Learning differences are widespread in New Zealand. Conservative estimates are that one in 10 Kiwis is dyslexic. So when teachers ridicule students with learning differences, call them names or throw their work in the rubbish bin, it is clear we have some serious and systemic issues in play. The Select Committee Inquiry heard many such first-hand accounts of students suffering at the hands of inexperienced teachers. It is apparent from this that one of New Zealand’s biggest challenges is that too many teachers are not sufficiently trained or knowledgeable about learning differences.

Learning differences in a nutshell

Academics agree that the single most common characteristic of dyslexia is a problem with reading and/or spelling. As a spectrum of neuro-differences however, dyslexia can impact motor skills, cognitive processing speeds and comprehension (both written and verbal), auditory and visual perception, planning and organising, and short-term memory and concentration. Dyslexia is often comorbid with other conditions – communication disorders, Asperger’s and autism, ADHD, dyspraxia, dysgraphia, and so on.

Brain research, including Auckland University studies and fMRI mapping at Yale University, has shown that while it is common to use the ‘verbal’ left side of the brain to understand words, dyslexic people use the ‘pictorial’ right side. Dyslexic individuals thus tend to think in pictures rather than with the sounds of words, receiving and retrieving information in a different part of the brain from neurotypical, word-based thinkers. Put simply, translating these ‘pictures’ back into words, whether spoken or written, can take extra time and considerable effort.

Bottom line, difficulties with the acquisition of basic skills are a symptom of the different ways the dyslexic brain processes information. This is a fundamental point to grasp as it shifts the focus from difficulties with reading and spelling to an understanding of the root cause. Dyslexics are often less able to navigate the education system due to factors including:

  • cognitive processing – often slow
  • literacy levels – often very low
  • listening comprehension – a vivid imagination and thinking in pictures can hijack attention during a conversation, leading to low comprehension
  • written comprehension – often low.

Failings in the system

Despite progress in recent years, the education system is far from being inclusive and responsive to individual learning needs. There is still a significant equity issue with students in lower-decile schools, including Māori and Pasifika, all statistically disadvantaged. Students with learning differences are still not getting support they need.

Schools that are succeeding in this area have one thing in common – a clear and transparent educational pathway to create successful learning outcomes. This pathway reflects and facilitates strong leadership, provides students, parents and teachers with confidence, and allows differences to transform into successes. Unfortunately, this type of pathway is most often absent or dysfunctional, and as a result we see all the problems that underlined the urgent need for the Select Committee Inquiry. Where no educational pathway is identified and implemented:

  • too many principals, teachers and support staff are not sufficiently trained or knowledgeable on learning differences
  • early identification is not sufficiently prioritised and resourced and too many children wait too long for appropriate intervention
  • children are progressing through the education system with unmet needs that often create long-term negative effects
  • there are poor transitions through school years, with minimal to no forward planning for learning outcomes
  • access to services and decision-making is unnecessarily complex; for example, there are currently 10 ways for a child to access funding for a teacher aide
  • there is a lack of transparency and certainty of services; for example, once an intervention is complete, often no further support is mapped out.

Interventions and accommodations

Often, dyslexia’s greatest difficulty is self-esteem – it only becomes a disability if not appropriately addressed. If addressed, dyslexia can become a key driver for creative thinking and problem solving, enhanced spatial understanding and innovation. By prioritising and addressing dyslexia in schools we avoid flow-on adult-related expenses from social, mental health and prison services.

Once dyslexia is understood, it is not difficult to see what changes would benefit dyslexic students. Best practice is a fully inclusive learning environment, ensuring that legal rights to inclusive learning and accommodations are delivered on. Best practice comes down to three things: early identification; a ‘notice and adjust’ teaching approach to accommodate difference, and, if no improvement, interventions to specifically target problem areas. Simple changes from reviewing seating layout and noise levels through to use of new technology can all make a big difference.

Key to success – an educational pathway from year

At NCEA level, provision of NCEA Special Assessment Conditions (SACs) such as reader or writer assistance, computer use, and/or extra time, have created a ‘route to success’ for students with learning differences. Schools already familiar with SAC applications and accommodating student needs are seeing better NCEA results and student engagement. However, this ‘route to success’ currently only applies to students at NCEA level.

As mentioned earlier, a critical step to meaningful change therefore is to create a clear-cut, accountable pathway to successful learning outcomes that starts at year 1. Such a pathway would outline what constitutes effective teaching training and professional development in relation to learning differences. While there is plenty of information available, it is not finding its way into the daily interactions between student, teacher, school and parent.

The concept of accommodating needs from year 1 dovetails with the recommendations of the 2014 NZQA and Ministry of Education Review of SACs, which signalled the widening of the SACs model to earlier years. In the review MoE said it would work with RTLBs, NZQA and schools to make better use of the National Standards achievement data to identify students who may require SACs in the future, transferring information about students as they move through school and particularly as they transition to secondary school. The review also identified significant inequities between high and low-decile schools in accessing SACs. Funding, however, remains a pressure point for full implementation of review recommendations. While schools must be accountable for delivering on the Government’s Inclusive Education agenda, the Government must prioritise adequate funding and resources to support this.

Margaret Stewart, manager of the RTLB Te Whiri Koko Cluster, says that despite increased 2015 SAC applications, equitable access for low-decile students remains an issue. Data gathered by Te Whiri Koko Cluster found that schools struggle to find funding for SAC staff, such as readers and/or writers for assessments throughout the year and teachers coached to accommodate diverse learners.

“It is our fear that, unless schools gain tagged funding to access, train and pay for SAC personnel, needy students will be excluded from accessing appropriate SAC help, despite the extra support from RTLB clusters, and those in lower-decile settings are likely to continue to be under-represented in SAC statistics,” says Stewart.

Best practice in action

Despite the challenges, some New Zealand schools are providing effective support for dyslexic students. As noted earlier, in each instance these schools have aligned around a clear and transparent educational pathway that celebrates inclusivity and diversity.

Kapiti College is one such school where creation of a dyslexia-friendly environment has seen significant improvements in self-esteem and academic achievement, plus reductions in negative and destructive behaviour. Sarah Sharpe, Kapiti College teacher and special educational needs coordinator (SENCO), says families from throughout New Zealand and even overseas are now choosing the school because of its approach.

“While it is undoubtedly flattering, it seems shocking that whole families are relocating because of the limited choices available within the education system,” says Sharpe.

Kapiti College believes there are three main ingredients required for children with learning differences to succeed: early screening for dyslexia at primary school and appropriate early teaching intervention; access to a dyslexia specialist for all schools, and dyslexia education as a compulsory part of teaching training. In addition, equitable access to NZQA SACs is a must. With RTLBs and SENCOs insufficiently resourced to provide alternative evidence for all students making SAC applications, a long-term solution would be to make educational psychologist reports available at no cost. Sharpe says all children have the right to an education system that allows everyone the best chance of success.

“It is not these children’s fault that they have been failing in our education system,” she says. “Rather, it is the education system that is failing these children.”

Inquiry info

  • The Parliamentary Select Committee Inquiry into the identification and support for students with the significant challenges of dyslexia , dyspraxia, and autism spectrum disorders in primary and secondary schools was announced in August 2015.
  • The committee chairman is Dr Jian Yang
  • Submissions closed 2 October 2015. The committee finished hearing oral submissions on the inquiry on 9 December 2015.
  • A total of 455 submissions were received.
  • Next steps: the committee will consider a report from its advisers, the Ministry of Education, then prepare its own report. No deadline has been set for the completion of this report.

Understanding dyspraxia

GRETA SPEARING discusses the impacts of dyspraxia on children’s learning and social development and shares some ways that teachers can support children with this neurodevelopmental disorder.

What is dyspraxia?

Developmental Coordination Disorder(DCD)/dyspraxia is a neurodevelopmental disorder affecting fine and gross motor coordination and the processes of ideation (forming ideas), motor planning (planning the action) and execution (carrying out the action). Messages created during any of these stages may not get through and are lost. It is a disorder of the link between brain and behaviour – the way we function purposefully in our world – and can affect movement, learning, behaviour, speech and language, self-care, and sensory, social and emotional development.

Because dyspraxia is a hidden disorder and not always recognised or understood by adults, it is easy for children with dyspraxia’s learning needs to go unsupported.

Dyspraxia does not affect the individual’s intelligence; however, he or she is often challenged by processing information and communicating what they know or understand. The disorder is frustratingly inconsistent; for example, a skill learned today may not be recalled tomorrow so a child with dyspraxia could be labelled ‘difficult’ or ‘lazy’.

Teachers can help

The following good teaching practices will support children with dyspraxia access the curriculum:

  • Give clear, simple instructions then check for understanding.
  • Simplify tasks into manageable parts.
  • Adjust quantity of work given.
  • Use a multisensory approach and a range of expression such as text, image, voice.
  • Give regular breaks and plenty of time to begin and complete work.
  • Use technology and devices to even the playing field.
  • Provide reminders, prompts and appropriate visual supports (Dr Susan Foster-Cohen).
  • Focus on children’s strengths.

Anxiety commonly plays a huge part in the life of a person with dyspraxia. Recognising and understanding how anxiety presents in children and the impact it has on their learning will be beneficial. Preparation, organisation, predictability and structure are important to children with dyspraxia. Setting up systems in consultation and collaboration with whānau and various professionals will support children to better understand and control themselves as well as provide them with tools to manage their anxiety.

Well-planned and managed transitions are important to alleviate unnecessary stress for children. Consistent and robust systems for identification and support and the provision of flexible, adaptable and responsive classroom environments will be advantageous for children, whānau and schools.

Social development

Another commonly affected area is social development. Children with dyspraxia do not always have the same level of social thinking and understanding that typically developing children have. Difficulties here can contribute towards low self-esteem and depression so identifying this early is important. Discussing the differences of all children and explicit structure and support socially is required to lessen isolation and prevent self-esteem issues. (Alison Schroeder, Socially Speaking)

Many challenging behaviours such as acting out, opting out or switching off may present themselves at school and will have underlying reasons. It is worth investigating what might be going on for that child. Look for a pattern to this behaviour, give the child time to explain or draw the information out of them by asking questions if necessary. Ask the child what you could do to help next time a similar situation arises.

Understanding and supportive adults and peers and some minor adjustments can make a positive impact on these children’s lives by supporting their self-esteem and mental health and supporting them to reach their potential and lead successful fulfilling lives.

Greta Spearing is a national fieldworker for the Dyspraxia Support Group of New Zealand.


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