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Facilitating Learning and Development of Children with Special Needs

Sandhya Basu


Angel was the first child of her parents. Like any other child, she had an ordinary course of development. Soon after four months, she was diagnosed with severe health issues that delayed her normal growth. After a month of struggling, Angel was diagnosed with Global Development Delay as she was not meeting the normal development milestones on time. For example, she was unable to crawl or sit or even stand! She would spend most of her time on her parent’s lap. She would just stare at things as she was unable to reach and grasp them. Her worried parents called for the professionals to help their little Angel overcome these difficulties. Angel’s treatment started with the physiotherapists training her for crawling, creeping, rolling, and standing. Even though Angel initially had difficulties following the training, she gradually learned and picked up all the movements and exercises in just five months! Moreover, once her motor movements improved, she also picked up cognitive tasks like understanding language, and in two years, she learned and understood new activities-- a huge milestone for those diagnosed with Global Development Delay.


Angel’s diagnosis of Global Developmental Delay comes under the area of special needs. From our previous chapters, we know that special-needs is an umbrella term for individuals with disabilities-- including emotional, behavioral, and psychological difficulties. Children diagnosed with special needs often experience challenges in education or learning caused by internal and external factors. Internal factors can be permanent biological or neurological abnormalities, like brain damage. External factors are caused by environmental situations like trauma, stress, etc., that can cause temporary disabilities in children.


Research shows that such psychological disabilities can have severe consequences on the children's academic and emotional growth. Take, for example, parents who deny their children’s diagnosis of dyslexia or whose teachers are misinformed often lead their children/students to think that they are not intelligent and capable enough. Whereas, in reality, there is no link between dyslexia and intelligence! Such feelings often result in low self-esteem and confidence in children. Also, a survey conducted by the University of Macedonia showed that students with learning disabilities experience bullying by their peers at a much higher rate (double to ten times the usual), leading to esteem issues and isolation. Even with psychological treatments and practices, such children are unable to compete with their peers, at least emotionally. Another reason for children to feel such a way is the prevailing stigma in our society.


Does that mean there is no way we can assist these children better? Definitely not! Just like Angel showed improvements in her motor and cognitive skills with the help of physiotherapists and other professionals, we can also empower our children with effective training sessions and compassion.


But to assist them with our full capabilities, we first need to understand the reason behind their psychological difficulties and plan accordingly to get the best learning outcomes. This chapter will help us understand that our behavioral patterns have neurological links that are backed with scientific evidence. The neurological basis of behavior is widely used in special education as it helps mental health professionals plan appropriate therapies.


Neuroscience is the scientific study of brain structures and comprises various fields like neurology, psychology, physiology, and biology. It has played an important role in boosting research on psychological disorders and special education due to the development of brain imaging techniques. As the name suggests, these techniques help us understand the issues in our brain with brain images. Examples of such methods include electroencephalography (EEG), functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), and positron emission tomography (PET). These neuroimaging instruments tell us which region of the brain is responsible for the psychological issue at hand. For example, the diagnosis of autism spectrum disorder (social behavior/communication disorder mainly found in children) can be associated with a smaller volume of the amygdala (brain region responsible for emotions).


These brain imaging techniques are a blessing to us as they also help in improving therapies for psychological disorders. With the help of such practices, mental health professionals can compare the brains of an individual diagnosed with attention-deficit/hyperactive disorder (ADH/HD) and dyslexia (reading disorder) to plan the nature of therapy for individuals. As a result, such therapies that are used to minimize psychological issues greatly benefit from brain imaging studies.


Such techniques also assist with special education due to their added advantage of indicating ‘biomarkers.’ Biomarkers are indicators in our brain that show a psychological impairment (cognitive or learning) much before the symptoms surface through an individual’s behaviors. For example, biomarkers will show that a child can be diagnosed with ADHD later in life (when she or he shows no such symptoms currently!). Therefore, this information will help the special educators and other mental health professionals plan and develop a proper learning environment for that child so that it reduces the chances of them developing ADHD symptoms later in life. Early identification also has an advantage for children as it opens the door for focused future care and treatment. That said, it increases the chances of them coming out of the diagnosed disorder.

Now that we have the understanding of the neuroscience behind the special-needs children’s behaviors, let’s find out how we can support and encourage them to overcome their challenges.


We understand that sometimes caregivers get overwhelmed when they see their children experiencing difficulties. But we need to stay strong and remind ourselves that it is not our job to treat the disorder but to provide them with the emotional needs and compassion to reduce the distress they are feeling. Our attitude towards our children’s journey of overcoming problems also impacts their motivation. Here are some techniques that we can use to improve our children’s learning outcomes:

  1. We need to make sure that we are not over-concerned with the obstacles our child faces. It is better to understand that obstacles are common and are experienced by everyone. We may strictly direct our attention towards giving the child social and emotional support.

  2. Being up to date with new research about our child’s disorder helps us in finding out new therapies and treatments. Building contacts with special educators and mental health professionals to know about the recent developments in therapy programs will empower us to plan learning techniques for our children effectively.

  3. We need to train our child to be the expert. We may let him or her take charge of academic sessions and make sure that we positively reinforce (by words of appreciation or cooking their favourite food) to help them gain self-confidence and self-esteem.

  4. Embracing our role as an active member of society to train our child with communication skills is also one of the effective ways to empower our children. We may perform role plays to mimic social interactions at home and shops, etc. to show how basic communication takes place.

  5. Most importantly, we need to focus on our child’s strengths rather than weaknesses. Our child’s diagnosis does not define his or her personality, but their talent and skills do! The child’s schedule must revolve around activities that they can perform to excel in life.

You will be relieved to know that the scope for diagnosing and treating psychological disorders is rapidly expanding. Both biological and environmental factors play an important role in removing distress and behaviors related to the disorder. The good news is that we have multiple opportunities in moulding the brain towards appropriate development. Regular exercises, stress-reducing routines, positive social environments, proper sleep, and most importantly, nutrition can positively affect the brain’s development. Such habits coupled with psychological therapies can definitely do wonders!

References

  1. Green, S. K., & Shinn, M. R. (1994). Parent attitudes about special education and reintegration: What is the role of student outcomes?. Exceptional children, 61(3), 269-281.

  2. Lee, K., Kim, M. J., Park, T. H., & Alcazar-Bejerano, I. L. (2015). Effects of a ubiquitous mentoring program on self-esteem, school adaptation, and perceived parental attitude. Social Behavior and Personality: an international journal, 43(7), 1193-1208.

  3. Maryanti, R., Nandiyanto, A. B. D., Hufad, A., & Sunardi, S. Science Education for Students with Special Needs in Indonesia: From Definition, Systematic Review, Education System, to Curriculum. Indonesian Journal of Community and Special Needs Education, 1(1), 1-8.

  4. Muller, E. (2011, July). Neuroscience and Special Education. inForum. In Project Forum. Project Forum. Available from: National Association of State Directors of Special Education. 1800 Diagonal Road Suite 320, Alexandria, VA 22314.

  5. Papanastasiou, F. (2018). The Psychological Implication of Learning Disabilities. Acta Psychopathol, 4(1), 1.

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