Blog Post No.101
If a child comes across as difficult, they may be dealing with a learning difficulty
Dr. Nanda SHAHEEN started her career in Washington DC, where she taught children with dyslexia, ADHD, and dyspraxia.
Over the last 30 years, Dr. Nanda has gained unrivaled experience teaching young children in Washington DC & London.
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Join us in discussing the spectrum of learning difficulties with Dr. Nanda.
Suppose there was a veteran society for those with a deep understanding and instinct for early years learning and special learning needs, then she would be a founding member.
We talk about how learning difficulties tend to show themselves around the ages of six or seven. Dr. Nanda mentions that one should never expect a single solution to fit all and how, as a doctor, one needs to look at the bigger picture: the family environment, the school’s teaching style, and the learning style of the individual child. The solution has to be tailored to the individual child and the unique environment of that child.
We also discuss some DO’s when it comes to parents: being open-minded, taking to as many professionals, doing the research, and asking many questions until the solution seems to be working.
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Hello, and welcome to London Property – Home of super prime. Today we’re in conversation with Dr. Nanda Shaheen, who is an expert in special educational needs. With over 30 years experience both in the UK and in America. Welcome to our show, Nanda.
Thank you. Thank you Farnaz for having me here today.
So let’s start at the beginning. Because when you started with your education in special educational needs, it was it was over 30 years ago, and there wasn’t that much awareness on the subject. So can you tell us about how it all started?
Go back, I began my education in the US because I felt that at that time, it was leading the way forward in special needs. So I got my BA in human development, my master’s in special education, and then my PhD in education in general, with a focus on learning difficulties. And I felt it was important to study education in detail to be able to understand where the difficulties were stemming from or which part of the system was broken, if you like. So in order to fix what I felt was the problem. And what started out as something quite simple. progressed, as the years went by, as did education, changing and as did the interventions for different learning difficulties. Some 30 years ago, it was said that when you did an IQ test IQ was set for the rest of your life and then that you couldn’t you weren’t able to, you weren’t able to progress higher than that, that that IQ score. But as we know, the brain is totally moldable. And so we can now extend those scores. Likewise, in special special education, we’ve come on leaps and bounds. But if you look over the past 30 years, actually we haven’t progressed as much as I would have thought we had. Just learning difficulties is an umbrella term. And under this umbrella, you’ll find dyslexia dyspraxia, dyscalculia, a DD ADHD, some you’re more familiar with, some others will not be so familiar with. But the common solution to all of these situations is that one size does not fit all, and what no children are the same. And so whether it’s the same learning difficulty or not the same learning difficulty because it’s a different child, the technique the the intervention, the solution, if you like will be different for each and every child. And this is what’s important for a parent. Because of the way the system is here in the UK, parents will often not hear about learning difficulties until the children are approximately six or seven years old. Some earlier some later, and there’s no right age in which to identify a learning difficulty, because for example, some children may get by and be okay until secondary school, others will have a hard time at nursery. So there’s no specific age at which it’s appropriate to define a problem.
Can you talk about some of the the things that people are not aware of I mean, you know, of course, everybody knows dyslexia. Everybody knows ADHD. What is dyspraxia and and the others can you just, you know, maybe maybe our listeners can recognise some of these things that they haven’t been able to identify actually as a need that needs to be addressed.
Dyspraxia if you’d like is quite the opposite of dyslexia, so it’s, it’s more of a gross motor skills slash fine motor skill problems. You’ll see children who are often classified as clumsy or always hurting themselves falling over or tripping over themselves are most likely candidates that will qualify as dyslexic. But most importantly, with with learning difficulties, it’s no it’s never that clear cut, it’s more of a grey area rather than black and white. It’s more of different types of difficulties getting in each other’s way rather than it’s solely dyspraxia, or slowly dyslexia. The most important thing to figure out is what are the weaknesses and the strengths of the individual child regardless of the label. So if you’re seeing a little bit of this and a little bit of that, you look for the solution rather than the solution to the dyslexia there’s a solution to the dyspraxia you look for these minute issues and and fix those in order to get a better picture of your child. And I would always recommend starting off with an educational psychology report. Now the name alone will put off a lot of parents educational psychology, it’s a terrible name. And it’s a terrible title to have, which is why don’t have that title. It’s just it What it means is that a professional will do a battery of tests, which will identify the strengths and weaknesses of the child, it’s similar to going to a GP and having a blood test a set of blood tests done. It’s standard, it should be standard for every child. And from this profile, you will then identify the strengths and the weakness of the individual child. And that’s when you go in and try and fix the weakness and support the strengths.
It’s sorry, carry on.
It’s really that simple. It’s not about the problem. It’s not about the label. It’s about what area do we feel this child needs supported? And which area do we need to push this child in?
Right, that’s always going to say so you’re not really big on labelling them saying, right, this child is add this child is dyspraxia, whatever, you look for traits, and then you try to address their weaknesses.
Well, absolutely. So I’m not a great fan of labels, because I don’t feel personally in my opinion, I don’t feel that you can pigeonhole a child with a certain problem. No, dyslexia looks the same. No, dyspraxia looks the same. So you have to look at the whole picture. There’s no such thing as a non holistic approach. When you’re dealing with children, you have to look at the big picture, you have to look at the family environment, you have to look at where they’ve come from, where they’re going, what that family life is, like how this child the learning style of the individual child, the teaching style of the school that the child is at. Sometimes, you know, a change of school is the solution. It’s not necessarily the child’s problem. It’s just that the child is not accessing the way that school is teaching.
Right. So the important thing is that as as you say, you have to look at the individual child, and then the solutions got to be tailored to suit that individual child and their family environment. You cannot make a disorganised family become organised in order to sort out a child’s problem. You need to find a solution that fits within that disorganisation. Would that be right?
Absolutely. And what’s realistic, quite frankly, you know, it’s it. There’s wonderful resources out there and wonderful educational psychologists and they give you a wonderful 27 page, report with lots of recommendations. But if the family is unable to implement those recommendations, or the school is unable to, it’s null and void. And so you really need to look at the whole picture and be able to adapt to that, that child’s environment and how and how they’re learning and what will work for them. So again, there’s no such thing as an unrealistic approach, as well as and tailored, it has to be tailored to the individual child and the individual environment of that child.
Now, you know, as you say, You, you, you, you knew, when you started your journey in this in this field, that this is what you wanted to do. And it was it was really a subject that was so new that a lot of people didn’t weren’t aware of it. Was that was there some realisation you had in your own exposure to education and family life and living in different environments that made you see that there is a solution to a problem that cannot necessarily be identified? Or, you know, how would you explain that is because you you, you’ve got a natural disposition to be being able to do this. So I’m just trying to understand that that natural disposition, lead you to finding this this path.
To be honest, I fell into this, this line of work, but that’s a whole nother story. But once I found this, this, once I did the reading and attended the classes and started to learn more about it, I think you can study as much as you want with books. But if there’s nothing innate in you, it’s going to be a tough path. Because you’re not dealing with a product, you’re not dealing with a commodity, you’re dealing with children and you’re dealing with someone’s child. And so you have to have a natural ability to with to have a proper report with parents where they do not feel intimidated, where they do not feel shamed, where they do not feel that they cannot speak up.
Now. We’ve talked about some do’s and don’ts, you’re not being on labelling. And you know, the, the learning difficulties tend to show themselves around the ages of, you know, six or seven. What are the do’s and don’ts.
Do’s. I like do’s I don’t like don’ts, they’re too negative, but the do’s are: be open minded research, talk to as many professionals as you need to ask as many questions as you want from the school. It is it is your right as a parent to question the school on their approach on how they how best they can help you. Yes, I would say do a lot of research and ask a lot of questions until you are happy with the solution or you can come up with a solution together with the school or with a professional. So do are not panic, my biggest do not or my biggest don’t is do not panic, do not blame, do not shame, just sit with with, with the solution sit in the solution, don’t worry about the problem.
So when we will younger, if a child was difficult, it was your naughty, you’re stupid, you know you’re disruptive. And I think they were, you know, when you’re talking about parents being shamed these kinds of behaviours are the kinds of behaviours that they normally worry about. But once you find a solution, then that stupid child can actually become a highly intelligent, high achieving child. So What should parents be looking out for and you know, what, what kind of aspects of their child’s behaviour should they be digging deeper into.
What I think that any type of behaviour should be looked at, I feel that that is communication that is non verbal communication, if a child is acting out at school, if there are consistent problems, or the opposite, it’s all a type of communication, the child is communicating with the adults, they need some sort of attention, regardless of what it is. So rather than looking for problems, per se, or looking for characteristics that that stand out, it’s rather the behaviours and the signals the child is giving you. If the child’s not pay attention in class, if the child is misbehaving, if the child is bored, you know, all of those are indications that perhaps they need to take a closer look at this.
And on the subject of looking for signs, there are certain no no’s when it comes to foods that can actually trigger off some, you know, a difficulties in a child’s behaviour and in how they perform at school. So what what do you recommend to parents on diets? And on sleep?
This goes back to the holistic approach, you need to take into consideration the meals, the sleeping habits? You’re absolutely right, what time is, are these children going into bed? What time are they waking up? What type of activities are they doing, doing? Are they doing during the day? What are their eating habits? Like? Is it sugar infused? Are there any numbers involved? How is the gut health again, holistic, you have to look at every aspect of the child’s life, not just schooling, not just sports, the whole picture?
And is it ever too late to start? I mean, what if you suddenly get to the age of 13? Do you think oh my god, yes. So he had, you know, he was dyslexic all along, and I had no idea.
It’s never too late. It’s never too late. And that’s actually the whole point. If a child gets to 15, and they have ADHD, dyspraxia, dyslexia, they have gotten by using their own strategies, which are going to be the solution in the end anyway, you know, the solution is the strategies that are going to be put in place to help those children along, if a child’s made it to 15. Without any significant areas highlighted by either school or parents, then they’ve done a pretty good job of using those strategies, and perhaps now is the right time for them to their issues to be addressed. There is never a right or wrong time, I think it’s when they when their child allows for themselves to be helped, or or their behaviour is, as such that it’s it’s highly obvious.
We’ve spoken about the holistic approach, we’ve spoken about giving, you know, the solution is there and that coping mechanisms are there. So I’m just going to make an assumption here that meds are not the solutions that you would look for, and where, when our meds necessary,
There’s a place for medication. With with children, there is definitely a place there are many studies done lots of research done. However, because of the the nature of parents and not wanting to medicate children so young. It is a very controversial area. There are however, times when even myself will recommend exploring medication. And that is when a child is in danger of themselves, and therefore needs medication. Or if there isn’t, if all stones have been Unturned, and there’s no other strategies that are working. And both the parents and the doctors feel that that’s appropriate, then I would recommend the medication. Okay.
And do you think I mean, is it just awareness that that has brought about all these different special needs and and titles? Or do you think that lifestyles have changed and they’re actually causing these special needs?
Look, studies have shown that the more time children spend on screens, they’re exhibiting more attention deficit like symptoms. Okay, so we’ve got all of that, but it’s a combination. It’s a combination of awareness. In my opinion, it’s a combination of awareness. The advances in technology, the advances in science, the awareness, what’s going on in our foods, what’s going on in our food cycles? And an ever evolving changing world?
Affect you with your own child? And how you deal with his studies his day to day things? Have you got the perfect child?
Absolutely not. Although I’d like to think so no, it’s the same as a surgeon can a surgeon operate on their own child if it was an emergency? Absolutely. When I look at my own child, I treat him the same as I would. As far as educational education, I would treat him the same as I would any other child, I do not look at him under a microscope. If he’s having I take the lead from the school and from the adults around him. And from him, you know, from him, if he comes to me, and he’s saying he is having issues in a certain area, we take a look at them. And also make sure that the strengths are seen a lot of the time. The other thing I would make make parents aware of is if you’re not having issues, if you’re not on one end of the spectrum, on the other end of the spectrum, if you have the average child who’s doing who behaves well in school, who’s academic performance is great. It’s not top it’s not bottom, make sure a school is not missing them, make sure he is not being forgotten about because he is just doing okay. Make sure that you that every you know. And also this is a message to teachers to make sure that Mr. Average, as they like to call them is being seen is being heard and is being pushed to their potential.
So last but not least, and before we say thank you, how would somebody so somebody wants to use your services, and they come to you and say, help me? How does that process start and what’s involved,
The process always starts with a conversation, a conversation between myself and the parent. And I like to give the parent as much time as needed, the more they talk, the more clues I have, the more clues, the more I can read between the lines as to what’s going on how they’re feeling, what they’ve heard from the school, what they haven’t heard from the school, what the lifestyle is, like at home, and then you pick up these clues, and you piece them together to to have a picture of what this child’s life is looking like, and where you can be helpful. It always starts with the parent, it always starts with the parent talking and voicing their concerns or what they’re not concerned about, what they’re pleased with what’s working, what’s not working. And then we take it from there, it always begins with the conversation.
And then what happens next?
It depends. Then we started to do the bespoke service, which is what works for each parent, what works for each child, what works for each school, and we put together a package or a way forward of how it’s going to progress or how I can help. It’s it’s literally never the same. It always starts with a conversation and always ends with the solution. But what happens in between is completely personalised.
I would like to mention here, there’s always some form of assessment. And the word assessment is the same as labelling for me, I don’t like the word assessment. And it puts off a lot of parents and teachers and people in general, because assessment means testing. But in reality, an assessment gives you a benchmark, it gives you as long as it’s used appropriately, as long as the numbers derived from the assessments are used appropriate, always, always, always, to the to the advantage of the child and of the parent, because you need that those numbers, you need that data to start somewhere. It doesn’t mean that those numbers are going to or does does not mean that you belong to those numbers they do they do not define you, but it is a starting point. It is somewhere we can always turn to see to measure progression to measure where we’re starting at and to give us a simple, simple starting point.
Well, Dr. Nanda Shaheen, it’s been a pleasure speaking to you, I’m sure that it is a must be very rewarding role that you play, but at the same time comes with a huge amount of responsibility. But clearly, the the art what is what they call the proof is in the pudding. You’ve been a success at it for over three decades. And we look forward to helping some of our listeners with their needs and their their requirements for their families. So thank you, thank you very much for your time.
It’s been an absolute pleasure. Thank you.
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“ If the child is not paying attention in class, if the child is misbehaving, if the child is bored, all of those are indications that perhaps we need to take a closer look at this.”
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