Untangling young minds

Last updated 11:24 22/02/2012
UNRAVELLING PUZZLING CHILDREN: Speladd Palmerston North liaison officer Elizabeth Manson has had 35 years teaching children with learning difficulties how to read, write, spell and count. She says it's the most rewarding work in the world.

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Cutting through the barriers that hinder children from learning is what drives Elizabeth Manson, writes LEE MATTHEWS.

Elizabeth Manson has taught children to read, write and count for more than 35 years.

Not just any children, though. She teaches children who have specific learning difficulties, the children who for many reasons don't learn in a school classroom, who need different techniques and one-to-one attention.

"They're what we call the puzzling children. They appear bright, they look like everyone else, but they just can't seem to learn."

She started the work in Blenheim, in the mid 1970s. Learning difficulties were only just beginning to be recognised, and Mrs Manson had finished classroom teaching to have a family.

"But I love working with individual children, and this course came up ..."

The rest is history, with hundreds of children becoming successful learners because of Mrs Manson's efforts, and those of other paid and volunteer tutors, teachers and parents.

She came to Palmerston North in 1984, where there was a strong branch of SPELD – an organisation set up to help children with dyslexia and other learning difficulties. Dyslexic people scramble the order of words and letters and numbers, so sequencing and reading requires different learning approaches.

International studies suggest about 7.5 per cent of people are dyslexic, and about 4.5 per cent of those are severely affected.

What Mrs Manson's found over the years, however, is that children often come with a suite of learning difficulties that they haven't been able to conquer in a classroom.

"It's been estimated there's over 100,000 different combinations of specific learning disabilities. Comprehension, vision, listening, co-ordination, social skill problems, behaviours such as ADD [attention deficit disorder] and ADHD [attention deficit hyperactivity disorder]. They're all barriers to children's learning."

What keeps her going is the belief that she makes a difference to individual children.

"You get a child in here who comes thinking they're stupid, who is angry and upset because they don't know why they can't learn, who is very anxious because this is happening to them, and you work with them and they find out that they can do these things – that's the reward. That's the reason we do it."

Early diagnosis is hugely important. Generally speaking, children found to be having difficulties at the age of 5 or 6 can be helped much more easily than teenagers, who have lost years of potential learning and who have more years to develop bad behaviours associated with being labelled difficult or problem children.

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"I've come to the conclusion that bad behaviours are so often caused by learning difficulties not being addressed. Children get frustrated, they become naughty, they turn into the class clown or the bully, or the victim, they sink into dreaminess, they get disruptive. They get told then that they are dumb or stupid or lazy ... it doesn't take too much of that to start believing it."

Classroom teachers do the very best they can, but the fact that about one in five Kiwi children still come out of school functionally illiterate or innumerate shows they can't do everything for everyone.

"Some schools are better than others at finding these children, and they refer parents to us. Parents often know themselves that something isn't going right for their children. Seek help as early as you can, is my advice. Children deserve the very best we can give them."

SPELD in Palmerston North split into SPELD and Speladd Palmerston North in 1999; SPELD is a national group for children with learning difficulties and Speladd caters for children who also have ADD or ADHD.

"It was a philosophical difference. SPELD was turning into a professional organisation with professional-level fees. We felt many people just couldn't afford hundreds of dollars for assessments ... I also knew that more attention had to be paid to behaviour problems caused by ADD and ADHD. That's why we've got ADD in our name, it helps parents to find us."

Speladd Palmerston North set up as a trust and is a registered charity, funded by grants, donations and parent contributions. It runs on a shoestring and liaison officer Mrs Manson says the string is stretched tight just now, because grant funding is harder to get every year.

"So many worthy groups doing necessary work ... but money is always a problem. So many of our parents are Community Service Card people, they just don't have spare money."

Her group offers individual tutoring for children, and courses and information for teachers and parents. Good listening and counselling is needed; often parents come to Speladd at their wits' end, desperate to do something, anything, to help their children.

She's found research that points to a link between diet and behaviour problems.

"Not necessarily sugar or food colourings ... this is a problem that some children have with dairy products. They're finding that children on the Asperger's/autism spectrum have trouble digesting dairy protein, and that gluten is no good to them. They aren't absorbing protein from those sources, and it affects their health and behaviour."

Mrs Manson is 65 but has no plans to retire yet.

"I love doing this. What could be more important than making a difference to children?"

- © Fairfax NZ News

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