Education: Down Syndrome
Continuing to Educate

Health Issues That Impact Learning

Ellen Doman

Every child has a right to a great education. Every parent hopes that their child will make great progress. What are some factors related to health that can impact on a child’s learning?

Many parents view ear infections as a normal health issue for young children. Ear infections are certainly not uniquely an issue for children with DS. Many parents may recall having ear infections themselves as a child. Ear infections and fluid in the ear that does not even result in an ear infection can have a profound effect on a child’s ability to learn and a child’s ability to develop good speech. This occurs due to the distortion of sound as it moves through fluid behind the eardrum.

Since auditory input and auditory processing are key factors in learning to speak, think, and take in new information, fluid in the ears and ear infections can dramatically slow down a child’s development. Delayed auditory processing can cause a child to be unable to think conceptually, to think in words.

Many parents report that their child will have days or even weeks of no speech and no vocalizations. This is often the outcome of fluid in the ears. Parents can request that tympanograms be done to check for fluid behind the eardrums. Frequently, children benefit from tubes placed in the ears to assist fluid in draining. Rapid treatment of chronic ear fluid and ear infections will minimize the damage caused by these conditions.

It is important to view the ears as the gateway allowing essential information to get to the brain. If the gateway is compromised, the child’s development may come to a halt. Some children who have chronic ear issues may develop repetitive, non-productive sensory play behaviors which further interfere with the child’s interest and ability to learn and interact with those around them.

Low muscle tone can also impact on learning both academics and self-help skills. It can also result in the child’s inability in complete some gross motor tasks. Low tone in the muscles of the hands can make it difficult for the child to manipulate utensils, buttons, zippers and pencils. Writing can be delayed as well as independence. Low muscle tone may be the combination of poor deep muscle tactile sensation as well as poor protein absorption. Efficient tactile stimulation plus specific targeted daily interventions to build tone can help correct this problem.

Tactile stimulation to deep muscle tissue is necessary to assist the brain in appropriately communicating with these muscle groups. Low tone is the result of the brain allowing the muscle groups to go into a state of deep relaxation instead of maintaining the appropriate level of partial contracture.

Visual issues also impact on learning and development. Just as low tone produces difficulty in the areas of fine and gross motor skills, low strength in muscle groups controlling eye movements can result in a strabismus. A strabismus which may be divergent or convergent ( the eye floating out or floating in) results in the child having difficulty with depth perception. It may impact negatively on the child’s reading and writing skills. Exercising those eye muscles through targeted daily intervention activities that are efficient and appropriate can result in better eye function.

When looking at a child’s ability to learn, we must view the whole child. By this we mean that the child’s physical health, interest and attention, ability to process information and see and hear it accurately are all significant issues.

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