NEWS

Youngsters with learning difficulties that bar progress are finally to get some overdue attention in Greece

They are bright, but they don’t understand math. They are clever, yet they have difficulties in reading. Children with Learning Disabilities (LD) and Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD) may suffer from dyslexia and auditory problems, for instance – they might even have difficulties with understanding what they see. On the initiative of psychotherapist Bonnie Miller, the newly formed Greek Institute for the Study and Research of Learning Disabilities is currently raising public awareness in this country. The institute’s website in Greek (www.matheno.gr), which is scheduled to launch operations soon, will also offer a plethora of information. Furthermore, Miller’s book «Connecting with Children in the Classroom,» will be available at local bookstores in Greek, while a video, narrated in Greek, will also be available in private and public schools all over the country. Born in Chicago, Miller received her BA in psychology and MA in social work from the University of Michigan. Working as a psychotherapist for the past 30 years, she has counseled children with LD and ADD as well as children with emotional problems, while also working with their families and consulting with their teachers. As a university professor, she has taught psychology, social work and special education, while she has presented several seminars for teachers and parents in the USA, Greece and Bosnia. She is the wife of Thomas Miller, the American ambassador to Greece. Miller and psychologist Zafiria Koslidou are inviting teachers and parents to «An Introduction to LD and ADD,» a day conference in Greek, at the Athinais center this Saturday. A few days before the day conference, Miller spoke to Kathimerini English Edition. When do we identify children with learning disabilities? Usually, we can identify these kids when they enter elementary school at the age of 6 or 7. How do we discriminate between children with learning disabilities and mentally retarded children, for instance? In mental retardation, the kids are delayed in everything; they are slow in speech, slow in walking, in everything; their IQs are below 70. Children with LD have normal IQs, sometimes they are brilliant in certain things, but they are way below in one or two areas, academic areas and they may have other social problems as well. This is neurological and kids are born with it. What about children suffering from a trauma, such as their parents’ divorce, for example? That can trigger off problems, but it’s not neurologically caused and therefore technically it is not a learning disability. We need to intervene psychologically, not educationally. We also have to discriminate between kids with a real neurological problem and kids who are just spoilt. I think a lot of kids with ADD, for instance, get cast as spoilt, because they have such low frustration tolerance and are difficult to handle. What about education in this country? The emphasis has to be on teaching children skills and motivating them not to just get good grades but to actually learn something they can use. Kids love computers because they can use them. I also believe that an emphasis on memorization is no longer necessary now that we have computers. Besides fully endorsing our program, Education Minister Petros Efthymiou is opening 22 centers around the country in the next two years – these will be diagnostic, multidisciplinary centers, with psychologists and social workers, teachers and speech therapists to identify kids with special needs. Family and teachers should also join forces. Sometimes I hear parents blaming teachers and vice versa. Instead of blaming each other, school personnel and family can work together; they all have information that could be really helpful to the other. In Greece, we now have an ethnically and religiously diverse society, where kids learn differently. We need to understand this and teach them in the way they understand best, through interesting projects, as well as different ways of being evaluated and presenting what they learn. Not just a written test, but perhaps through a portfolio, for instance. These are great teaching methods for everybody, not just for those with special needs. The curriculum should be problem solving, where kids need to be creative and critical thinkers, with conflict resolution and communication skills. They need to know how to present a project, how to debate and discuss. We are looking at kids going into a technological world and we need to give them the skills and the interpersonal skills to succeed. A hundred years ago, if you learned to read, fine; if you didn’t, you would work on a farm. Now we are getting to be less of an agro society and more of a sitting-in-your-office society. Can learning disabilities be overcome? Kids with learning disabilities suffer and if we can help them at all and early, we help them understand what is going on, what’s the best way to learn, and we can really make a huge difference in these kids’ lives. There is a kid in my video, Nicholas, who just started college, in marine engineering, at one of the finest colleges in Britain. They diagnosed him, the teachers helped him, they used a lot of strategies, he took exams orally, his mother always said that he used to get 30 percent in written exams and 95 percent when he took them orally – he just couldn’t get it on paper. We can help the self-esteem of these kids, their motivation, they can feel that they like school, that they are capable learners, who can do it with some help. Helping children: The case for medication Is medication used in some cases? There is no magic pill for children with learning disabilities. Psychologists diagnose disabilities and then we make the necessary educational and social adjustments for these kids. However, if these kids have ADD, which is also a neurological disorder and always evident before the age of 7 – with kids always being super-active, with short attention spans, for instance; there are medications which are effective with up to 80 to 90 percent of children. These kids are distracted by internal stimuli – their own thoughts – or by the traffic, the clock, the radiator. What the medication does is help them tune out all the external and internal stuff so that they can focus on the teacher, for example. Sometimes medication is misused, but I don’t understand why anyone would continue a child on medication, because it does not work with kids who don’t have the proper diagnosis. How does the medication work? First of all people are afraid that the medication stays in their system, which it does not. Most medication, like Ritalin, will stay in the system for three to four hours. So basically, you give them a blood test or a urine test and theirs is the same as yours. And that is why they have to take a second dose. The medication needs to be continually monitored – kids should never have access to their own medication – by teachers, parents and doctor and continually evaluated. Does this kid need to stay on it, for instance? A doctor can put a child on medication for a school year – if the child has a lot of homework, he might need a lower dose for the afternoon homework – and then often take him off for the summer. If he is running around on the islands, he does not need to be on it. And then the doctor needs to look at the child at the beginning of the new school year again. If the child is doing noticeably better, then he still needs to be on it. So many kids outgrow at least the hyperactive parts when they hit puberty, but a lot of kids don’t. So the medication really helps them. Is medication the only solution in some cases? The medication is one piece of the solution. Behavior modification works, structure works, you need to let them know what they are doing at every point of the day, structure their day, and then they need to be given some warning about a transition, like, «We are going to stop math and go into music class,» for instance. Adaptations can also be made in the classroom. These kids need to be at the head of the class, away from the radiator, surrounded by students who are good role models, for example. Before medication, we should try everything else first, but if the kid still can’t pay attention and the diagnosis is ADD – with no trauma detected – try the medication, because you see dramatic effect with very low levels of these psychostimulants. The medication gets them to the starting line, because these kids are behind the starting line. I know it’s difficult to accept some times, but I always use the following analogy with parents: If your child has a vision problem and the teachers keep saying, «Try harder to see,» and even if you put them at the front of the class, they still can’t see, then you put glasses on the child. Medication is like glasses. What happens when your child is suffering from asthma or diabetes, for instance? You would never say to your child, try harder, you would use the environmental interventions, such as diet, no-stress, or whatever else you need to do, complemented by a medical regiment, including medication. What are the side effects? You see the side effects immediately, they are usually very short-term, like appetite problems. If they do have this, we should give them the medication right before the meal, as it takes 30 minutes to kick in, so they can eat while they still have an appetite. There can also be some sleep problems, and so you should not give the medication late in the day. There was a study done years ago, which looked at thousands of kids who had been followed into adulthood, and they found that they were one pound and one inch less than other kids. What’s the trade-off? Instead of a girl weighing 50 kg, she now weighs 49? Or giving up one inch for being able to learn, being able to sit still in class, not being yelled at by the teacher and feeling good about yourself? In terms of brain damage there has not been any; all the medication does is get the neurotransmitters working the way normal people’s do. «An Introduction to LD and ADD,» at the Athinais, 34-36 Kastorias, Votanikos, on November 30. For more information, contact the Athinais at 210.722.0914 and 210.614.3468 (e-mail: [email protected]). Entrance fee, 50 euros.