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Nonverbal Learning Disorder
Q: Our first-grader has a nonverbal learning disorder. What should we do to ensure that he has the most positive school experience possible? He has good cognitive ability, but significant visual/fine/gross motor issues. How do we keep his self-esteem intact and his confidence high, as he realizes more and more that other kids don't have to work nearly as hard as he does to "get it"?
A: It's very wise of you to consider the steps you need to take now to make your child's experience in school a good one. It's critical that you work together with his teachers to make sure appropriate accommodations are made for him in class. Make sure that these are spelled out on his Individual Education Plan (IEP). Many teachers don't know much about nonverbal learning disabilities (NLD) and may misread your child's strong verbal skills as indications that he doesn't need any special support.
The child with a nonverbal learning disorder often displays above-average to superior verbal intelligence, yet he may exhibit troubling behaviors that can interfere with social as well as academic adjustment to school. In her book The Source for Nonverbal Learning Disorders, Sue Thompson explains that these children often display an "illusion of competency" because of their impressive vocabulary and mature way of expressing themselves. Yet practical life skills and "street smarts" are deficient.
The child with NLD may have difficulty adapting to new or novel situations and/or reading nonverbal cues. This can impact on his social relationships. Children with NLD may make academic progress, but have difficulty when speed and adaptability are required. As you mention about your first-grader, motor dysfunctions may be present (lack of coordination, severe balance problems, and/or difficulties with fine graphomotor skills). Visual-spatial-organization difficulties can affect visual recall and math understanding.
One of the most important things you can do to support your child is to celebrate his strengths, and bring them to the attention of his teacher. Dr. Robert Brooks, a noted child psychologist, talks about discovering and drawing attention to a child's "islands of competence." Are there any topics your son has expressed a real interest in learning more about? What activities does he do very well?
While you allow your son to explore and develop his own interests, you can also help his teacher to use his strengths productively in school. For example, a child with NLD may excel in cooperative learning situations where his proficient verbal, reading, oral spelling, vocabulary, and memory skills can shine. However, he's probably not the child who should be in charge of recording information generated by the group.
Some situations in school may be particularly challenging for your child, but you and his teacher can help ease his anxieties. For example, the child with NLD may become confused or disoriented when presented with novel situations. He does best with a predictable daily routine that's very consistent. When new situations or transitions are introduced, the child may need a verbal preview to prepare himself. Try to engage your son's teacher in seating him near a non-disabled "buddy" who can remind him of the next step to take in a sequence if he becomes confused about what to do next. As Thompson also advises, it would be helpful to teach your child to say "I'm not sure what you mean" or "That doesn't make sense to me" when he's confused about directions or new content.
There are many things you and your child's teacher can do to help your son to play a productive, important role in his classroom and maintain his self-esteem. You might want to consider finding a therapist who is experienced with the needs of children with NLD to help you to establish routines for him at home and at school that will build on his strengths and help him to compensate for his weaknesses. Your local branch of the Learning Disabilities Association of America (1-888-300-6710) or the National Center for Learning Disabilities (1-800-575-7373) should be able to help you with a referral. Good luck!
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For more than 20 years, Eileen Marzola has worked with children and adults with learning disabilities and attention deficit disorders, and with their parents and teachers. She has been a regular education classroom teacher, a consultant teacher/resource teacher, an educational evaluator/diagnostician, and has also taught graduate students at the university level. Marzola is an adjunct assistant professor of education at Teachers College, Columbia University, and Hunter College of the City University of New York. She also maintains a private practice in the evaluation and teaching of children with learning disabilities and attention deficit disorders.