Learning Disabilities in Late Elementary & Middle School
There is a “myth” in schools, it seems, that children outgrow Learning Disabilities, or that they should somehow be “cured” by this age. One of the more common scenarios we see is the LD child who was identified in early elementary school, or even earlier, who was well served by an appropriate IEP for many years, who seemed to be doing well and making great progress. Then around 5th grade, people start to think SPED services can/should be withdrawn. This is done, and surprise-surprise, their grades start to fall and they struggle over the next few years. Often at the same time (since by now a child is socially mature enough to realize what’s going on, suffer falling self esteem, and try to compensate by “acting out”) behavior problems appear. What’s really surprising (and a shame) is that too often schools then fail to think, “oh, that was obviously a mistake – lets resume the SPED support”. Instead, the LD “label” disappears and is replaced by “lazy”, “behavior problem” or worse.
The fact is that things often get harder during the Middle School years (5th – 8th grade) – for LD and non-LD students alike. The nature of academic demands changes radically. All of a sudden, a child is reading to learn, rather than learning to read. Also, they are expected to show what they know in writing at great length, organize their own work, keep track of assignments, and stick with long-term projects. These new demands call on strengths (and emphasize weaknesses) that were less important in early elementary school. Some children with LD can even start having difficulty for the first time at this age. In particular, children who are bright but have Attention Deficit Disorder or organizational difficulties are particularly prone to stumble in the middle school years. For them, it is like the structure they depended on is suddenly removed, and they lack the internal skills to replace it. Unfortunately, such children are less likely to be greeted with the sympathy, support and assistance that younger children are. Too often, teachers take their prior good performance as “proof” that they are capable, and instead tend to blame the child. Most school districts tend to be far more reluctant to begin SPED services for a child in this age group who has never had them before than they are in earlier years.
Another thing that happens in middle school is children become increasingly aware of their differences. Children with LD’s who are receiving assistance often increasingly feel stigmatized by this. They become resistant to accepting the help, their peers can tease them and their self esteem can suffer. Behavioral problems can result. This makes school personnel even less likely to look sympathetically upon their problems.
In sum, there is a common believe that LD’s are a phenomenon of early elementary school that, if helped appropriately, should resolve by late elementary school. Nothing could be further from the truth. Children who require SPED assistance in early elementary school often continue to require that assistance through middle school and beyond, and will suffer if it is withdrawn from them. An additional group of children first manifest their LD’s in this age group are every bit as deserving of help. Unfortunately this age group is far less likely to be given that help, and far more likely to be “blamed” for something which is outside of their control.