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Learning Disorders: What perspective do you take?

Kerri Milyko, Ph.D. BCBA

Traditional education takes the perspective that learning disorders are innate traits.  These learning disorders are treated like eye color or height: organic traits that are not susceptible to change.  When diagnoses of learning disabilities are given to children, educational standards are often lowered and curriculum is “dummied-down.”  It is as if the student is given a crutch to cope with the handicap as opposed to physical therapy.

However, there is another view where these learning disorders are not issued as lifetime sentences.  Behavior Analysis, or the science of behavior, views that these deficit behaviors can be strengthened to the point where there is no difference between the academic performance of a child with learning disabilities and those behaviors of the student’s peers without diagnoses. 

An example comparing the two perspectives deals with sports.  Jessie wants to play soccer, but is exhausted after two minutes of running and cannot kick a ball to save her life.  Is Jessie destined to live a life without soccer simply because she has no cardiovascular endurance and coordination?  Or, through training, could Jessie’s cardiovascular endurance and coordination strengthen so that she may become a decent soccer player?  The perspective that Jessie will always struggle with soccer or sports in general is the traditional education view of learning disorders, while the view of training behaviors, any behavior, to levels of success is the perspective of Behavior Analysis. 

Many individuals would agree that athletic behaviors can be trained and strengthened.  Ask any person who has run a marathon, played a musical instrument, raised a child, or played sports.  For example, Michael Jordan did not make the cut for his high school varsity basketball team for his sophomore year.  However, with dedication and endless hours of training, he is now known to many as the best basketball player of all time.  If it is widely accepted that athletic behaviors can be trained, why is it that training academic behaviors is such an uncommon perspective?  Michael Jordan did not want the life sentence of being an inadequate basketball player; why should any student have to live with the life sentence of never being a good reader or able to work with numbers? 

The perspective of Behavior Analysis, Behavioral Education specifically, is that academic deficits are behaviors that need more practice and training to meet the same standards as the rest of the class, just as it is necessary for Jessie to train more than those who play soccer well.  In the short run, it is easier to lower the standards required for individuals diagnosed with learning disabilities as opposed to training the deficit behaviors.  The child may get A’s with the adjusted standards, but what happens when he/she is out of school and cannot perform to the level of his/her colleagues?  The long-term advantage of all the effort and time devoted to training these behaviors is far greater than the short-term easiness.  By building successful academic performance, the student is given an amazing gift of endless possibilities for a career.  If academic performance is not trained and is served as a handicap, then the student will have a more limited selection of future opportunities. 

The behavioral view is not one of an idealist.  A great amount of research has demonstrated the ability to train deficit academic performance to meet or surpass those behaviors without deficits (e-mail for specific references).  Precision Teaching and Direct Instruction (see for more information) are scientifically researched technologies whose methods have been found effective in numerous scientific studies, clinical settings, and classrooms since the late 1960’s.  Although there are proven methods to strengthening academic performance, unfortunately, such methods have not been adopted by the educational system.  Luckily, parents can have an amazing amount of influence over the education of their child.  If your child is given a crutch and you do not want them to depend on the prop for the rest of his/her life, demand a change to ensure your child immediate and future success.