World Children’s Day: the importance of learning

World Children’s Day is celebrated today, November 20th. On this occasion we have the collaboration of Dr. Conchita Fernández Zurita, pediatric neurologist expert in early stimulation, learning disorders and autism spectrum disorder (ASD), belonging to the medical staff of the School Learning Disorders Unit (UTAE) of the Hospital Sant Joan de Déu Barcelona.

All children gradually develop a series of skills necessary for their adaptation to the environment; this is what we refer to when we talk about neurodevelopment. For a child’s neurodevelopment to be optimal, and therefore able to learn without problems, in addition to genetics, the environment plays a very important role. It is not only important that the child is properly schooled, but also that we provide him with a harmonious environment in terms of physical, emotional and social health.

When a child has no learning difficulties during his childhood, and at a given moment, it is very difficult for him to read or understand mathematical concepts or relate to his peers is when we can suspect that he has a specific learning difficulty. The sooner we realize that something is wrong, the sooner we will work on that difficulty and the subsequent evolution will be much better.

Disorder or difficulty?

The difference between disorder and difficulty is marked by the fact of whether or not the difficulty persists after having done a reeducation work. When there is a difficulty in acquiring a skill, for example, starting to read, if we work on reading, in time the child will read fluently without problems.

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When there is a disorder, despite the reeducation carried out, the difficulties will persist over time, so we will have to continue working on this skill in the long term and in a coordinated manner among the different professionals to improve the prognosis.

What factors are important to assess good learning? Are new technologies a danger?

A child does not have learning problems when at each stage of his childhood, the child is able to adapt smoothly to the demands of his environment.

It is clear that learning methods are changing and screens have become a means of learning unlike a few years ago. However, the brain still has the same needs; respecting the necessary hours of sleep, eating a good diet and growing up in healthy social relationships are basic for the brain to develop correctly.

In this sense, the use of technology can disrupt some habits: the bright screen until late at night, sleeping less hours, adding to the cell phone, communicating mainly through social networks… This can lead to problems that were not previously recognized, and not only in the field of academic learning, but also at an emotional level. Studying all the environmental factors and having a global vision of the child will be crucial for learning disorders specialists to know which aspects to focus on.

How are learning disorders differentiated?

When a child is not able to effectively develop a skill and this difficulty persists over time, it is called a disorder. According to the experts, there should be as many disorders as we have skills; dyslexia (reading disorder), attention deficit disorder (ADHD), dyscalculia (arithmetic skills disorder) etc.

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All disorders can share symptoms; in such a way that a child who is dyslexic can also be inattentive, because he is exhausted by having to make so much effort when reading, or a child with ADHD can have many difficulties to do math problems without being dyscalculic. Here lies the importance of entrusting the treatment to multidisciplinary teams that work in an interdisciplinary way for a correct diagnosis of the child’s problems and thus ensure an appropriate and really effective therapeutic approach.

Exercises to improve learning abilities

If a child has the ability to read but does not read, he or she will have difficulties later in this area, even if he or she does not have a specific reading disorder. Therefore, for the general child population it is not necessary to do specific exercises to improve learning abilities, but to implement the functions for which we are trained.

For children with a learning disorder who are not yet diagnosed but difficulties have already been detected, it is necessary to start working on that skill that is more difficult for them. If the problem persists, without waiting too long, a specialized professional should be consulted.

When should a specialist in learning disorders be consulted?

Parents should see an expert in learning disorders when they see that the child has learning problems that are hindering their day-to-day life in any area. The age varies according to the ability; for example, a child would have to have a correct formal language at 5 years old, master decimal numeration at 5 years old, read fluently at 7 years old etc.

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During childhood there are sensitive periods in which learning occurs more effectively, which is why early diagnosis and treatment of learning disorders is so important. For example, if we start a reeducation for a dyslexic child in primary school it will be much more effective than if we do it in secondary school, since in adolescence brain plasticity is lower and therefore the long-term prognosis worsens.

It is therefore essential to work in an interdisciplinary way (family, teachers, neuropsychologists, neuropediatricians…) to detect as soon as possible the difficulties that the child may be having and make a correct early diagnosis and treatment.