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Focusing on Strengths to Teach Children with Learning Disabilities

Focusing on Strengths to Teach Children with Learning Disabilities

Article written by:  Yvette Vignando

This article first appeared on www.happychild.com.au,

Australia’s website dedicated to the social and emotional wellbeing of children.


When Australian mother of four, Michelle Higgins, moved to the United States earlier this year, her son experienced a revolutionary change in how his learning disability was dealt with at school.

A seven year old who’d been diagnosed with a mixture of reading and math disabilities and an attention deficit disorder, her son had struggled to receive adequate attention in his Australian school, despite the efforts of some terrific teachers’ aides. By contrast the American education system’s approach to learning difficulties was “streets ahead”, Michelle says.

         “One of the biggest advantages of the US system for children with a learning disability is the level of coordination between service-providers made possible by the fact that it is all provided in-house. It is truly a team approach and that team includes the classroom teacher, school psychologist, speech therapist, and resource teachers. These professionals can all share information on a regular basis about how my son is doing and make adjustments as needed.”

And her observations in the US and Australia of her child’s educational and emotional needs reflects recent comments here by professionals about the need for teachers to focus on a child’s other abilities when teaching children with learning disabilities:

     “When your child is diagnosed with a learning disability or other issue it is hard not to get caught up in the negative. After all, the reason you have sought a diagnosis or the school has recommended you go down this path is because your child is having problems of some sort. But my favourite teachers in Australia and the US were also looking for the positive, how to harness my child’s strengths in the face of their challenges.”

How Smart is Your Child?

Do you focus on how smart your children are, or how they are smart? This is a question often asked by Professor Howard Gardner.  An Adjunct Professor of Psychology at Harvard University, Gardner is an expert on education theory and describes himself as a ‘student of creativity’.

Gardner’s theory of multiple intelligences is well known among educators worldwide, and is used to promote the importance of more personalised curricula in schools. Yet experts say the multiple skills of children with learning disabilities are often neglected.


Professor Nancy Mather from the Department of Special Education, University of Arizona, says they “often feel surrounded by feelings of failure at school, and their life is consumed by the thought that ‘I’m not good enough’”. More emphasis is needed on how a child with a learning disability is smart, she says.

Last month in Melbourne, the Australian Psychological Society hosted a conference with the theme: Theory to Practice: Positive Development and Wellbeing. Professor Mather spoke about the need to identify the strengths of a child with a learning disability, and the importance of teachers matching their teaching style with each child’s particular learning style. “Some children are better with verbal instruction or information, and others with written, so it is possible to adapt your teaching style to meet a child’s learning needs.”


What is a Learning Disability?

A child with a learning disability has a disorder affecting some of his learning, memory, understanding, organisation or use of verbal or non-verbal information.

A learning disability is not an intellectual disability. Examples of learning disabilities commonly diagnosed in children are dyslexia and dyscalculia. Often ‘hidden’, a learning disability may not become obvious until, for example, a teacher notices a difference between the knowledge a child demonstrates in discussion, and his results in written exams or assignments.

Building Islands of Competence for Resilient Children

Focusing on a child’s areas of strong ability to compensate for the areas in which she may struggle is critical to her learning: “Sometimes strength can be ignored because all the focus is on struggle; so they are not looking at a child who is great at music for example, or a great athlete or who has strong social skills,” explains Professor Mather.

Part of the solution includes setting up a classroom where there are positive experiences for a child with a learning disability – for example a teacher “may choose to let a child do a report orally instead of in writing so the child can demonstrate their knowledge in a way where they excel.”

Being passionately involved in her son’s development and education, Michelle Higgins has always appreciated having him supported by professionals who understand the importance of celebrating a child’s strengths:


“In the classroom his teacher has noticed that he loves practising his handwriting and copying out text so she’s always trying to find opportunities for him to do this, partly so that he gets a sense of achievement and pleasure that’s so necessary for all children to find at school to stay motivated, but also because she can use these activities to help him gain new skills in a different way.”


Michelle’s son also loves books and dancing so his US speech therapist took the initiative of filming him dancing and then shared this delight with the teaching team: “I knew that we had lucked out. Apart from seeing this talent and celebrating it, she along with ’the team’, talked about our beautiful son in such glowing and loving terms. They saw the boy standing before them, his beautiful personality and gifts, rather than the sometimes depressing numbers on a page.”

Robert Brooks is another educator and psychologist who emphasises the advantage of creating opportunities for success, or “building islands of competence”.


Children need to learn to identify their successes as something they can control – this is part of the recipe for raising a resilient child, he says.


“These islands [of success] serve as sources of satisfaction and pride, especially when we assume responsibility for fortifying these islands and when significant people in our lives demonstrate appreciation for our accomplishments.” 


Parents of children with a learning disability can bolster their children’s resilience in this way and so make them less vulnerable to the negative impacts of the mistakes they will inevitably make.


By teaching a child that his accomplishments are not due to luck or chance but a result of personal strengths and effort, parents and teachers are contributing to his resilient mindset. Brooks says building these islands of competence helps to “prepare for future adversity and enable the potential for change and continued personal growth throughout their lives.”

If Your Child Has a Learning Disability

If you know or suspect that your child has a learning disability, Professor Mather recommends:

  • Requesting your school psychologist do a comprehensive evaluation of your child that pinpoints your child’s strengths and weaknesses in learning
  • Talking to your child’s teacher about their observations of your child’s learning style including their strengths in the playground or academically
  • Setting up positive experiences and opportunities for success for your child at home and at school, and requesting that your child’s teacher do the same
  • Accessing specialist services appropriate to your child’s learning disability




In Australia, parents should talk to their school Principal for access to the school policies and services available to children with a diagnosed learning disability:

  • Information is also available online about state Department of Education policies relevant to accessing services for your child. For example, in New South Wales, parents can obtain information via the NSW Department of Education and Communities (formerly called the DET)  and from their regional offices
  • Learning Assistance Programs for students are available in each Australian state. For example, the NSW Learning Assistance Program
  • Nationally, information is available from the Department of Family and Community Services about early intervention for children
  • the Australian government also provides funding to non-government schools under the Literacy, Numeracy and Special Learning Needs (LNSLN) program

Children with Learning Disabilities in the United States and Australia

In Australia, parents whose children have learning disabilities rely on a combination of the school system and private service providers to support their children’s educational needs.

The clarity, effectiveness and compatibility of Australian disability education standards are currently being examined as part of the Australian government’s Review of the Disability Standards for Education.   The current standards were formed by reference to Australia’s Disability Discrimination Act 1992.

In the United States, support for children with disabilities is governed by a federal law — the Individuals with Disability Education Act.  This law outlines thirteen types of disabilities including the types of evaluation required: “We have clear laws about service delivery to people with disability – these laws are tied to funding so schools get a certain amount of money to fund these processes, and this is federally funded. It seems that in the US, these services are a lot more available but I have been told that in Australia parents often have to go outside the school system to get help – in the US services at school are always the starting point,” explains Professor Mather.

Michelle Higgins noticed the differences immediately when she found that her children’s school had a full time psychologist who conducted “the most thorough assessment of my son imaginable”. Assessment of Michelle’s son was then backed up by academic testing conducted by the resource teacher and language testing by the school’s own speech therapist. And she says that as a result:

    “What we got at the end of this assessment process was an incredibly detailed and nuanced understanding of my son’s needs and a diagnosis that made far more sense to all of us. And out of this my son is receiving daily one on one time with a special education teacher and weekly speech therapy. All at school, free of charge and within school hours.”

By contrast, back in Sydney Higgins was paying for private fortnightly speech therapy sessions and her child received around two hours per week of teacher aide time at school.  Although Higgins speaks in glowing terms about this teacher’s aide, she notes that many aides do not have qualifications in teaching or special education.

It seems that Australia has much catching up to do in the area of learning disability and children’s education. Higgins says,

                “In Australia, I knew of children entering kindergarten with autism who could only attend school for two hours a day as they required a one on one aide and the school could not provide this. Such a situation is unthinkable in the US system. There is a legal obligation to provide equal education to all, regardless of disability. School districts who do not comply are at risk of facing legal proceedings.”

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