The diagnostic category of learning disability has much less relevance in Australia than it does in the United States of America where it is tightly tied to the provision of funding. In Australia, the broad term learning difficulties is most commonly used to refer to those students who experience academic and school-related problems. Although there are obvious parallels with the approach taken in the USA, there are significant divergences. The major difference is that there is no assumption in Australia that students classified as experiencing learning difficulties have an underlying impairment, although some of them certainly may. Students with learning difficulties tend to be a diverse group who demonstrate low achievement in academic subjects for a myriad of reasons. Thus, in Australia and New Zealand, under this broad definition of learning difficulties, at least 20 per cent of school students are considered to have problems in academic areas. Of these students, approximately five per cent are considered to have learning disabilities in a specific area, most commonly reading (Westwood & Graham, 2000). The latter percentage is comparable to the seven per cent of school-aged children in North America considered to have some form of learning disabilities (Graham & Bailey, 2007). This article focuses on the five per cent of students with significant learning disabilities in Australia’s school-age population.
Students with learning disability (LD) typically display inefficiencies in cognitive processes that have far-reaching implications for school and lifelong learning, and impact on social and emotional wellbeing. In the Australian context, where students with LD do not routinely attract individual funding, teachers are required to take full responsibility for these students’ learning needs within the context of the classroom.
The profile of strengths and weaknesses of these students can be complex with some having significant basic cognitive processing difficulties; others experiencing additional transient learning problems exacerbated by cultural, economic and social factors, or mental illness; and some students already carrying diagnoses correlated with learning disabilities such as autism spectrum disorder (ASD) and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). To complicate matters further, some students are identified as being ‘twice exceptional’, with identified giftedness as well as learning disabilities.
Teachers have responsibility to provide effective instruction for all learners, irrespective of whether they have a label that helps explain their learning profiles and school experiences. Timely, explicit and systematic teaching is particularly vital for students experiencing learning difficulties, and psychologists have a significant role to play in supporting teaching that is responsive to these students needs.
Responsive teachers help all learners develop the skills they need for learning, and for regulating their own learning. Their teaching practices ensure a match between students’ learning needs and the learning opportunities provided, and are characterised by the use of flexible, differentiated activities that are underpinned by carefully thought-out assessment procedures. A dynamic cycle of professional decision making for responsive teaching is supported by valid assessment information about prior learning, perceptual skills, receptive language, cognitive planning, attention, memory, cognitive processing, expressive language and social interaction skills. Responsive teachers also assess engagement in the classroom, emotional responses to risk-taking that are inherent in learning and in classrooms, and the cultural match between learners and their classrooms and schools. In this way responsive teachers use valid, continuous, embedded assessment, as well as assessment information from outside the classroom, to inform their teaching.
Early identification of learning disabilities
Responsive teachers aim to minimise the impact of LD through early identification, followed by focused instructional adaptations. Since effective teaching is not a one-size-fits-all model, it needs to match the learning needs of a diversity of students. As soon as a learner is seen to respond to classroom instruction differently in comparison to typical or expected progress, adaptations within the classroom are put in place.
These adaptations may involve additional explicit instruction, more opportunities for guided practice or independent practice, or extended opportunities for enriching learning (e.g., for gifted children). There are many ways teachers adapt instruction, but a common way is by managing a number of small groups, each of which receives differentiated instruction to target their current learning needs. Assessment of student responses to instructional adaptation constantly occurs so that the teacher knows how effective the strategies have been and can then make decisions about future application. This close assessment of student responses to instruction and intervention (RTI) has been built into the diagnostic process of LD in the USA.
Cognitive education in the classroom
An effective approach to supporting learning for students with learning disabilities is to explicitly teach cognitive skills. This focus on teaching students how to think, and thus how to learn, through the development of motivational, cognitive and metacognitive processes, is termed cognitive education. Such instruction is most effective if it is curriculum-based and integrated within regular school activities, and when transfer is explicitly taught through practising processes, cognitive functions and strategies in a range of contexts and situations (Hessels & Hessels-Schlatter, 2013).
Teaching cognitive skills can be an integral part of classroom teaching. Effective teachers consistently demonstrate a metacognitive style (e.g., to model planning, monitoring and evaluating) in all domains and throughout the entire school day. Since many teachers have minimal knowledge about concepts such as metacognition, self-regulation, learning to learn and learning strategies, a mindset change is required – encouraging teachers to see the value of teaching specific strategies for learning, and not just for better performance. Teachers need support to become good, strategic instructors of cognitive skills and psychologists can be a resource for this professional learning, particularly those psychologists who use a dynamic assessment approach (Berman, 2007) that activates and explores the processes of learning during the assessment.
For some students, targeted short-term intensive academic interventions are appropriate. This can be the case for students with learning delays and difficulties as a result of contextual factors including a lack of opportunity, as well as for students with significant learning disabilities that have not been matched with appropriate instruction. If a student experiences a learning disability that is severe, persistent and/or uncovered in later school years, more intense targeted interventions may be required.
To be effective, interventions need to explicitly and systematically teach academic skills, particularly in literacy and numeracy. They also need to provide explicit constructive feedback and use methods of visible monitoring which are linked to the learning in the classroom. Many interventions suitable for students with learning disabilities are available commercially and can be expensive for families. These programs have variable efficacy (see, for a starting point, the Macquarie University Special Education Briefings at musec.mq.edu.au), with a considerable number making unverified claims that they can ‘fix’ learning disabilities. Such claims are in contrast to evidence-based interventions that explicitly target and teach cognitive skills and/or academic skills (e.g., QuickSmart and MultiLit).
Psychologists facilitating change in classrooms
Importantly, psychologists’ reports and consultative advice can mediate teachers’ responses to students who present with significant learning difficulties and the accompanying classroom challenges for teachers. Psychologists can contribute to a better understanding of what is happening during learning and can actively challenge some of the ‘folk psychology’ that exists in schools. Solid grounded theories of cognitive functioning, positioned as one dimension of the complexity of human learners, can feature in useful dialogues with teachers.
A recent addition to national curricula in Australia and New Zealand is the explicit articulation of the processes that support learning. These processes are framed as competencies or capabilities that underlie academic learning and can be summed up using the acronym ATRiUM:
- Active learning, through
- Relating to others
- Using information communication technology (ICT), language and symbols, and
- Managing the self.
Contemporary curricula, such as the Australian National Curriculum, are acknowledging these processes that learners use across the curriculum – the same processes psychologists investigate. They are also incorporating the interplay between skills of academic achievement and the skills of wellbeing, again aspects of functioning that psychologists focus on.
In light of this growing alignment between what psychologists assess and report on, and what teachers are focusing on, psychologists can frame their assessment information in terms of these processes in order to make it directly relevant to the classroom. Diagnostic labels also need to be understood in terms of what this means for that learner in the classroom. The development of shared understandings about what is happening for learners, and how they manage their own learning, is vital for psychological assessment information to really make a difference for learners and teachers. Such meaningful assessment information contributes to responsive teachers’ knowledge of these learners, as well as to teachers’ hypotheses about how their students may respond to teaching.
Psychological assessment can also contribute to learners’ self-knowledge and can support the development of metacognitive and self-regulation skills so that students, even those who experience learning disabilities, become increasingly capable of managing their own learning. Becoming a self-regulated learner is the aim of education and is supported by understanding how we learn and how to recognise and take advantage of opportunities for learning. Lastly, and perhaps most importantly, psychologists can be knowledgeable about instructional strategies and about intensive interventions so that their advice to teachers, learners and their families is well informed and grounded in legitimate research.
Psychologists have long explored processes of learning and factors that support and hinder learning, and can contribute meaningfully to this area of professional understanding for teachers. Responsive teachers and psychologists can thus work together to optimise the achievement and wellbeing of learners who experience learning disabilities.
The first author can be contacted at J.Berman@massey.ac.nz
- Berman, J. (2007). Using dynamic assessment in school psychology. InPsych, August, 17.
- Graham, L., & Bailey, J. (2007). Learning disabilities and difficulties: An Australian conspectus. Journal of Learning Disabilities, 40(5), 386-391.
- Hessels, M. & Hessels-Schlatter, C. (2013). Current views on cognitive education: A critical discussion and future perspectives. Journal of Cognitive Education and Psychology, 12(1), 108-124.
- Westwood, P. & Graham, L. (2000). How many children with special needs in regular classes? Official predictions vs Teacher perceptions in South Australia and New South Wales. Australian Journal of Learning Disabilities, 5(3), 23-35.