Dhruv was always lagging behind the rest of 1st grade children in his elementary school. His fine motor skills were deficient; even holding the crayon correctly was a task for him. He had trouble recognizing alphabets. When the teacher brought it to his parents’ attention, Ashok and Neeta, they were shocked. Dhruv was their oldest child and like every South Asian parent, they expected Dhruv to excel in academics.
Neeta and Ashok decided to work with Dhruv at home, but after three months of reading with him and doing worksheets sourced from a local bookstore, they saw no improvement. He did great some days but often was unable to remember what had been taught a few hours ago. His teacher also noticed that besides dropping things often in the classroom, he would fall down often during supervised recess. She suspected that Dhruv had a learning disability and persuaded the parents to get an assessment done. The evaluation confirmed their fears.
However, what did not get picked up in the evaluation was his anxiety and social deficits.
Dhruv had heard his parents discussing his difficulties at school. He was old enough to realize that he was unable to keep up with the rest of his class. He had difficulty making friends and often found himself alone during recess. Kids called him weird. Slowly, Dhruv started keeping to himself, often crying without knowing why.
Most of us know about learning disorders (LD), which interfere with reading, writing, and often math. What are not known about LD are the invisible symptoms. Kids with learning disabilities may have trouble expressing their feelings, calming themselves down, and reading nonverbal cues from others.
A child affected by LD has trouble understanding humor, sarcasm, and the subtle nuances of language, which means he will not get a joke cracked by his friends or understand the real meaning of a reprimand. He will act according to the literal meaning of the spoken word.
Research shows that a child affected by LD shows higher frequency of exhibiting socially unacceptable behaviors. They are more likely to be reprimanded at school, teased by peers, ignore by siblings, and criticized by parents. There is a very strong association of learning disorders with anxiety anddepression in childhood and externalizing blame to others during teenage years.
So, then what can a parent do?
● Seek professional help the moment you have a doubt that your child may have learning disability. The sooner you seek help, the better the outcome.
● Collect information and read up on the resources available online or at the local library.
● Be consistent with the remedial program outlined for your child and pursue it at home, as well.
● Focus on his strengths. Children with LD have brains that are wired differently and, hence, have a very different perspective on observing and analyzing things around them. Albert Einstein and his ability to think outside the box is a very good example of this.
How can a parent help with the social behaviors?
Learn to do social autopsies: observe your child diligently and make a list of all the maladaptive social responses that you see.
E.g. Dhruv borrowed his friend Hayden’s toy car and then forgot to return it to him when he went back home from the park. The next day, Dhruv was teary eyed on the bus because Hayden refused to talk to him.
Question: Ask your child what could have gone wrong. If he is unable to deduce it, go over the entire incident in detail and teach him the right response.
E.g. Teaching Dhruv that borrowing something is always followed by returning it back with a thank you and apologizing for any delay.
Practice: Use role-play
E.g. Dhruv’s mom pretended to be Hayden while Dhruv apologized to her for not returning the toy. His mom also practiced the technique with him again after supper while giving him more pointers.
Execute: Putting the plan in motion
Dhruv walked up to Hayden at the bus stop and said sorry to him. He also offered his favorite ball to Hayden to take home for the day.
Takeaway: Reinforcing the learning
Neeta and Dhruv discussed the events in the evening where Neeta reminded her son about the right social behavior to apply to other similar situations.
Some do’s and don’ts of social skill training:
● Setting overt rules and guidelines, such as hitting other children is an absolute no.
● Establishing a consistent, predictable, and structured environment. E.g. Discussing the day’s events each day after school and ending the day with new learnings or a quick practice of old ones.
● Using positive and negative reinforcement, such as encouragement or taking interest in their activities and ignoring or not responding to a tantrum.
● Being proactive and not reactive about anticipating challenges, such as the obvious difficulties in a large group of children at a birthday party and the support and help that a parent can give in such a scenario.
● Accepting that behavioral change is gradual and each step should be looked at individually.
● Force a child to participate in large groups.
● Discourage the child from developing relationships with someone older or younger.
● Place a child in highly charged competitive environment.
● Teach social skills at times of stress.
● Assume that child has understood the rules.
● Scold or reprimand when the child confides about a social difficulty.
● Encourage child to relieve frustration in meaningless physical activities such as hitting a pillow.
The journey can be frustrating and exhausting at times but seeking timely help from experts and support from other parents can give you the edge to help your child along the way.
Lastly always bear in mind, your child has ace up his sleeve, in spite of all the difficulties; there is no other child who has such a different perspective on problem solving. Celebrate and encourage that.