Photo Credit: Jewish Press

Seven-year-old Naomi has her teacher stumped. Her reading level is far above second-grade level and her precocious vocabulary often leaves her teacher astounded. She surpasses her peers in almost all language arts subjects. Full of zest to learn, she takes an active part in class discussions and is focused and alert in her studies.

A dream student? Not quite. Her teacher has noticed baffling inconsistencies in Naomi’s scholastic performance. She struggles quite a bit with math, and her handwriting skills are extremely poor – barely above kindergarten level. She dislikes the small motor tasks of cutting, coloring, pasting and sewing.


Of equal concern is Naomi’s difficulty in communicating with her peers. Although she is well-behaved and articulate in class discussions, on the playground she will frequently barge in on other children’s play or conversations. She tends to say things that grate on other children’s nerves. She is surprisingly clumsy, often bumping into people and objects.

Who is this child with such a contradictory profile? She couldn’t possibly have a learning disability, could she? Wouldn’t that indicate a “difficulty with reading?”


The Invisible Disability

Students with learning disabilities usually suffer from neurological deficits that interfere with their ability to grasp certain subjects at grade level. Most often, those subjects involve reading and manifest in short attention spans and difficulty in focusing.

Dyslexia or attention deficit problems typically show up in the first grade, and are often diagnosed by the second grade. Children struggling with these deficits are thus able to get remedial help early on in their academic careers.

This is not the case with a very different type of handicap identified by experts as a “nonverbal learning disability” (NVLD). Deficits in this category tend to slip under the radar screen until third or fourth grade, evading detection because they don’t mesh with the student’s overall profile.

NVLD students often begin school as high achievers and progress on a gifted track. As early as kindergarten, these students are seen as “little professors.” They are wonderful readers, have a gift for self-expression, and can memorize, categorize and retain information with remarkable proficiency.

These children suffer from difficulties that are not readily perceived and frequently remain undiagnosed. As explained in a recent issue of Instructor, a leading publication in pedagogy, the child with the elusive NVLD has right-hemisphere neurological deficits that manifest themselves in a number of areas:

Gross motor development. Girls and boys with NVLD are late walkers. They are slow learning how to ride a bicycle and play ball. At times they seem a bit off balance, and, like Naomi, they have a tendency to bump into objects and people.

Visual-motor deficits. Due to right-brain neurological weaknesses, students with NVLD have trouble processing visual images such as the shapes of numbers, letters, and geometric forms. (Despite some initial confusion with letters, they are able to take huge strides in reading due to their flair for language, a skill anchored in the brain’s left hemisphere.)

Their fine-motor deficits include difficulties eating with cutlery, tying shoelaces, drawing, cutting, pasting, writing, and copying from the blackboard. Writing tasks are excessively painstaking and frustrating, as these children have problems learning how to form the shapes of numbers and letters.

Students with NVLD are able to focus and pay attention when the teacher gives instruction, but they have trouble processing visual-spatial cues from graphs, maps, and charts.

Communication. Experts in the field of communication believe that 65-70 percent of all information is conveyed nonverbally – with body language, facial expression, pauses and silences. Due to neurological deficits in the right hemisphere, students with NVLD often misread social cues. They seem oblivious to others’ needs and wishes. They do not wait for an opportune moment or pause to speak up or join a conversation. They may stand too close to others or speak too loudly.

Students with NVLD also tend to be overly “concrete” and literal. Children like Naomi do not understand abstract sayings such as “a bird in the hand is worth two in the bush.” These children often miss the deeper meaning of conversations, especially jokes and puns. They don’t “get it.”

Reading Comprehension. As students advance through elementary and high school, scholastic demands intensify, particularly the need to comprehend the deeper meanings and nuances of literature. Rote memorization and retention of facts cannot substitute for deductive reasoning and critical thinking. NVLD students begin to lose their edge in reading and their skills decrease as they get older.

Social Skills Deficits. Adults place a lot of pressure on their “little professors” to perform. Students with NVLD want to please others, and become anxious when they cannot do what is expected of them. They have no idea why others often find their behavior annoying. Adults may see their interactions as a deliberate ploy to gain attention, without understanding that these children’s right-brain deficits prevent them from comprehending social expectations.

When parents, teachers, and classmates misunderstand the deficits associated with NVLD, it can lead to anxiety and depression in children struggling with challenges they cannot identify.

Some students with NVLD are seen as openly defiant, and are placed in classrooms for children with emotional and behavioral disorders. But NVLD is not the same as an emotional disorder. Behavior management therapies are not the remedial services these students need.


Intervention Strategies

If teachers are aware of the signs of NVLD, they can intervene earlier to help children who are affected.

Students like Naomi who are diagnosed with NVLD, are likely to need the help of a special education teacher to strengthen their skills in writing assignments and reading comprehension.

Equally important, such children need help learning how to modulate tone of voice; how to request help from a teacher; how to initiate conversation, express gratitude or an apology; and how to engage in small talk with classmates.

Results are best when these interventions occur in the lower elementary levels when children are least self-conscious and most receptive to remediation and social skills instruction. Early intervention will also prevent the anxiety and feelings of exclusion that mushroom as the child grows.

Teachers can play a key role in the success of students with NVLD in both the academic and the social-emotional realms. By understanding and being accepting of each child, and his or her individual differences, teachers can inspire students with NVLD to believe in themselves.

Students with social disabilities can find the “unwritten curriculum” of social life at school painfully isolating. Yet these children can succeed in building friendships and experience the joy of connecting with peers if the environment is supportive. Teachers can implement some simple techniques to foster positive social experiences for the socially inept or learning disabled child.


A Place in the Circle

“Although they are often mainstreamed and thus physically present in the classroom, children with disabilities or social deficits are usually not socially integrated,” says Dr. Pamela Dixon of the University of Michigan, who is currently conducting a three-year study about the social lives of children with disabilities.

“Social integration is really a cycle,” Dixon explains. “When children don’t have positive social encounters, they often react aggressively and that further alienates other children from them.”

But teachers can help break that cycle at school. Richard LaVoie, author of It’s So Much Work to be Your Friend: Helping the Child With Learning Disabilities Find Social Success (Touchstone, 2005), says the trick is to seek out what aren’t always the obvious solutions.

For instance, when a child is rejected by the other kids in class, “the teacher’s first desire may be to compel the class to accept that child right away,” says Lavoie. “But it’s almost impossible to go directly from rejection to acceptance.”

Instead, LaVoie advises, teachers should focus on teaching the child to avoid certain behaviors. For instance, don’t barge in on games, don’t interrupt, don’t show off. Reducing behaviors that are perceived negatively should take the pressure off.

“It’s okay for your student to fly under the radar for a time while you work with him on some exercises that develop social instincts and help him recognize social cues,” Lavoie says.


Kindness, Respect

Non-disabled students need to do their part as well. Making friends starts with a foundation of kindness and empathy, so it’s important to work toward a more accepting classroom by making your rules clear.

Lavoie advises teachers to set the tone by taking a firm stand. “In the lower grades you can say, ‘This is my classroom and in my classroom I treat everyone with respect and courtesy. Once you walk into this room, you treat everyone with respect.’”

While this advice resonates in most yeshiva classrooms, some teachers are afraid to pull rank as advised, given society’s emphasis on egalitarianism and “kids’ rights.” But as Lavoie adds, “Remember, you’re the tallest person in the room. You have the responsibility – and the power – to set the guidelines.”


It’s Worth the Effort

There’s no doubt that tracking the social skills development of children with deficits in this area takes enormous patience and can often be frustrating. After all, watching a child struggle with something as natural and necessary as human relationships can be exasperating. But building social bonds is essential to getting children to enjoy coming to school and being receptive to learning.

“If a child feels threatened or unwanted among his peers, he is not going to be able to learn,” says Lavoie. “There are some walls that need to be torn down so people can discover each other. We all have a responsibility to make that happen so that no child is excluded or left behind.”


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An acclaimed educator and social skills ​specialist​, Mrs. Rifka Schonfeld has served the Jewish community for close to thirty years. She founded and directs the widely acclaimed educational program, SOS, servicing all grade levels in secular as well as Hebrew studies. A kriah and reading specialist, she has given dynamic workshops and has set up reading labs in many schools. In addition, she offers evaluations G.E.D. preparation, social skills training and shidduch coaching, focusing on building self-esteem and self-awareness. She can be reached at 718-382-5437 or at [email protected].