Unique learners make errors in their school work for many reasons. Sometimes they are rushing to try to finish at the same time as their classmates. Other times the error is related to a problem with their spatial awareness.

There are also times when, due to what is happening – or not happening – in their brains and bodies, unique learners are just not available to learn.

This can be a cause for frustration for both parents and teachers. Often, the primary solution offered to these children is that they need to “try harder”. Unfortunately, this is almost never the answer because it is rarely the cause of the error.

Just like there are many reasons that students make errors in schoolwork, there are many strategies that can help.

Spatial Awareness

Many unique learners have trouble with their vestibular and proprioceptive systems that cause problems with spatial awareness. When a student runs out of room on a line or doesn’t allow sufficient space for borrowing or carrying in an arithmetic equation it can seem like a writing problem or a math problem. It’s typically an issue with spatial awareness.

Without spatial awareness, the student is unable to effectively plan how much space the words will take on the line. They might write very large at the beginning of the sentence and then suddenly find themselves out of space. The result is often incomplete work and discouragement.

It is helpful to these students to let them know ahead of time that if they run out of space they may use the back of the paper or an additional paper that you have provided.

Try highlighting the left margin, so their writing doesn’t drift toward the middle of the page. Some sort of an indicator on the right margin is also helpful. This could be a simple highlight, a sticker or a red STOP sign. Graph paper with large squares might be helpful.

Errors in math are not always an indicator that a student doesn’t understand the concepts. When a student remembers how to perform the arithmetic problem, but doesn’t allow sufficient space for borrowing or carrying, they will often arrive at an incorrect answer. They don’t line up the place values when they write out a math equation and end up adding or subtracting the one’s column with the ten’s or hundred’s columns. Graph paper is a must for developing spatial alignment for both math and writing.

While in a classroom setting, peer pressure to conform to neatness and teacher encouragement allows students to focus on the process of printing neatly as well as answering questions and solving equations. When it is time for homework, parents often are fighting with their child’s divided attention. Math homework, therefore, should be performed using large square graph paper; one numeral per box so that the number 100 would consist of three boxes.

The operation sign, +, -, x, or ÷ must also be clearly indicated in the correct location of each problem. When students write the sign of operation repeatedly, it assists their brain in understanding and remembering what is required for each of those symbols.

Fine Motor Control

Difficulties with fine motor control can cause similar problems with writing and arithmetic. Letters or numbers are formed too large or sloppy don’t line up and result in errors. This time, instead of spatial awareness being the source of the issue, the problem is reduced fine motor control.

Using tools such as pencils, eating utensils, or paint brushes all require the combined action of multiple body systems. These other body systems involved in successful pencil control are fundamental building blocks. They include postural control, visual motor coordination, and a balance between hand muscle strength together with the gentle finesse of nimble movements.

Immediate improvement can be made in fine motor control simply by improving your child’s posture. Have them sit up tall in their seat and relax their shoulders. The form of exercise called Pilates explains this type of posture well:

Pretend that there is a string at the very crown of the head. This string is pulling up, making the neck longer. At the same time, pull the belly button toward the spine. Finally, allow your shoulder blades to slide toward your waist. This posture will help your child with fine motor control. (Keep in mind that maintaining a good posture takes time as you have to retrain the muscles in your body.)

(Check out this article for more information and strategies related to fine motor control.)

Work Smarter Not Harder

When your child is struggling through homework it can be agonizing for both of you. When you see that your child is making the same error over and over, don’t just tell them to “Try Harder!”, take a different approach. Unique learners often are trying very hard and it isn’t helping. What they need is a break.

The primary indicator that a shift in activity is required is when two or three encouragements to continue participation are met with resistance. Try these activities:

Get Out – Frequently, unique learners will benefit from going outside for brief sensory motor kinetic experiences. Those are fancy words for simple activities such as walking along the sidewalk or on a track. Allow time for the child to enjoy the fresh air and anything that attracts their interest.

Crash It – Assemble and stack items and then spontaneously disassemble [or crash] the stacked items.

Preferred Activities – This could be anything that the child enjoys doing. Most unique learners have activities that they enjoy and are therefore calming. Painting, drawing, playing a game on the computer, using clay or Play Dough and playing with favorite toys or figurines are examples of preferred activities.

Move It – Have your child position their body in a variety of postures. This can include:

  • lying down
  • crawling
  • rolling
  • tummy lying

Students might also make errors because their executive function isn’t operating as it should. This could be a common occurrence or just happen on a particular day. When your child goes to all the trouble to complete the assignment and forgets to turn it in, the problem is likely related to executive function.

Training the brain on all the steps is a necessary part of the solution. For adults, these steps seem obvious. While some students pick up these skills easily, for unique learners, the necessary steps in any process are not clear.

Instead of questioning your child and/or coming up with solutions that you think make sense, you need to change your assumptions. First, you must stop assuming that the steps are obvious. They aren’t. Unique learners often don’t understand the relevance of turning in the assignment.

Be clear about every step in the process. Bring the steps to your child’s attention and find a solution that works for your child. The long-term goal is to train the brain to compensate for low executive function abilities.

For example, a card with each step of the process may be helpful. Visual learners might be able to just refer to a card taped to the desk whereas a kinesthetic or tactile learner may need to check off each step.

Whatever solution you find works for your student, you would do well to tie a reward to completing each step in the process, at least initially. When checking off each box results in a preferred activity, a piece of candy or a break, those steps become a lot more relevant.

There are many reasons why children make errors in their schoolwork. These are just a few. The important thing is that you use detective mode (learn how HERE) to determine why they are making a particular error. Remember that the answer isn’t to “try harder”, instead they must “try differently” and implement strategies to improve the issue that is causing the error in the first place.

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Suzanne Cresswell Administrator
Suzanne Cresswell is an occupational and physical therapist who has worked with unique learners for over three decades. Suzanne works to educate and provide proven solutions and strategies to those that parent, instruct and work with unique learners. By creating an understanding of unique learners and their learning behavior, she helps parents, teachers and the students themselves find the ability in learning disability.
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