 3 to 6 months of appropriate movement. Children who struggle can be helped to learn academically in the same way that all of us become prepared to learn - by crawling for 6 months, poking their noses into everything, breaking Aunt Jenny's statue, falling, getting dirty, climbing trees, rolling down sand hills, swinging and hanging from bars.

The child's resulting success in the classroom and the playground is also a good measure.

Full assessments can't even be accurate

Time and time again (nearly always, in fact) we find that there would have been no point to even answer, at the beginning, the following lists of questions in the book on eyes, ears, language and organisational skills. Why? Because by the time the immaturities on the first 3 rungs have been addressed, so many things on the higher rungs may easily have changed or even disappear as a problem. For example, once a child learns to organise his/her body and becomes integrated, they will be able to tidy their room and organise an assignment with not too many lessons. Or once they learn to use their eyes effectively and can remember what they see, spelling will automatically be learned quickly.

Seeing and hearing tests

ALL children should have their sight and hearing tested before they go to school and then later at any time that trouble is suspected.

So, who benefits from a full assessment?

About the author

Barbara Pheloung is a teacher, who has spent the last 30 years specialising in working in the field of special education. Members of her family were hyperactive and had LD and the frustrations Barbara met in finding help and support gave rise to her earnest desire to share what she had learned with other parents and teachers of those with LD.

Barbara is currently involved in a research project through the University of Sydney and looking for teachers who may be interested in introducing her movement programs in their schools. She has also written 3 books: Help Your Child to Learn, Overcoming Learning Difficulties with co-author Jill King and Help Your Class to Learn, and a film called Move To Learn which is available on DVD and video.

For more information visit the Move to Learn web site or email

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