Maturational Lags (page 2)
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,
Maturational Lag Patterns
Children with learning disabilities often have more than one area in which they are developing immaturely. These areas may become noticeable in different ways at different ages as both the cognitive demands of the curriculum and the child's strengths and weaknesses change. Isaiah, for example, was slow to talk as a baby, but by the time he entered school he spoke well. He was his kindergarten teacher's favorite because he excelled at eye-hand coordination tasks such as coloring, pasting, and printing. But when reading was introduced, Isaiah again showed his weakness with language symbols. He did eventually learn to read, but in ninth grade he found French class impossible—the language weakness crept up all over again. Justin had a different profile of strengths and weaknesses. He was perplexed by puzzles and drawing. Even more worrisome was his poor ability to memorize sight words—words that don't follow regular phonetic patterns. Reading progress was slow. He got through with the help of his good phonetic skills, and he went on to become an accurate reader. Even though he is now a practicing lawyer, Justin is still a plodding reader, has very poor penmanship, and has trouble spelling irregular words.
Maturational lags in attention, language, visual-perceptual, or coordination skills cause problems at predictable academic stress points in the curriculum. Kindergarten's "getting set" to learn, for example, requires the child to pay attention, organize, sit, and try. First grade's reading decoding and fourth grade's reading comprehension emphases require the ability to sequence sounds in words and understand complex language. Junior high's demand for an organized approach to learning and understanding complex geometric and algebraic principles requires visual-perceptual competencies. And high school's expectation for independent learning requires good coordination for note taking and essay writing, and excellent planning skills.
The adverse effects of some lags diminish with time. "Catch-up" occurs on those skills in which all children reach high enough levels of sophistication at younger ages. These earlier-maturing skills need to be just "good enough" to no longer interfere to any significant extent with learning. For example, by age 9 most children no longer have trouble with reversing letters (b-p, b-d) because they have such a good conception of up from down, and left from right. They can get on with acquiring reading and writing skills. Copying is another skill that becomes good enough relatively soon, certainly by age 12 or 13. When children encounter difficulties in these early-maturing skills, their school progress tends to "lag and then leap" once their brain matures sufficiently. Their prognosis for high-level learning is excellent after they stumble through the first few years of school.
But catch-up doesn't occur in more complex, late-emerging skills such as spelling or word retrieval from memory. This is because verbal deficits are not likely to improve as rapidly as visual-spatial weaknesses, given that the educational and social demands on language abilities continue to grow as one gets older. Even if a student's reading skills do approach the level of his or her peers over time, the gap in spelling abilities tends to remain wide. Another example, word finding, is a skill important for higher-level learning because we tend to memorize information by naming and then silently rehearsing this material. When children can't quickly find the words to name what they've seen (as on an overhead projector or on a computer screen), they won't rehearse it and store it away in memory. It's gone. This "naming" lag persists into adulthood and is incredibly frustrating because these adults have so much trouble even retrieving facts they know well, such as their sister-in-law's name—a big mistake with big consequences. Calling to mind facts on a professional licensing exam clearly is an even bigger problem. We all experience this problem from time to time. Recall the last time you were trying to tell a friend about the star in a popular movie but couldn't for the life of you recall the actress's name. It was right" on the tip of your tongue" but you couldn't retrieve it. People with verbal deficits of this type experience that maddening lack of recall very frequently. Naturally, this makes higher-level learning extremely difficult.
When children experience persistent lags in more complex information-processing skills, their academic achievement often doesn't catch up with that of their peers. In fact, the achievement gap tends to get larger from year to year. Many students who have learning disabilities make less academic progress than even their less intelligent peers who, though they are achieving behind their classmates, are progressing as well as can be expected. It's not uncommon for children with LD to take longer to learn new tasks than equally bright peers or even younger children who read at similar levels. When compared with low-achieving children who are not learning disabled but read at the same level, the reading of children with LD tends to be qualitatively different: they read and speak slower, make slower reading progress, and their spelling errors include very odd combinations of letters.
Developmental lags are far more prevalent among boys than girls. It is not uncommon for boys to be about six months behind their female counterparts at school entry. Typical boys' language and reading skills tend to reach maturity at the end of elementary school, whereas these skills mature in girls two years earlier. When observing any typical class of 13-year-olds, it is evident that the social behavior of boys also matures later than that of girls.
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