A playful way to overcome learning disorders

17 Nov 2021

Dyslexia and dyscalculia can cause children to fail at school. Early detection is therefore just as important as focused support. Both aspects are at the heart of a research project launched by the LMU University Hospital.

“Our common goal is for this project to build a platform on which teachers, educational therapists, school psychologists and parents alike have online access – on their tablets and smartphones – to well-researched, up-to-date scientific information alongside tests and training materials,” research leader Gerd Schulte-Körne from the Klinik für Kinder- und Jugendpsychiatrie, Psychosomatik und Psychotherapie (Department of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, Psychosomatics and Psychotherapy) said back in 2017, when the LONDI project went off the blocks. “These resources should give them fast, evidence-based support for children with learning disorders.” The pilot phase will soon be completed. And while exact figures about participants and findings are not yet available, “We have enjoyed a tremendous reach and have encountered keen interest in every one of Germany’s states,” Schulte-Körne asserts.

LONDI is funded by the Federal Ministry of Education and Research (BMBF). The name is an acronym derived from “Learning Disorders – Online Platform for Diagnostics and Intervention” and 40 researchers are involved. Project coordination has been entrusted to Professor Schulte-Körne, a pediatrician, youth psychiatrist and psychotherapist, together with Professor Markus Hasselhorn from the Frankfurt-based Leibniz Institute for Research and Information in Education. The project centers around six research assignments to investigate school-based diagnostics and evidence-based support for children who have serious problems with reading, writing and arithmetic.

Online screening for individual support

To be able to provide children with individual support and measure its impact, research leader Schulte-Körne explains the need for relevant up-front diagnostics. In a variety of steps, this online screening assesses the three fundamental school skills of reading, writing and arithmetic. Reading and writing are assessed at the word, sentence and text levels using such techniques as word and sentence recognition. Another tool involves mistake identification tests that reliably reveal spelling difficulties and can replace dictations as a way to test performance. Arithmetic skill assessment focuses on issues such as identifying correct and incorrect calculation results and solving addition and subtraction assignments.

In Schulte-Körne’s words, the benefit of screening is that school psychologists, teachers and educational therapists can complete it in 45 minutes, i.e. within a single lesson. The school, teachers and parents then very quickly receive feedback about potential learning disorders. Another very important point is that possibilities for intervention and support are also highlighted. The medical specialist nevertheless observes that people are generally more understanding of dyslexia – issues with reading and writing – than of dyscalculia, i.e. difficulties in learning or understanding arithmetic. The same goes for school settings, too, as can be seen in compensation for disadvantages in the form of special support: methodological/didactic aids, for example, or arrangements to protect pupils’ grades. Depending on the school and the federal state, such support is provided much more frequently in the case of dyslexia than for dyscalculia.

Professor Schulte Körne stands smiling in front of a partition made of glass, which is decorated with colorful children's motifs

Professor Gerd Schulte-Körne | © Credit: Klinikum der Universität München

Close collaboration with schools, therapists and families

The state of Hesse boasts the broadest spectrum of online teaching aids – unlike Bavaria. At the Department of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, Psychosomatics and Psychotherapy in Munich, one focus of research is on rapid, evidence-based support for children with learning disabilities. In collaboration with schools, school authorities, therapists and the families affected, concepts are drawn up to design individual support with the aim of motivating children (and parents) to take part and achieve measurable success. That is especially important, Schulte-Körne says, because support must begin from an early age. He often sees a correlation between dyslexia, dyscalculia and behavioral problems: “In children with reading difficulties we frequently see attention disorders or hyperactivity,” Schulte-Körne notes, adding that children who are poor in reading and arithmetic are often rejected or laughed at by their classmates. Mobbing at school is not unusual and can trigger or reinforce substantive fears of math or the language, as well as further eroding performance. The result? The children lack core competencies – a factor which Schulte-Körne feels should not be underestimated.

Conversely, evidence-based support programs – if applied correctly – can reward the children and improve motivation. By way of example, Schulte-Körne cites two Meister Cody (Master Cody) apps: “Namagi” for reading and writing, and “Talasia” for arithmetic. “The apps tell stories and link them to specific assignments,” the Head of Department explains. “They combine a playful approach with an in-depth support concept.” In an entertaining way, children learn to distinguish between words, syllables and sounds and to properly understand sentences. The program is tailored to each individual: Successful progress leads to more difficult assignments, which both rewards and motivates the child. “Children advance from level to level, as in a computer game. And to make sure they are not overstretched, each unit is limited to 30 minutes at most.”

Obviously, parents have to be informed about possible learning disorders in advance, and their consent is needed before their son or daughter can take part in the “Namagi” or “Talasia” programs. To this end, Professor Schulte-Körne’s team provide detailed explanations. At least in the context of the study, participation is free of charge.

Neither during nor after the game do the scientists have access to the youngsters’ personal data, but they do receive feedback about the results. It is thus possible to concurrently validate whether the program is delivering the hoped-for progress. This feedback in turn lays the foundation for constant improvements to the teaching program. The approach has been well received in Hesse. Schools are getting involved and making the platform available during vacations. Schulte-Körne says that schools are also adding their own support programs, although the impact of these activities is not measured in the same way as the LONDI project.

LONDI likewise makes provision for in-school activities. Alongside ‘normal’ collaboration with parents in relation to individual support, the project can flank evidence-based tuition with behavioral therapy elements in response to behavioral disorders. As part of the Kompass (“Compass”) program, these elements incorporate school activities in which teachers and parents work together. With the aid of control groups as well, steps are constantly taken to verify whether the measures are producing the expected results. During tuition, it is also possible to formulate a specific support plan for an individual child, or to complement such plans with parallel or additional tuition in small group settings.

Government promises continued research funding

There is also the option of extracurricular measures such as diagnoses by child/adolescent psychiatrists and psychotherapists, as well as courses of therapy provided by specially trained educational therapists. Unlike in the case of individual LONDI support, parents have to pay for these measures. Schulte-Körne says this is because health insurers, for example, take the view that providing this kind of support is the job of the education system rather than the healthcare system, and that the former should therefore bear the expense. Although Schulte-Körne concedes that temporary school closures during the pandemic hindered the LONDI research work to some extent, progress is still being made. The professor insists that the online platform is always right up to date: A new phase to investigate implementation is starting in November. The financial situation too looks healthy: The Federal Ministry of Education and Research has promised a further 1.7 million euros between now and 2025.

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