LEARNING AND BEHAVIOR
- LEARNING - Is the act of acquisition of knowledge and the processing of that knowledge into memory. In human beings, the capacity to learn begins at a subconscious level at time of conception. The chemical composition of the fluids of the womb have a dynamic relationship with the environment in which the mother moves. Stress - or distress - is one of the key factors in determining how a fetus will develop in the womb and how well brain structures are laid down that will allow the child to learn. Other factors include toxic chemicals in water and food, infections such as German measles, and/or drugs. As the fetus develops, it apparently is able to react to sound. It seems to respond to its mother's voice as well as the other sounds in the mother's environment. The reaction to sound can affect the chemistry of the womb. If the biochemistry of the womb is adequate and all sensory systems are intact and functional, then learning is easily undertaken.
At birth, if the brain is not injured during delivery, the child is able to respond to environmental stimuli through a well-functioning sensory system. A child first learns to respond to touch. Touch is one of the most powerful learning mechanisms we have. A child can respond to language and communication through body language long before it is capable of speaking. A mother and child learn much about each other through non-verbal observation of behavior. As learning takes place, behavior will change. Some parents are now teaching their children simple sign language at age 9 to 12 months. Though the child is not yet ready to speak, he/she can communicate through simple hand signs resulting in much less frustration.
At about 18 to 24 months, a child begins to speak and acquire the vocabulary that will be the basis for learning to read, write, and spell. Parents can assist this process by providing a low-stress, loving, positive environment and by providing a good language model for the child to hear. A child's curiosity about the world around it is a great motivating factor to learn not only language, but relationships - cause and effect, consequences of behavior, gravity, or reactions of others to circumstances. A child is literally a sponge, absorbing information and gaining knowledge about its world. Every child's world will be different depending upon the inner chemistry of the individual child and the environment in which that child moves. These two factors will have a synergistic impact on the child's behavior and its intrinsic curiosity. Learning will continue throughout a lifetime.
- ATTENTION - In recent years there has been much publicity about attention deficit disorder, ADD/ADHD. However, the usual problem is not a deficit of attending, but an inability to focus attention on task. The individual is attending to too many things at once. In order to learn, a child needs to be able to ignore various stimuli around it and focus on task. Curiosity and interest in the subject are motivating factors to help the child focus. It is also necessary to have a well functioning neurobiology of the central nervous system. Many times nutritional remediation will help. Other times drugs are used. Most individuals who have been diagnosed with ADD/ADHD have some problem with learning disabilities.
- MEMORY - If a child is to learn, its ability to remember needs to be intact. Every sensory system seems to have its own memory component. Therefore we have many memories such as auditory, visual and tactile memories as well as short-term and long-term memories. In order to build on learning, knowledge must be comprehended and stored in some long-term memory. A positive environment helps a child remember and a distressing environment will interfere with proper memory storage. As new knowledge is learned, it can then be integrated with other memories to create new ideas and new concepts. Without good memory capacities, learning will be limited.
- EDUCATION - For the last 40 or 50 years, learning disabilities have been considered an educational problem. Although education may be thought of as the some total of all of one's learning, education today usually refers to the education that a person gets in school, from kindergarten through graduate school. In 1975, the United States Congress passed P.L. 94-142, Education for All Handicapped Children, now known as IDEA, '97, (Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, '97). Learning disabilities are included as a handicapping condition. This legislation required that schools provide an Individual Educational Plan (IEP) for a child who has been diagnosed with this disorder. It requires that the school district to develop a plan that is designed to see to it that the child is successful in learning basic skills such as reading, writing, spelling, mathematics, etc.
The Americans with Disabilities Act was passed in 1990 to require businesses, including colleges, to accommodate individuals with disabilities. Children grow up to be adults with learning disabilities. Therefore, colleges are required to accommodate those individuals who, with help, can successfully learn at college level. The Disabled Students Services office of each college is required to develop a program for each disabled individual who comes to their campus. The programs at many colleges are still extremely limited.
- BEHAVIOR - Although learning disabilities are a "hidden handicap," that is, they are difficult to see by the untrained eye, a trained professional can watch the behavior of the child and test the child's behavioral responses on selected tests, an then can diagnose what is wrong with a child's ability to learn. By observing a child's response to certain teaching techniques, professionals can determine how a child learns and how best to try to access that particular brain. Therefore, observation of behavior by the parent, the teacher, the psychologist, and other professionals is extremely important in determining how a child can learn.
- ANTI-SOCIAL BEHAVIOR A person with learning disabilities, ADD and ADHD is not predestined to become a criminal or commit acts of violence. However, it is equally clear from the research that children and adults with these disorders are at elevated risk of brain malfunctions that can lead to dyslogic, lack of insight and foresight, lack of fear and remorse, impulsivity, poor abstract thinking and social skills, low anger threshold, an inability to realize the consequences of actions or to learn from experience, and a lack of empathy for animals and people.
Research is desperately needed into the etiology, treatment, and prevention of brain malfunctions that cause learning disabilities and ADHD. Only a minority of individuals with learning disabilities or ADHD become delinquents or criminals. But it is a substantial minority Ð and for their sake and ours, we need to understand why.
If we are to "leave no child behind," the complex syndrome known as learning disabilities needs to be properly diagnosed and treated by all professionals responsible for the child's care. Parents need to know a great deal of information about their child to see that their child gets the proper care.