Why Video Games are Good for Kids with Learning Disabilities

If your child struggles with a specific academic subject in school or is diagnosed with a Learning Disability in areas such as reading, written expression, or mathematics, you’ve probably noticed that the he or she doesn’t exactly jump for joy when it comes to doing schoolwork. Traditional lecture or skill-and-drill methods of teaching are often ineffective at knowledge acquisition and motivating these students to learn more.

Fortunately, in today’s digital world we have many alternative methods for teaching and supporting basic skills in reading, writing, and mathematics. Whether this be the use of calculators for students who have problems with mathematical computation, or developing typing skills to support struggles in writing for other children, there are some highly-effective approaches to help these children.

The key ingredient is to individualize instruction for each child. Educators refer to this as differentiated instruction. A core characteristic of children with Learning Disabilities is that their brain processes information in a different way than typically-developing children. It is the role of parents, teachers, and psychologists to determine how the child learns best and then to find and develop the strategies that can most effectively help these children learn. This requires more than simply identifying their learning styles, giving them a diagnosis of a Learning Disability, or determining their IQ. In the digital world, it also means that we need to go beyond traditional methods, which we know are ineffective, and explore technological approaches that hold great promise.

In addition to a full neuropsychological assessment, here are a few strategies to help you identify how your child learns best:

  • Pay attention to what they remember. Do they recall details of a place you visited, a story they heard, a book they read, directions to a relative’s house, a movie they saw, the food at a restaurant they ate, or people’s names and /or faces? This will give you a clue as to the information that sticks in their brains and how to find digital media that can utilize similar methods of teaching.
  • Watch what they really love to do. If it’s physical, see if you can find a way to include movement in learning opportunities. If they love listening to music, pair music with studying or reading. If they love people and socializing, try to find methods of studying with friends, or texting with peers to study for a test.
  • Learn about your child’s multiple intelligences. Think about how you can help them to parlay their individual strengths such as interpersonal, intrapersonal, kinesthetic, naturalistic, spatial, musical, verbal, or logical/mathematical intelligences into an interest where their learning is an asset rather than a disability. This is the model for differentiated instruction where you can help your child to learn by identifying, and applying the appropriate teaching methods, to his or her strengths.

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While not all children with learning disabilities love video games and digital media, there are many children who are able to find a good match for their learning styles and intelligences while engaged with digital tools. It might be as simple as listening to an audiobook, rather than reading it, or typing rather than having to write in cursive. However, using digital technology in and of itself is not a panacea. Just because a new video game or app is touted as the “latest and greatest” doesn’t mean that they will be useful for your child or fit her learning needs. While not the “cure” to learning difficulties, video games and other digital media often have built-in features that enable them to be highly-effective tools in teaching children with Learning Disabilities. These include:

  •  Well-constructed video games or computer software are engaging, provide feedback, and can avoid the drudgery of repetitive drill-and-skill methods.
  •  Children using the technologies can often control the pace of what is being taught to them. This may be particularly important for children who require repetition for learning.
  •  Video games and computer software can be highly motivating when rewards are provided in an effective fashion. Rewards are most effective when given at a particular point of performance, so that when a child gets the correct answer they are immediately reinforced and are more apt to retain what they have learned.
  •  The degree of challenge can be easily matched to a child’s individual level of mastery. This ensures that children are not working on tasks that are either too easy or too difficult for them.
  • Self-esteem can be preserved, as there is no public observation of the struggles, difficulties, and mistakes that often characterizes the experiences of children with learning disabilities in a particular area of difficulty.

There is no substitute for a great teacher! Great teachers intuitively recognize students’ strengths and weaknesses and are able to formulate a plan to reach and teach them. Great teachers also know how to keep learning fun and how to help children with learning disabilities persevere and maintain the “growth mindset” that equates effort with improvement. In the hands of a great teacher, or an informed parent, digital media has tremendous potential as a tool that fits the academic needs of many children with learning disabilities. The fact that many of these digital tools are fun and engaging facilitates the repeated practice and perseverance that these children need to succeed. We encourage parents and teachers to use the tools on LearningWorks for Kids and to explore other websites such as ldonline.org and bridgingapps.org.

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