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Diagnosing Learning Difficulties & Gifted Children in the Early Years

by Ronit Baras

It was psychologist Howard Gardner’s book, "Frames of Mind: The Theory of Multiple Intelligences", which first questioned the common psychological orthodoxy about intelligence, the intelligence quotient (IQ), and presented the revolutionary concept of Multiple Intelligences.  At a time when a set of tests positioned children in a single spot on the bell curve and educators’ capacity to affect this position was seen as limited, the dawn of multiple intelligences shone a light at the end of a tunnel.


With this great recognition of our ability to enhance intelligence, the two extreme parts of the bell curve - the children with the learning difficulties and the gifted children - became the centre of attention.


Those two seemingly unrelated ranges of ability require the same type of attention and multiple intelligences brought hope for improvement for both. A natural progression of that was the area of early diagnosis and early intervention. Should we diagnose learning difficulties during early childhood or will this put a label on them that is too hard to remove?  Should we diagnose gifted children or will this doom them to isolation and social challenges? And once a special need is identified, should we intervene or just let nature take its course and allow the kids to “grow out of it”?


Each of the questions presents the choice between a reactive and a proactive approach. For government organizations, these questions are translated to the cost difference between the two, which then determines the approach.  For teachers, however, critical time plays an important role in the choice.

With this great recognition of our ability to enhance intelligence, the two extreme parts of the bell curve - the children with the learning difficulties and the gifted children - became the centre of attention.

Special  Education

Special Education is the field dealing with children and adults on the fringes of the bell curve.  Unfortunately, most of the work with fringe kids is dedicated to their emotional state - their frustration, their lack of confidence and the low self-esteem - rather than their cognitive abilities.  The accumulation of “failure” or success experiences will determine their likelihood to cross over to the “normal” side. The younger they are the less frustrated they are  and we need less energy and resources  to teach them to use an alternative intelligence. Because the expectations from teachers and children are high at school age and are set according to the middle of the curve, the years before school offer the best potential.


Helping young children by assessing their strengths and weaknesses at an early stage of their life allows their education agents minimize the number of failure experiences and equip them with techniques to process information in alternative ways.


Similar to Gardner eight intelligences, Neurolinguistic Programming (NLP) presents a four Communication Styles.  In this model, each child has a unique way of processing information.  Out of four options, the most used channel is considered the “gift” and the least used channel is the weakness.

Recognising a child’s best way to process information is crucial for “fringe” children.


Children with learning difficulties, if assessed early enough, can be stimulated in their preferred chancel, taught techniques to overcome their difficulties using their "gift" and reach school age at a “normal” level.


Kinesthetic children

Kinesthetic children are influenced by their physical world, sensations and emotions.  These kids need to move in order to process information.  They prefer the outdoors and feel restricted indoors.  Kinesthetic children seem fidgety and the quality of their learning depends on how comfortable they feel and how much freedom they have to move around.


Auditory children

Auditory children have a tape recorder as a processing machine.  They absorb information through sounds and enjoy talking and listening to conversations and music.  These kids are sensitive to tones of voice and the quality of the information depends on the quality of the sounds around they hear.  When using a loud or sharp tone of voice while communicating with an auditory child, his machine shuts down and this interferes with his ability to ‘record’ the information.


Visual children

Visual children have a combination of video-and-still camera in their heads.  They like to see things.  Pictures, colours and visual representations of things are their main information carriers.  They express themselves best using pictures, graphs and colours.  To them, one picture really IS worth a thousand words.


Digital children

Digital children have computers in their heads.  They need loads of information — details, facts and numbers - in order to “think.”  They also need time to analyze information and must process it through understanding.  Quick changes, especially major ones, can be unsettling for them.  The quality of their learning depends on the logic, the process and the structure of the activity.


Each child uses all four styles in his learning, but absorbs most of the information using one primary and one secondary channel.  In an era when the information load is so extreme, many young children are forced to spend most of their energy on sifting a billion pieces of information a second rather than storing it as knowledge.


Schools focus on the larger section of the bell curve - the “normal” or “average” children.  This focus limits teachers’ ability to support the extremes and miss out on the critical time of diagnosing before going to entering school.  We can take advantage of the freedom early childhood teachers still have, with fewer children in class, fewer benchmarking tests and an assistant, to give more attention to the “fringe” children and support them in using their strengths and overcoming their weaknesses.


The ways in which we can support children with learning difficulties and gifted children depends on time, much like the difference in treating any medical condition.  When diagnosed late, the treatment is very much reactive.  When diagnosed early, development is very much proactive.  A proactive approach allows planning, good use of space, more time and better child-teacher ratio, added bonus of parent involvement and maybe the most important part is taking advantage of our ability to provide success experiences at a critical time and provide children with a solid foundation for years to come.





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About the Author

Ronit Baras is an educator, life coach, journalist, author specializing in emotional intelligence, with over 30 years of experience working around the world, teaching, coaching, writing and presenting.

She is the founder of Be Happy in LIFE, coaching families and schools promoting social, emotional and academic excellence. Ronit is the author of three books. Ronit  was nominated for an International Women's Day Peace award and twice for the Australian of the Year for her work in the community.  Visit her website:

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Publishing positive education information for parents and teachers since 2000

Publishing positive education information for parents and teachers since 2000