Special needs when the school can't help

Where can you go and who can you talk to if you feel that something’s not quite right with your child? Learning challenges aren’t always picked up at preschool or school, sometimes it requires a lot of research at your end to find answers and people who can help.

While the term “special needs” may be a euphemism for “disability”, this article focuses on all children who underperform at school due to an unidentified learning challenge, whether they’re failing to meet National Standards or not meeting their full potential.

Gifted students

Ironically, gifted children can be among the most difficult students. Often bored and blasé, they may switch off in class and underperform, or become disruptive.

Parents usually recognise giftedness in their children, although some may be misled by the child’s apparent topic-jumping behaviour or exhausted by the constant stream of questions the child asks. The Ministry of Education advises: “Signs of giftedness include exceptional (amazing) use of language, an ability to concentrate on complex tasks for a long time, asking lots of questions, or being exceptionally coordinated. Gifts or talents can be different within the context of ethnicity or culture. For example, Mãori ideas of giftedness include personal qualities as well as abilities.”

National Standards require parents to be notified if their children performed “well above” expectations. Schools, however, are not given any guidance or resources to stimulate gifted children, and the ministry advises parents to consider home schooling if they feel their child is not reaching their potential at school.

Halfway measures may include the parents collaborating with the teacher to design stimulating worksheets or projects for your child to do at school.

While teachers are coached to work with each child at their own level, some gifted children are too high up the scale to be catered for in the classroom environment.

One Day School and The Gifted Kids Program (www.giftededucation.org.nz) allow children to learn in a stimulating environment with specially trained staff for one day a week. Many students enjoy it; others, however, feel the program simply pushes them further ahead of their school peers, instead of exploring non-curricular learning concepts.

Another option is to let the child skip a grade. For years labelled undesirable, latest research now suggests that it may be more important to be with people of similar aptitude rather than with those of similar age.

A website to help you care for your gifted child: www.giftedchildren.org.nz/national/tallpoppies.php

Sensory processing dysfunction

Dysfunction of sensory processing is a neurological problem with processing sensations. Children interpret sensation from the environment or from their bodies in an inaccurate way: sensory-seeking, sensory-avoidance and dyspraxia. All three variants have to be diagnosed by a specialist and are usually treated using sensory integration therapy (a fun process in a sensory-enriched gym with lots of swinging, spinning, tactile, visual, auditory and taste opportunities).

Children with sensory dysfunction do not necessarily exhibit every characteristic, for example, a child with vestibular dysfunction may have poor balance but good muscle tone, or show characteristics of a dysfunction one day but not the next.

  1. Children with “sensory seeking” behaviour do not always process incoming sensory input. They may appear hyperactive, engage in dangerous activities (climbing too high), be unaware of pain or extra loud sounds.
  2. Children with “sensory avoidance” hate crowds, noise, dirty hands, walking on sand and being touched.
  3. Children with dyspraxia (a motor planning problem, also known as Developmental Coordination Disorder) have trouble learning new things even though they may be very intelligent. The problem is that the connections that link the brain to the rest of the body don’t work properly, and the child’s body finds it difficult to do what the brain is telling it to do. Lots of practice usually helps to master a new skill.

The dyspraxic child may display the following symptoms:

  • seems clumsy
  • not know today what they knew yesterday
  • not understand multiple instructions
  • be disorganised
  • lose things
  • have illegible handwriting
  • not know how to draw
  • be bright and intelligent, but fail academically

Verbal Dyspraxia involves speech
articulation difficulties. Please note that this condition is often accompanied by others, such as dyslexia, and they have to be treated in turn.

Useful links:


The problem lies in the child’s nervous system and not in lack of concentration or effort. A dyslexic child has trouble learning to spell, read and write. Maths or music symbols can also present difficulty.

Early warning signs include difficulty with:

  • telling the difference between sounds such as b/p/d, v/th, g/j, l/f
  • breaking words up into syllables
  • remembering similar-looking letters
  • distinguishing between words of similar shape (was/saw, bad/dad)
  • learning sequences (days of the week)
  • organisation
  • balance and coordination.

Talk to the school’s special educational needs coordinator if you suspect your child may be affected.

A test or series of tests will pinpoint what kind of support is needed:

  • praise
  • tacking activities such as mazes, dot-to-dot, tracing
  • rhyme through songs and poems
  • simple, repetitive stories
  • teaching sequences (days, months, numbers)

Contact here for more support.


Another neurological dysfunction, dyscalculia means a lack of ability to solve mathematical problems or process numbers, unrelated to any lack of intellectual ability.

Some indicators of dyscalculia include the inability to:

  • read an analogue clock
  • understand the size of numbers or measures
  • perform monetary transactions.

This can go hand-in-hand with difficulty following lines of text. For example: a plus sign can look very much like a multiplication sign, which will result in a wrong answer.

At home, you can help by:

  • playing games where counting is involved
  • representing numbers visually

Try www.dyscalculia.org and http://ptc.nzcer.org.nz/ptc/dyscalculia-guidance


This is a specific learning disability that affects written language, impaired letter writing by hand and spelling, and is usually characterised by extremely poor handwriting. It sometimes combines strong verbal but particularly poor writing skills. Copying will be slow and difficult, even if the end result is neat (which it often isn’t).

Although children with dysgraphia do not have motor control problems, they may have difficulty touching the thumb to successive fingers on the same hand.

A student with any degree of handwriting difficulty may be labelled “dysgraphic” by some educational specialists, but may or may not need special education services. Conversely, most learning-disabled students experience difficulty with handwriting.

Coping strategies include the child speaking their thoughts into a voice-recording device, learning to type or learning shorthand. Dysgraphic children should be provided with all the learning materials and notes without the need to copy anything.

Did you know?

Want to find out more – read part 2

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