We know that learning disabilities result from slower maturing of visual-perceptual, motor, language, and attention processes that make higher-cognitive problem solving and learning possible. Each child who is learning disabled passes through the various stages of development at his or her own rate and often with a unique cognitive style. The maturational lag perspective assumes that these developmental stages will follow a predictable sequence; however, unlike the typical student's smooth progression in learning abilities, the learning disabled's mental maturation proceeds by fits and starts. Adam, for example, is a bright third grader who draws superbly and is well ahead of many of his classmates in math. But he reads and follows directions like a first grader. His classmate, Tracy is an excellent reader and storyteller, but she can't put together more than 3 or 4 sentences in writing, and even then only Tracy can decipher her mangled penmanship.
Both Adam and Tracy have particular learning skills that have developed at normal rates. Other skills, however, have developed more slowly, and mimic those of typical younger children. These lags reflect a delay in the maturation of specific portions of their brains. Whether the lags are the result of brain injury, genetic predisposition, or anyone of a number of possible causes is unimportant to maturational lag theorists. The treatment is always the same: gear teaching to what a child functioning at that level would be ready to learn. In other words, even if Dave is in second grade, if he still hasn't mastered the alphabet sounds, then focus on teaching letter sounds rather than forcing Dave to try to compensate by recognizing words only by sight.
Maturational lag theorists view the weaker, more immature skills of children with learning disabilities as qualitatively similar to the skills expected of normal but younger children. Once the child's skills are located on the normal continuum of development, the teacher knows exactly what to teach next, because that's the next skill children usually acquire. Some researchers have countered, however, that this isn't always so for children with LD; their learning and behavior patterns can vary considerably from what we would consider normal at an earlier stage of development. Six-year-old Jonah, for example, is incapable of paying attention for more than a few minutes at a time. When his mind flits to the first-grade guinea pig cage, he knocks over chairs and piles of papers as he makes his way to that end of the classroom. In contrast, a l-year-old with the same level of distractibility would likely walk around the chairs and then be fascinated with the piles of papers. Jonah is oblivious to the path of destruction he's created.
Because the school curriculum is geared above the uneven learning readiness of children like Adam, Tracy, and Jonah, they are at risk for school failure. Casey's story on page 100 illustrates how very astute some children can be in figuring out ways to work around their weaknesses. If parents and teachers do not pay attention to their struggle, and appropriate intervention is not offered, more serious learning problems are bound to develop.
Larry's story illustrates the maturational lag theorists' preference for retaining children at a grade level rather than pushing them forward into still more curricular demands they can't meet. If they are "promoted" prematurely, these children will tend to grasp only fragments of necessary skills, and they will make errors that grow into habits. If Chanequa is forced to read words before she can sound them out, for example, she will misread them and, having made the mistake once, she will likely repeat it the next time she encounters those words. Chanequa's learning process has been complicated because she not only has to learn basic decoding skills, but she also needs to unlearn the mistakes to which she's grown accustomed. We've all experienced the same phenomenon when we continue to turn at the wrong corner as we drive to our friend's house, because we originally made that mistake. Maturational lag theorists believe that when children are not ready for the work of the grade, their learning will be spotty because they grasp only portions of the curriculum. This inaccurate and incomplete understanding of concepts gives them a very shaky foundation for future learning.
While maturational lag theorists deal with this problem through grade retention, other experts prefer that a child who is learning disabled stay with his or her class while at the same time benefiting from a curriculum that presents objectives as he or she is ready to learn them. Given the variety of maturational lags of children with learning disabilities, this means that the teacher develops an individualized teaching approach and curriculum for each child,
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