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Have you or your child just received a learning disability diagnosis? Then you may be wondering what is next. The hunt for a solution can be confusing, so here is a guide to explain the current options available. 

Most approaches start with the assumption that a learning disability is a permanent condition, and the goal is to lessen the impact of its interference in learning and performance. 

Others start with a different premise - that the underlying causes of the learning disability can be identified, addressed and overcome. In this approach, a learning disability is not seen as a lifelong condition.

Read about the different methods of assessment here: Psychoeducational Vs. Cognitive Assessments: A Comparison.

The Compensatory Approach

This approach first identifies the areas of challenge or weakness that the learner is dealing with – for example, poor visual memory, or a struggle to retain oral information such as instructions, to name a couple.  

The next step is to provide tools or techniques to workaround or compensate for the areas of difficulty.  For example, in the case of poor visual memory, techniques that use repetition of visual exposure of the material in an effort to overlearn,  or presenting the material auditorily to bypass visual memory may assist in the learning process. If the learner has a poor auditory memory, using visual cues or limiting the amount of information to be retained through listening may support the learning process.  

Another option is to use the strengths of the learner to compensate for the areas of weakness. For example, if the learner has a poor visual memory for symbol patterns and a strong ability to learn phonological or sound units in language, then using a phonetic-based reading system that calls on the learner’s strength in this area and downplays the challenges of visual sight-word memory would be a better approach. 

Examples of compensatory strategies include: 

  • the use of voice recognition software for the individual who struggles with the writing process;
  • spell check programs for the learner who can’t learn spelling patterns; 
  • text to speech programs for the individual who can’t read; 
  • recording lectures for the person who can’t write quickly enough to capture the information presented or who can’t retain the information heard; 
  • use of memory tools; 
  • and the use of a scribe or note taker for the individual who struggles with writing. 

The underlying assumption of the compensatory approach is that the learner is a fixed system with areas of cognitive strength and weakness, and the goal is to modify the delivery of the curriculum to meet the needs of this fixed learning system.

The Content/Skill-Based Approach

This approach starts with an analysis of the content or skill to be learnt. The content or skill is broken down into a hierarchy of teachable components. Multiple modalities are identified through which to deliver the teachable components. For example, visual, auditory, kinesthetic and motor modalities can all be engaged in the learning to read process. 

For this approach to be beneficial to an individual with a learning disability, the strengths and weaknesses of the individual need to be matched with the modalities used to deliver the teachable components. A student struggling to learn spelling patterns who has a motor symbol sequencing cognitive challenge will not be able to benefit from the modality of learning written motor patterns through repeated writing of the spelling word. If however, they have a strong visual memory for symbol patterns, they may learn spelling patterns through a visual memorization process.

So this approach, to be helpful, needs to break down what needs to be learnt into teachable components, and then have the teaching delivered through multiple modalities that match the learner’s  strengths. 

The underlying assumption of the content/skill based approach is also that the learner is a fixed system with areas of cognitive strength and weakness, and the goal is to modify the delivery of the curriculum to best match the learner’s profile. 

The Strategy Based Approach

This approach starts with a view of the rules required in order to successfully approach and accomplish certain types of learning activities.

For example, to solve a math word problem, one needs to identify all the ‘math operational’ words, interpret the operations they represent, note if there are different operations, and if yes, is there an order the operations need to occur in, to solve the problem. 

These rules or strategies can be taught as well as in what situations to apply them. It can be thought of as developing a rule or strategy guide to solving learning problems. 

The underlying assumption of the strategy based approach is still that the learner is viewed as a fixed system with areas of cognitive strength and weakness. In some cases, however,  interaction between the learner, the strategy and the material being learnt has the potential to modify the learner.  

The Capacity-Based Approach

This approach starts with an identification of the learner's unique cognitive profile of strengths and weaknesses in conjunction with the principles of neuroplasticity. Through the application of neuroplasticity, the brain’s ability to change, this approach uses cognitive programs to change the learner’s profile, transforming weaknesses into strengths.  

In this approach, the curriculum does not need to be modified to meet the ‘fixed’ cognitive profile of the learner.  This approach recognizes that the brain is changeable and therefore the learner is NOT fixed. Instead,  the capacity of the learner can be fundamentally strengthened and enhanced. With this approach,  the learner, with a rewired brain,  can meet the curriculum head-on and learn with ease and joy in school and in life. Research has demonstrated the power of this approach. 

Life does not provide compensations or work arounds – the power of a stronger brain is that these compensations and strategies are no longer necessary. The result of a capacity-based approach is that the learner now has the cognitive capacities in place to tackle the learning challenges presented in school, in life and in the workplace. 

Learn more about the Arrowsmith Program’s transformative capacity based approach to overcoming learning disabilities. Book an Arrowsmith Cognitive Assessment to better understand your, or your child’s, unique cognitive profile and develop a plan to strengthen your brain and overcome your learning disability diagnosis. 

Learn About the Arrowsmith Cognitive Assessment

Barbara Arrowsmith-Young
Post by Barbara Arrowsmith-Young
January 9, 2024
Barbara Arrowsmith-Young is the international best-selling author of The Woman Who Changed her Brain, and a pioneer in using neuroplasticity to change the brain, cognition, learning and social-emotional well-being of learners worldwide. Though she began life with severe learning disabilities, she built herself a better brain and developed the Arrowsmith Program, which has helped thousands to increase their capacity to learn.