How DO you teach children with learning challenges?

Effective teaching requires a connection between the teacher and the student. This is especially true when a child has a learning challenge. A close connection allows the teacher to modify and accelerate instruction as the student grows. Understanding the zone of proximal development helps the teacher understand what a child is capable of learning in any given session.

The zone of proximal development is a way to visualize the learning zone.

Zone of Proxmial development
Zone of Proxmial development

Any information above the zone is too difficult for the child to comprehend while anything below the zone she’s already mastered and no longer needs to work on. The tricky part about the zone is it is always moving. On days that the stars are aligned and the child is open and able to learn easily, the child will move swiftly through almost any appropriate material you give. However, if a child has a learning disability, or struggles with emotional regulation, the zone may be different for different subjects or on different days depending on what has happened already before the learning session.

It is the role of the teacher to connect with the child at the beginning of the session to determine where the zone is for that day and then moving the child step-by-step though the material to take him to higher levels of comprehension.

Staying in the zone may sound simple, but it is the core of working with any child with a learning challenge.

If instructors stay within a child’s zone of proximal development the child will learn. The challenge for the instructor is both staying within the zone and having the appropriate materials so that the child can connect to the new information. Having instructional tools that appropriately address the child’s area of deficits is critical to the learning process. The selection of materials can be a challenge in itself. One reading program may be great for certain kind of student and completely inappropriate for another student. This is where testing and evaluations are helpful. An educational professional can read the testing results and match the child’s areas of weaknesses to programs that develop those specific areas.

Another key component for creating a successful treatment plan is making it fun and motivating for the child. I believe all children want to learn and feel good about their intellectual capability. Our role as teachers, parents and educators is creating the right interventions which stay in the child learning zone, address the specific needs of the child, are fun and guide the child towards his or her potential.

2 Responses

  1. Cornie

    Dear Melissa, Thank you for your informative articles, it has helped us many times before. I have posted here before but I want to ask something a bit more scientific. My son has severe problems in different aspects of learning. He struggles with initiation skills, working memory, processing speed, executive function, writing, concentration, you name it, he struggles with it. He has been diagnosed with ADD but some things do not add up, the medication doesn’t work (just lost a lot of weight and gets anger outbursts), and we’ve tried various therapies and interventions. He never had any symptoms before he started school. He was completely different and had no problems with concentration or daydreaming. Just always shy. We started home schooling 2 weeks ago. The main reason for this decision is that he also has severe anxiety (he was diagnosed with it first, he has selective mutism and depression – sweaty hands, trembling, rapid heartbeat – and this is only around his peers and family). There is still some minor problems that we see, but you cannot believe the turn around as the environment is completely relaxed. I have started doing research on the effects of anxiety on the brain and came across numerous articles. My question is (and I really hope you can answer this) do you think that the anxiety could be the main cause of all these issues mentioned above? I truly do not think it is ADD. He only started showing symptoms when he started kindergarten at 4 (took him 8 months to whisper to 1 teacher).

    • Melissa Mullin, Ph.D.

      I can not really answer if the anxiety caused all of his learning challenges. I do that anxiety can flood a child’s system making thinking difficult. I am glad that you have found a solution that is working for your son. There is a great program for dealing with anxiety called Emwave. You can read more about it in my article on Learning and Stress.

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