How Can We Help Kids With Non-Verbal Learning Disorder?

We can teach kids the scripts they aren’t picking up intuitively

Caroline Miller

Editorial Director, Child Mind Institute

Kids who have non-verbal learning disorder have a wide variety of learning challenges. All of them involve trouble recognizing patterns, but there are many different kinds of patterns they may have trouble with: visual patterns, social patterns, abstract reasoning, math concepts, organizational skills.

Some kids are affected in a lot of areas, others in few. So the first step in helping kids with NLD is to understand how it affects each individual child. What are the specific core deficits a particular kid struggles with?

Assessing deficits

At Winston Preparatory School, which has developed a very successful curriculum for kids with NLD, assessment is the first important step. Each student with NLD is assessed in five areas: visual and spatial awareness, higher-order comprehension, social communication, math concepts, and executive functions.

This is a critical step, explains Scott Bezsylko, Winston Prep’s executive director, because most kids, and most of their parents, come into the school not understanding what makes it so difficult for them to learn. Once kids get a clear idea of their particular learning profile, they feel both relieved and empowered. “Instead of a laundry list of symptoms that makes them just want to give up and quit,” says Bezsylko, “they have a learning profile that teachers can use to teach specifically to them.”

It also has a surprisingly powerful emotional benefit, Bezsylko says. “Because we’re trying so hard to understand them, they feel, often for the first time, understood. And that can shockingly quickly change the landscape of who they are. Finally they know what they need, how to ask for help, and what to expect of themselves.”

Teaching the missing skills

At Winston Prep, once a child’s individual symptoms are identified, she is put together with other kids who have the same core deficits. That also has a positive effect on students, Bezsylko notes. For the first time they are in class with other students who are very much like them. They’re not alone—and teachers can focus on developing the specific skills they’re lacking, using every subject area in the curriculum.

“We re mediate all day every day in every subject area whatever their core areas of deficit are,” says Bezsylko. And the intervention is consistent, a crucial factor. Each of their teachers in each subject area will address those deficits in the same way, using the same instructional language. “Just like when you give a dyslexic kid a lot of drill and practice on the rules of language,” says Bezsylko, “we’re giving kids a lot of immersion and practice in conceptualizing their experience into main idea versus detail, what’s essential and what’s not.”

Using scripts

Whether they’re studying biology, the beginning of World War II, or Huckleberry Finn, classwork focuses on taking things that might appear unstructured to students, and finding the pattern. Other kids do this intuitively, but kids with NLD have to be taught these patterns, and then use them to understand new or complicated things.

Eventually, the hope is, they become so conscious of patterns and scripts that even when they don’t know the script for a given situation or problem, they will start to look for it on their own. And if kids find themselves in a situation where they don’t have a script, and they fail, notes Elizabeth Mendelsohn, chief operating officer and director of research at Winston Prep, “they know that they need to figure out what the pattern is, what the step-by-step is, so it won’t happen the next time.”

Social learning

Social communication is also based on knowing the script, and at Winston Prep social skills are taken just as seriously as academics. “If a student’s having a social misunderstanding with a peer, a Winston teacher doesn’t see that as separate from understanding concepts in history class,” Bezsylko explains. They do a post mortem with the student to figure out what they missed, or misread, about the situation.

“You know, we take situations, analyze them, help them to understand what really happened, do it over and over again and again until they internalize the pattern,” says Bezsylko. But, compared to other patterns, social ones are the most difficult because they’re so emotionally charged. “When kids feel wounded and hurt and victimized, and they respond to that emotionally, they often get into not very teachable spaces.”

What parents can do

Parents can follow these same strategies at home when their child is having a disagreement with a sibling, or having a problem with a chore, says Bezsylko. “Their difficulties with concepts aren’t just in science, or in phys ed, where they have trouble playing a game,” he says. They affect how they interact with their friends and how they interact with their parents.

Sometimes it’s a challenge for parents, he says, because it seems personal. “When your kid is being rigid, we tend to think they’re being oppositional, or disrespectful. But often they’re not—they’re just not understanding, and they’re having the same reaction to a misunderstanding you might have.”

Encouraging exploration

When kids who have NLD find themselves in situations they don’t have a script for, it can be scary and challenging for them. They are likely to act act impulsively or incorrectly or withdraw. But protecting them too much from failure can ultimately undermine their potential.

In order to help them learn to handle novel situations with poise it’s important to give kids opportunities to try and fail, Bezsylko explains. They need practice exploring new situations, engaging in problem solving. They’ve got to be allowed to struggle, and stumble in a situation where they have support. They have to learn to recover from failure.

That’s why Bezsylko thinks it’s important that kids with NLD see adults struggle, too. “They shouldn’t think they’re the only person,” he notes. “We all have our things at which we’re awkward and uncomfortable. We should talk about that with them, let them know it’s okay, help them to be resilient.”

Being transparent about the steps you are going through when you try to solve a problem, for instance, can help kids learn scripts for problem solving. “Thinking out loud, demonstrating that you, too, have to figure things out, can demystify the process,” he notes. “Often they don’t really know what figuring it out means.”

This is the second in a series of articles about non-verbal learning disorder developed in collaboration with Winston Preparatory School, a New York area school that has taken a leading role in working with students with the disorder.