Elementary Children Learning Difficulties
This review of literature aims at understanding the issue of children learning difficulties in elementary schools in the United States. The literature reviewed in this paper conceives that, since the establishment of children learning difficulties, there has been confusion in the identification of children having learning difficulties in elementary schools. The identification criterion through referrals, assessment, and eligibility is perceived as a standard occurrence aimed at identifying elementary learners who require special assistance as opposed to a process that categorizes children into a category of disability. Generally, the literature shows that the decision making process of identifying students with learning difficulties has been considered problematic.
Key words: learning difficulties, learning disabilities, and special needs.
Elementary Children Learning Difficulties
The overarching objective of inclusive education is “to build an enhanced quality of life for all learners and bring them into a world that recognizes difference” (Baker, 2006, p. 235). Inclusive institutions of learning present an environment in which all learners learn collectively, in order that learners with learning difficulties are taught along with their normally developing age mates. In this setting, normally developing learners is anticipated to develop their understanding and recognition of their peers’ learning disabilities (Linklater, O’Connor, & Palardy, 2009; Miles & Stipek, 2006). Nonetheless, registering children in inclusive elementary schools does not assure they will learn about their colleague learners’ difficulties (Starr, Foy, Cramer, & Sigh, 2006). In fact, learners in elementary classrooms often have mistaken or incomplete knowledge about their classmates’ learning difficulties (Salisbury, 2006). Identifying students’ with learning difficulties and the causes of and aspects related to learning difficulties is a significant step in realizing how this knowledge is formed (Miles & Stipek, 2006). To advance the understanding of this topic, this study will review the past literature concerning children learning difficulties in elementary schools.
It is exciting to mention that descriptions of the terms “learning disabilities” and “learning difficulties” differ across cultures. Learning difficulties are a broad word that depicts an individual’s lack of success or performance, which can be the outcome of a wide range of causes and related factors (Salisbury, 2006). Learning difficulties can as well be applied to describe learning challenges that are related to intellectual impairment, a particular learning impairment, lower intellectual capability, psychological retardation, or handicap (Nowicki, 2007; Linklater et al., 2009). Put differently, learning difficulties is not restricted to children with mental disabilities, and children with learning difficulties may or may not have squat intelligence quotient scores (Linklater et al., 2009). Conversely, the term learning disabilities signify a small group of people with particular learning challenges who contain average or above average intelligence quotients (Baker, 2006). According to Geary (2008), the term pertains to “several disorders which may influence the acquirement, organization, retention, application, or comprehension of verbal or nonverbal information.” For instance, Maxwell, Alves and Granlund (2012) described three explicit learning disabilities: dysgraphia, which impacts writing capabilities; dyslexia, which impacts a difficult range of capabilities associated with reading and language; and verbal and written language learning difficulty, which comprises similar disabilities as dyslexia together with challenges of morphological and syntactic coding and understanding. Dyscalculia is another recognized learning impairment that impacts the usage of arithmetical operations, and image and spatial organizations (Baker, 2006). The Learning Disabilities Association of America reports that 4.2% of United States children have a learning disability.
Review of the Literature
As a complicated incident, learning difficulties has drawn the interest of experts from a diverse spectrum of disciplines, such as psychology, sociology, psychiatry, and education. A review of how learning difficulties have been conceived and acknowledged in similar or across these fields can present confirmation for the intricacy of the category (Hartas, 2012). Additionally, confusions about the nature and description of learning difficulties and identification standards still take the central stage on the topic, making people define learning difficulties in the most challenged and vague concepts within the education discipline. Opponents of learning difficulties, discipline have argued that the learning difficulties models medics’ and personalizes challenges by projecting them as shortcomings found in learners, which could be independently recognized by qualified experts, therefore, hampering the role of social and school aspects in the learning challenges of elementary children. Therefore, the principal objective of this review of the literature is to provide diverse and competing descriptions and interpretations of the learning difficulties phenomenon.
Children Learning Difficulties
Describing the history of children learning difficulties in elementary schools is not a simple task. The children learning difficulties’ construct is made of a variety of assumptions and notions, some of which are obscured in history, which make its grasp complicated. According to Geary (2008), up until the late 1950s, the subject of learning difficulties had not yet been born. There existed general and loosely perceived observations and studies of diversity of problems in children of apparent normal intellect referred by a range of clinical terms, for instance, modest brain dysfunction, development aphasia, perceptual impairment, word cecity, brain damage, and dyslexia. Many experts became interested in these children the most prominent among them Newell Kephart and Samuel Kirk. Samuel Kirk is possibly the most recognized figure in the learning difficulties discipline. In the 1940s, Kirk was undertaking his doctorate in psychology and became a member of the Wayne County Training school, a program for the therapy of children with severe reading difficulties (Hartas, 2012). He studied physiology, neurology, and analytical psychology.
In 1950, he established the first investigations preschool for children with intellectual retardation and started to develop methods for identifying and remediating children with intellectual subnormality and perceptual dysfunction. The term learning disabilities were conceived in a conference organized by education experts and parents in Chicago in 1963 where Kirk had attended. Displeased with several terms applied to identify these children, parents and education experts requested Kirk to propose a new terminology. Kirk proposed the terminology “learning difficulties” (Hartas, 2012, p. 362). This novel term was expected first to subsume earlier clinical terms applied to describe the condition, and second to make the condition more understandable within the academic framework. Consequently, the term learning disability was extensively acknowledged. The Chicago conference rallied experts and parents to establish the Association for Children with Learning Disabilities (ACLD), presently known as the Learning Disabilities Association of America, to advocate for children with learning difficulties for acknowledgment (Baker, 2006). Attention concerning children with learning difficulties grew and the United States government established a team to examine the nature of these elementary children’s conditions.
The government description of children learning difficulties did not have standards by which elementary public schools could discover children with learning difficulties, and concerns escalated that nearly all elementary children who experienced educational challenges in school could be classified as learning difficulties (Maxwell et al., 2012). Therefore, educational experts attempted to establish operational standards for direct identification of elementary children with learning difficulties. Hartas (2012) observed that the first challenge encountered by experts in the learning difficulties discipline was a constant difficulty in discovering the intelligence deficits responsible for learning difficulties. This research on the intellectual disability has proven to be mysterious. Previous identification performances concentrated on determining and rectifying the basic mental processes defects. Nevertheless, the failure of the process evaluation and training programs in elementary schools left the discipline of learning disabilities with doubt about the legitimacy and utility of the mental processes in detection practice.
In 1978, the United States Department of Education recommended the utilization of the concept of serious discrepancy between mental capability and performance to discover elementary children with the learning difficulty (Maxwell et al., 2012). Under this framework, often known as the aptitude-performance discrepancy framework, elementary schools may identify that a child has some learning difficulty if he has a serious discrepancy between performance and mental capability in one or more of the following areas: verbalism, listening, written construction, primary reading skills, arithmetic operations, and comprehension. According to Hartas (2012), the discrepancy framework was notably reinforced by the result of Miles and Stipek (2006) study, where they established that group of elementary children’s reading scores dropped by two points below the scores expected on the basis of their ages and intelligence quotient. The government regulation, nevertheless, did not recommend a particular formula that elementary schools could apply to assess the mental capability or specifically explain the criteria for determining serious discrepancy. However, the utilization of intelligence quotient and standardized performance scores to assess discrepancy between capability and attainment constitutes the main standard in identifying learning disabilities in the majority of United States elementary schools. Regardless of the soaring disparagement of the discrepancy framework, its utilization was important for the development of a learning difficulty, discipline, presenting evident objectivity to the recognition of elementary children with learning difficulties.
Since 1980, the field of children with learning difficulties has experienced an unparalleled upsurge of elementary students with this condition. Novel difficulties and uncertainties have continued to emerge as learning difficulty condition continues to unfold in the real world of elementary schools (Starr et al., 2009). By the year 1980, the prevalence of the learning disability condition was projected to be approximately 3 to 5 percent of elementary school children in the United States (Geary, 2008). Nevertheless, over the years, the number of elementary school children determined to have this condition has significantly increased. In 2004, children with learning difficulties constituted only 30 percent of the total population of children in elementary schools. Currently, learning difficulties is the biggest category of difficulty accounting for 50 percent of all learners undergoing special education (Baker, 2006). Conversely, the sudden rise in the number of elementary learners with learning difficulties and the matters of over recognition and misidentification are frequently mentioned in the literature to stress worrying about the status of the identification procedures and the reliability of learning the difficulty construct. From the 1990s to date, the area of elementary children with learning difficulties has become the subject of significant debate, particularly in identification measures, evaluation, and the description.
The legitimacy of the intelligence quotient discrepancy method for recognizing learning difficulties has received much criticism from experts (Linklater et al., 2009). The origins of these critiques are diverse, but can be categorized into two: critiques originating from researches questioning the reliability and the legitimacy of contemporary identification devices to distinguish elementary children with learning difficulties from other low performing children and studies questioning the elementary school’s application of technology in recognizing these children. In one of the most broadly quoted researches, Salisbury (2006) compared elementary school children identified with a learning difficulty condition with a section of low performing children who had no learning difficulty. The researchers compared the two groups by applying 50 different psychometric standards of intellectual capability, perceptual problems, and motor capacity. The researchers discovered that children with learning difficulties could not easily be discerned from low performing children since the two groups shared 97 percent scores on the psychoeducational measures (Speece et al., 2011). In a different research, Snell, Chen, & Hoover (2006) examined the attributes of 120 elementary children who were categorized as learning disabled and low performers. These students’ attainment tests were realistically average and their capabilities were within standard limits in terms of intelligence quotient scores. Since the children demonstrated comparable capabilities such as the intelligence quotient marks, variances in learning difficulties appear more marked based on their low performance. Nevertheless, many low-performing elementary learners as well had significant variations between their aptitude scores and their performance. Speece et al. (2011) resolved that elementary children with a learning difficulty condition did not considerably vary from the low performers and argued that learning difficulty was an over sophistication of the concept of low performance.
Another line of surveys disparaging the recognition of the learning difficulty condition originated from the research that concentrated on reading impairment, which represented about 75 percent of children with learning difficulty. These surveys endeavored to establish cognitive variances between elementary children with reading impairment with inconsistency and poor readers without inconsistency. Nevertheless, two researches of elementary children with learning problems performed by Speece et al. (2011) and Maxwell et al. (2012) failed to imitate Salisbury’s (2006) study’s most considerable results by not discovering any correlation on the basis of reading capability distribution, which distinguishes reading disabled elementary children from those with general learning difficulties. These surveys found that the bimodal distribution found by Salisbury (2006) appeared to have an arithmetical relic created by maximum impacts on the intelligence and reading performance tests applied. Additionally, various surveys carried out (Salisbury, 2006; Linklater et al., 2009) discovered more similarities than disparities in the cognitive processes needed in reading among children with learning difficulties and low learners with a learning difficulty condition. Usually, these researches established that both elementary children with a learning difficulty and those who are low achievers shared comparable cognitive attributes assumed to motivate a child’s capacity to learn to read, for instance, coding, and comprehension.
Another research, criticizing the children with learning difficulty identification disclosed the reality that the school staff often disregard formal procedures when recognizing elementary children with learning difficulty. Snell et al. (2006) examined 2,000 elementary children in five districts in California and discovered that even when discrepancy measure were needed by California’s description of learning difficulties, the majority of children who did satisfy this criterion were, however, determined as having a learning difficulty problem. These investigators proposed that the learning difficulties category be applied by public schools as an unfocused category to cover many categories of children with many forms of learning needs to offer specific educational services for them. In a comparable research that involved 200 elementary learners from seven school districts, Speece et al. (2011) discovered that elementary students categorized as children with learning difficulties demonstrated a generalized failure in their educational work instead of certain defects in cognitive processes or challenges in certain educational fields.
The procedure of identifying children with learning difficulties is considered by many to be at the center stage of elementary education. This procedure involves three significant tasks: making a double decision regarding whether or not the difficulty is measured typical or atypical, arriving at a decision about how to categorize the difficulty explicitly, and scheming academic programs to achieve the need of a particular child. Determining whether or not an elementary student has a particular type of disability, particularly in the field of high-incidence difficulties, is regularly complicated and has huge implications for the student and his household. Every elementary school in the United States takes part in extensive procedures of determining children eligible for special education under the learning difficulties plan. The Office of Education has stipulated a number of procedures that guide the decision-making process for diagnoses and qualification. IDEA guidelines are intended for encouraging equitable and objective assessment practices (Geary, 2008). Additionally, these guidelines present general information regarding the children to be involved, their nature of involvement, and contribute to the decision-making procedure on elementary students’ education.
According to Speece et al. (2011) the procedure of identification of learners with learning difficulties, from identification of the problem to the planning for special education services, usually proceeds through a number of phases. Usually, the initial step in the recognition process begins with an official referral. Learning difficulties are normally a gentle form of impairment that is directly associated with school achievements (Miles & Stipek, 2006). Therefore, learning disabilities regularly becomes evident after children enter elementary classes. According to Moretti, Alves, and Maxwell (2012), there are usually several ways in which a learner may be referred. The first way entails where the elementary school staff may suspect the existence of a learning difficulty and request the child’s parents for authorization to evaluate the student personally may be because of achieving far below his classmates or due to some screening procedure that may reveal a potential learning difficulty. The other way that can lead to a child referral may be after the discovery of low achievement below the child’s expectation, or the discovery of a disruptive conduct that affects his learning from his classroom instructor. The last way of referral may be due to a child’s parents’ request for the evaluation of their child in order for consideration for special education services (Snell et al., 2006).
Learning difficulties are a broad word that depicts an individual’s lack of success or performance, which can be the outcome of a wide range of causes and related factors (Geary, 2008). Learning difficulties can as well be applied to describe learning challenges that are related to intellectual impairment, a particular learning impairment, lower intellectual capability, psychological retardation, or handicap (Maxwell et al., 2012). Identifying students’ with learning difficulties and the causes of and aspects related to learning difficulties is a significant step in realizing how this knowledge is formed (Geary, 2008). A review of how learning difficulties have been conceived and acknowledged in similar or across these fields can present confirmation for the intricacy of the category (Baker, 2006). Before the late 1950s, the subject of learning difficulties had not yet been born. There existed general and loosely perceived observations and studies of diversity of problems in children of apparent normal intellect referred by a range of clinical terms, for instance, modest brain dysfunction, perceptual impairment, word cecity, brain damage, and dyslexia. Lately, new difficulties and uncertainties have continued to emerge as learning difficulty condition continues to unfold in the real world of elementary schools. To sum it up, children learning difficulties are a growing issue that demands rapid intervention measures by all stakeholders involved.
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Linklater, D. L., O’Connor, R. E., & Palardy, G. J. (2009). Kindergarten literacy assessment of English only and English language learner students: An examination of the predictive validity of three phonemic awareness measures. Journal of School Psychology, 47(6), 369-394.
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Salisbury, C. L. (2006). Principals’ Perspectives on Inclusive Elementary Schools. Research & Practice for Persons with Severe Disabilities, 31(1), 74-89.
Snell, M. E., Chen, L. Y., & Hoover, K. (2006). Teaching augmentative and alternative communication to students with severe disabilities: A review of intervention research 1997-2003. Research & Practice for Persons with Severe Disabilities, 31(3), 21-59.
Speece, D. L., Schatschneider, C., Silverman, R., Case, L. P., Cooper, D. H., & Jacobs, D. M. (2011). Identification of reading problems in first grade within a response-to-intervention framework. The Elementary school journal, 111(4), 585-525.
Starr, E. M., Foy, J. B., Cramer, K. M., & Sigh, H. (2006). How are schools doing? Parental perceptions of children with autism spectrum disorders, down syndrome and learning disabilities: A comparative analysis. Education and Training in Developmental Disabilities, 41(4), 315.