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Detecting Learning and Behaviour Problems in Children
by Fiona Walker

As parents we are sometimes concerned when we see our child struggle with meeting accepted expectations either in their behaviour or their cognitive development.

What we worry about is whether or not our child has a learning or behavioural difficulty that needs to be addressed or whether they are just going through a phase.

Children go through many different stages as they grow up. Their development is not usually a continuous smooth upward curve but a far more jagged line representing the spurts and lulls in development.

Common behavioural problems include:

- Oppositional and aggressive behaviour: This can cover a number of behaviours including hitting, kicking, crying, tantrums and refusing to cooperate. This behaviour generally stems from a child attempting to assert his / her own personality and independence, an inability to express himself or the sense of not being understood or frustration.

- Withdrawn, extremely shy behaviour: In certain situations a child will withdraw and become very quiet and non-communicative. This can stem from a lack of confidence, attempt to gain attention or an emotional trauma.

- Avoidance Behaviour: When a child will employ any number of strategies which will mean that she is able to avoid an activity or challenge. In the classroom a child may constantly interrupt or distract the teacher in order to avoid the task at hand. Constantly getting up from the table or just pushing food around the plate in order to avoid having to eat a less than favourite food is very common.

Every child will go through different phases and at least one of the behaviours mentioned will occur to some extent.

Many children will display different behaviours at different times.

For example my son can become extremely frustrated when his little sister destroys his Lego world and may in fact become aggressive! Yet, in certain social situations he may be very quiet and shy away from greeting people he is unfamiliar with.

When it comes to reading which he can find challenging, he can employ a number of avoidance tactics including clowning around or by distracting you with a constant string of questions and suppositions.

These common behaviours can be challenging for you to manage. It is important to remember to model the behaviour you want your child to adopt.

Many difficult behaviours can be minimized through:

- Having a stable home routine, which includes routine meal and bedtimes.

- Understanding your child's temperament and personality and matching your expectations accordingly

- Stating clearly what behaviour you would like to see and what behaviour you would not like to see.

Give as much love and attention as you can to your child. If you are unable to spend much of the day together with your child try to make sure they are with people who genuinely like him or her and there is a great deal of affection and positivity in their environment.

If you are concerned that your child may have a behavioural difficulty, monitor their behaviour over a few weeks. Note if there is any specific triggers such as time of day, hunger, boredom, tiredness, certain people or activities.

With this information you can either make the necessary adjustments yourself or seek professional help. Only a trained professional can diagnose a behavioural disorder.

A diagnosis is made after observations of and interactions with your child and a detailed history from you. Many times behavioural problems are symptomatic of a learning difficulty which is the actual cause of either the frustration, low self-esteem or inappropriate social communication.

Common Learning Challenges Include:

- Difficulty processing auditory information. Children may have difficulty understanding information given verbally. If you find your child just doesn't seem to listen to you or requests need to be repeated many times before anything happens this could be for a reason. Children who rarely remember what they were told but do remember what they saw or what they did may have an auditory processing difficulty.

- Visual perception difficulty. Some children have a problem focusing on print and this can lead to a difficulty in learning the alphabet, reading and writing. Often copying from the board and keeping track of their place in a passage of text can be very challenging. Writing may be very untidy and a single word can consist of both large and small letters written in a haphazard manner.

- Easily distracted by sensory input. When we concentrate our bodies can filter all the sensory input so that we are to pay attention to what is important. For some children this is extremely difficult and they can be distracted by noises, touch, and visual stimulation rather than be able to concentrate on what they are expected to do, like listen to the teacher or sit still.

- Social Communication challenges. For a small number of children picking up social cues, whether verbal or nonverbal can be very difficult. Others may find it hard expressing emotions and thoughts appropriately. This can lead to them becoming withdrawn, rigidly needing routine or not being able to take part in the normal turn taking and sharing of a social group.

A child who has a difficulty in any one of these areas will almost certainly display behaviour which may be seen as a problem.

Difficult behaviour may only surface either at home or school, so it is important if you have any concern that you speak to everyone who is involved with your child in order to get a complete picture.

Fiona Walker is the Principal Director of Julia Gabriel Centre for Learning & Chiltern House. She holds a Masters in Early Childhood Education and is a qualified Montessori teacher with more than 20 years of experience in providing quality education for young children.

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