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Many Children with Learning Difficulties Suffer from Anxiety

Teachers may not recognise that the child is suffering from anxiety and learning difficulties and may assume that the child who doesn’t give a correct answer or respond to a question or direction is incapable of understanding the task. In many cases, however, the child does not understand because of the way in which the information is presented, heard, or processed. Due to this lack of engagement and understanding, they may become anxious and frustrated.  This increased anxiety can lead to further disengagement and/or problematic behaviour.  Anxiety and learning difficulties in children may also be due to having had a large number of negative learning experiences and trauma associated with learning and schooling in general. It is vital then for teachers to be mindful and aware of the role that anxiety plays with children with learning difficulties.

Parents are More Aware of Difficulties

Parents can provide more understanding, awareness including rich and detailed information about a student than any professional teachers can, no matter how informed or qualified they are in the area of anxiety and learning difficulties.   The key to connecting with families is for teachers to be mindful and respectful of the way in which parents talk about and see themselves and their children’s difficulties rather than trying to guess or insist that they, the teachers know better. Teachers must listen to families and work to understand their experiences, traditions, histories, rituals and beliefs. Teachers will benefit from learning to understand how families view themselves, the students’ school experiences and the partnership between the school and the home. Teachers must keep in mind that many families come to the classroom having dealt with individuals and systems that have misunderstood or even rejected their child. Teachers should show that they value the home and school relationship. This can be achieved by demonstrating their commitment to the family through action, namely by working to create an effective partnership in the current school and situation. In this manner, families can feel that they are valued members of the school community.

Educators can’t support students with developmental and learning difficulties effectively until they begin to treat behaviour as something that is interpreted and contextual. Too many students are excluded because they are thought to ‘own’ their behaviour and because those behaviours are assumed to be problematic and cannot be changed. As a result, teachers need to question these beliefs and implement strategies that are beneficial to the student. It is important to remember that many students with learning difficulties have been to see many specialists, doctors, teachers and educators etc. They may even have felt let down or not understood by such individuals in the past. As a result, it takes an enormous amount of courage (and often creates a great deal of anxiety) for these students to meet with these individuals for the first time in thinking are they going to do the right thing by me? Can I trust them? Or will I be let down again?

Working Memory Can Be Reduced Due to Anxiety

Many children with learning difficulties already have a lower rate of processing and retrieving information from long-term memory.  Add that to a stressful situation wherein anxiety causes working memory to be reduced and there is a doubling of the initial problem.  Anxiety and learning difficulties can then become a circular problem.

In such cases, teachers need to make sure that they give an adequate amount of time for students to respond before they assume it’s because of a lack of knowledge.

Anxiety and learning difficulties will often occur if the child believes a task is too hard.  They are also likely anxious because they are unsure as to whether or not to ask for help.  For example, in order to maintain the meaning of what we are reading as we progress through sentences and paragraphs, we have to be able to keep relevant information in our working memory and make necessary connections between ideas. Poor motivation and anxiety can often affect writing as well and can seriously interfere with the quantity and quality of writing that students with learning disabilities produce.

Anxiety and Learning Difficulties – Reading

The attitude of weak writers toward writing becomes very negative and they can end up using avoidance as a means of escaping from the writing task and the uncomfortable and feelings that this produces, such as anxiety and frustration. Therefore, a self-perpetuating failure cycle is quickly established. Their own perception of their weaknesses affects their willingness to engage in and persevere with the writing task. However, a classroom where the atmosphere encourages all students to experiment with writing and to take risks without the fear of being criticised is the type of learning environment that will allow change, encourage learning and reduce stress and anxiety for the children. These writers will need encouragement and positive learning experiences to recognise their own progress. It is also crucial for children to have opportunities to write about topics that interest and to which they can relate too. This helps them gain some measure of increased success and helps to boost their confidence which in turn offsets anxiety and avoidance.

Role of Anxiety in Learning Difficulties

Teachers and educators need to be mindful of the role that anxiety can play in students with learning difficulties and indeed with all students. The more positive learning experiences that students with learning difficulties experience will go a long way to help them deal with their anxiety and associated negative emotions. Not only will they feel more included in the classroom, but also heightens their sense of learning engagement in their motivation to attempt new tasks that they’re confronted with. It also has a flow-on effect for parents, because it means that students are less frustrated when they come home at the end of the school day.  Anxiety and learning difficulties can lead to greater anxiety, greater learning difficulties and problematic behaviour such as misbehaviour and work avoidance.  This can all be resolved with the correct teaching environment which relies on communicating with parents and understanding each child that has learning difficulties.

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