12 Nov 2015

Learning disorder heartbreak shared with MPs

4:28 pm on 12 November 2015

MPs are hearing first-hand the heartbreak learning disorders cause for children and their parents, as they consider how schools identify and help such children.

National MP Jian Yang.

Education and science select committee chair Jian Yang Photo: RNZ / Alexander Robertson

The Education and Science Select Committee is into its second week of an inquiry into how schools identify and assist children with dyslexia, dyspraxia and autism spectrum disorders.

The oral submissions have turned into a torrent of often-emotional testimony as parents, teachers and children share their experiences.

Many have described a system which fails to recognise learning disorders, resulting in frustration, mistreatment and learning delays.

The first day of hearings featured a video of a girl explaining her misery at being unable to spell.

"I really wanted someone to think that I was clever," she said through her tears.

Other submitters broke down as they described their children's disabilities and the difficulty of getting help for them.

Therese Eberhard said her daughter's dyslexia was undiagnosed for years and she endured Reading Recovery sessions unsuitable for a dyslexic child.

"They get put in this Reading Recovery, which is just totally traumatic for these kids. It's not the right kind of teaching for dyspraxia or dyslexia," she said.

Luana Aulalo said health professionals refused to accept her son had any disabilities but her insistence something was wrong finally resulted in a diagnosis of Asperger's Syndrome, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and an anxiety disorder.

'The teacher called it shit'

Several secondary school students described mistreatment by teachers and bullying by other children.

"I used to bring pocket knives to school and kids would call me aspergic, handicap, you're different, you don't belong here," one said.

"Teachers didn't understand and told me that the way I thought, you were unteachable."

Another said: "When me and another student here would do work, the teacher called it shit, ripped it up and put it in the bin."

And another: "I've been bullied all through primary because up until the age of seven or eight I was writing most of my letters backwards. And my teacher used to rip up my work and throw it away."

Several of the students said they were so unhappy at school they gave up trying and attempted to stay home as often as possible.

But they also said that changed when their disability was recognised and they got help with often-simple interventions such as reading from coloured paper rather than white paper.

Early diagnosis crucial

Many submitters have stressed the importance of early diagnosis, arguing it can make a huge difference to children's development. But they say it is often not happening.

Rotorua school teacher Calliope Kennedy said she often saw children who had received no recognition of or support for their disabilities during their primary schooling, including one who was so seriously disabled they qualified for the highest levels of assistance.

Kapiti College teacher Sarah Sharpe told the committee many of the school's form class for Year 10 children with dyslexia and other learning problems did not know they had a learning disorder until they reached the school.

"We're getting children still... who don't know they're dyslexic, dyspraxic, dysgraphic. Some teachers still don't even acknowledge it exists, so they're spending 10 years of their life thinking they're stupid."

Several submitters said they had trouble paying for, or could not afford, the $400-$600 cost of assessments of their children. Others said they had spent hundreds of thousands of dollars getting extra help for their children.

Teachers want training

The Post Primary Teachers Association told the committee secondary school teachers want training in how to include children with special needs but they are not getting it; instead, the government was focusing funding for in-service training courses on reading, writing and maths.

Hilary Stace told the committee her son's schooling experience was positive because of a caring community and school. But many families' experience is not so good.

"Successful schooling for any disabled child depends largely on luck to find a good school and the love of family and community and that is not a sustainable basis for public policy," she warned.

Dr Stace said school funding was such that schools were better off financially if they did not have children with disabilities and many subtly deterred enrolments by such children.

The inquiry is expected to finish hearing oral submissions before December.