Those who went through primary school 30 or more years ago probably have no idea what classrooms are like today.

The most obvious difference they would notice is the class is probably not all sitting at desks doing the same thing. They will be working in clusters on different exercises. The other obvious change is that there is likely to be more than one teacher in the room. In fact one or two adults in the room may be helping a particular pupil.

The number of children diagnosed with a neurological learning difficulty has become a large proportion of today’s young population, though experts believe there were just as many in special schools before “mainstreaming” was adopted.

In the first article of our “wired differently” series which concludes today, educational psychologists told us 5-10 per cent of people suffer either from dyslexia, a severe reading difficulty, or ADHD, which affects their concentration and impulse control. At least a third of those suffer from both disorders.

When conditions such as autism and fetal alcohol spectrum disorder are added, the number of children requiring learning support in the classroom rises to 20 per cent. The Ministry of Education is now employing 21,673 teacher aides, nearly one for every two teachers on the state payroll. That is a cost of more than $700 million, money not available for other educational purposes.

Autism researcher Dr Hilary Stace does not think the numbers of children with learning difficulties is greater than it was before mainstreaming.

“I just think there is more awareness, and schools are not coping.”

No wonder they are not. With one in every five children requiring particular support, every classroom must need three, four or five teacher aides. We can only wonder how the rest of the class functions with all this support going on, leaving aside the behavioural problems associated with learning disorders.

The second article in the series yesterday reported efforts to cure the disorders or prevent them developing in a child’s brain. The work proceeds on the idea that physiological characteristics of the brain might explain certain learning difficulties and that the brain is malleable tissue that can be changed by exercise much like any other muscle in the body. Auckland University has a “brain dynamics lab”, which is developing mental exercises and computer games to build up underperforming brain functions.

They are developing game software that they say will be able to detect deficiencies in a child’s concentration, memory or number skills and the like, and feed them more games that will develop those functions. They can be useful for pupils at any level. The games are being trialled in 23 New Zealand schools.

Not all psychologists are convinced learning difficulties can be explained by physiological patterns in the brain, but the sceptics have no other useful theory to offer. Doubtless there are “multiple genetic and environmental risk factors” and stress and deprivation will play a part.

But if Auckland University’s researchers can devise computer games that might reduce the incidence of these disorders in our schools, it will be a relief to all.

Source: NZ Herald

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