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How do children with learning difficulties slip undetected through the educational system? What can be done to prevent this happening?

Margaret Sutherland
Edith Cowan University
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This study will investigate the reason why children who have learning difficulties in schools in Western Australia are not identified and are able to slip through the educational system in spite of all the resources that have been implemented within the system. Children who suffer from dyslexia, Asperger's Syndrome and specific learning disorders or difficulties will be targeted. The study will also look at ways of identifying those children at risk and what can be done to resolve the situation so they have an equal chance of learning alongside their peers. The study will be using some previous case studies to show how children can be left behind and how teachers can learn how to identify these children in their early years at school. The study will also recommend ways teacher could be provided with professional education to help them to identify children at risk so programs could be implemented to aid individual students in reaching their goals toward a meaningful education to the best of their ability.


If the aim of the Education Department of Western Australia is to have every student from age four to eighteen become fully literate, fully numerate and to have a general knowledge of the world and things in it by the time they leave school. Then why are there still students leaving school without these skills? (Curriculum Council of Western Australia, 1997).

The Curriculum Council of Western Australia (1997) developed a Curriculum Framework (CF) draft with contributions from 250 educators and community members, to set out what all students from K-12 should know and value according to the programs they undertake throughout their 14 years of education. The CF incorporates five core shared values during the developmental process. These are:

The first of the principles of the CF include teaching methods, learning activities, resources provided for learning and the systems of assessment used.

The second principle shows how people's values influence their behaviour therefore giving meaning to purpose to their lives and is an explicit acknowledgment of core values.

The third states that the curriculum must be adaptable to the particular needs of the school, community and each person's differences.

In the fourth the curriculum is intended for all students in Western Australia and has the means to provide all groups of students with access to the widest and most empowering range of knowledge and skills possible. In this it has to provide opportunities for students to deal critically with disability, race, class and gender concepts.

The fifth principle enables students to see connections between ideas, people and things. And to also relate their learning to local, national and global events and phenomena for effective education.

The CF with its developmental approach ought to accommodate the needs of students with a different development rate and provide a clear sense of direction. This direction should include both parents as part of the feedback on students' learning. Assessment and reporting procedures should provide information on how far students have progressed.

Collaboration and partnerships should develop to provide input from the community and from educators and guidance specialists in all subject areas, sections and levels of education. This input will be on a continuing basis for curriculum development and its implementation for the betterment of all students' education.

The overarching statement ought to:

Each subject area of the curriculum, of which there are eight, has a definition and rationale statement. This subsequently covers the skills, knowledge, techniques and technology which should equip most students with the major outcome they can achieve throughout their schooling years. The outcomes are seen to apply across the curriculum and all learning areas, and are deemed to be the teachers' responsibility.

The scope of the curriculum should give students frequent opportunities to see the connection between differing areas of knowledge and endeavour. The eight areas of learning should be integrated and not seen as separate entities, including the relationship between knowledge and values. An emphasis of the holistic nature of human learning and knowledge throughout schooling should be acknowledged. Teaching, learning and assessment strategies should be consistent with the principles underlying the CF and can be used to form whole school planning and individual classroom practice. This combination will assure more effective achievement in the major learning outcomes (Curriculum Council of Western Australia, 1997).

The Western Australian CF is also known as an outcomes-focused education, which requires Government schools to provide learning environments appropriate to the needs of students and society. It also has to respond to legitimate requirements of government and community for adequate accountability. The accountability includes policies or assessment and reporting to parents (Curriculum Council of Western Australia, 1997).


The Minister for Education (1998) introduced the Making a Difference Strategy (MADS) targeting students at educational risk. It was found that a significant number of students in mainstream schooling were at risk of failing by being disadvantaged because of disabilities, learning or behavioural disorders, socioeconomic status, location, ethnicity, language background or gender. The MADS was to address these disadvantages and insure that students at risk could achieve satisfactory educational outcomes.

MADS was to both address the individual needs of students by focusing on prevention of failure and early identification and intervention. It was to provide programs and resources for students to help them to achieve their full potential and apply them in a more coordinated and strategic manner. G overnment schools were required to implement individual and intervention programs. The State Government of Western Australia committed 3.1 million dollars per year from 1998 to 2002 to implement and find local initiatives. Evaluation and reviews were set in place and a final report was to be prepared by 2004. The Commonwealth Government provided 21 million dollars toward capital projects to improve certain areas in Western Australian Government schools. These included construction of general teaching areas, completion and provision of technical work areas for secondary schools, the upgrading of libraries and better administration facilities in both primary and secondary schools.

MADS was implemented over a five year period from 1998 and was to identify the following areas:

  1. the implementation of policy;
  2. retention and participation;
  3. health and well being;
  4. the curriculum; and
  5. an improved service delivery.
So does money, resources and early intervention really stop students from slipping through the system if they have learning difficulties?


According to Williams & Holme (2004), there is a cause for concern when it comes to the number of school age children with behavioural and learning disabilities where developmental delay remains undetected. Figures of 13% of primary school children are at risk of having learning difficulties, with boys being in the majority. The National Report on schooling in Australia based these figures on Literacy and Numeracy benchmark testing in years 3-5 and found this to be true. They admit that the present method of identifying children with developmental problems before school is not effective.

Developmental problem assessment, which is difficult and time consuming appears to be the responsibility of paediatricians, child health nurses and are not seen to be the responsibility of parents or teachers. By the time children come to school their behaviour problems are often not addressed and then it is up to the school or teachers to try to correct them (Williams & Holme, 2002, p 36).

Glascoe (2002) cites the reason that screening techniques are difficult and time consuming is often because children who have these difficulties with behaviour and learning appear to be 'normal', but when they are confronted with reading and academic tasks the problems then become more evident. Most parents naturally have expectations for their children, but in the four years they spend at home before schooling are often reluctant to admit or discuss any problems they may have perceived. Even if parents do try to raise concerns with health professionals there often is a reluctance to accept their observations. Sometimes no action is taken because the professionals may think that the parents are being over protective or over anxious, or may be reflecting their cultural expectations of their child/children (Williams & Holme, 2002, p 39).

Whether health professionals listen to parents or not there are various disorders that prevent children from gaining an effective education. Children may have:

According to Paratore (2002) some researchers believe it is the role of the parent/s to be responsible for their children's passage to reading and learning success. Edmund Huey had proposed as early as 1908 that the use of joint reading activities while having the child sitting on the knee following a story with an eye and a finger was the secret to reading success.

Other aspects that can affect children's learning and reading success after coming to school, presenting with learning difficulties are possibly because parents are

How can parents, carers or teachers help prevent difficulties from developing?
Prevention of difficulties in children's learning really lies within the realm of 'who is responsible?' Is it the initial caregiver or parent from birth to age four? These are the people who can initiate structure in a child's life, giving them a love of reading and learning. a child as young as six months can be introduced to books, print and alphabetical sounds. Sharing books in the first few months of a child's life sets the pattern for their future reading success (Snow, Burns & Griffin, 1998, Ch 5).

The strongest concern that educators have is for those students who for one reason or another have difficulty in learning to read. It is unrealistic for learning institutions to return to the 'rote' method used in the 1940s and 1950s in schools, but there may still be a need to have repetition in learning to use phonics, encouraging phonemic awareness with rhyming and word games. There are numerous resources and strategies available to educators for use in today's classrooms and at home. These can be used en masse or for individual teaching to help children who have learning difficulties (Rohl, 2000, p17).

If research is making the assumption that the prevention and detection of learning difficulties lie in the hands of initial caregivers in the first four years of a child's life.

Then it begs the question, how are parents expected to be qualified to diagnose defects such as speech, hearing and specific learning problems?

They may be able to compare their child's progress against other children and notice subtle differences. What advantage is there if parents put in a lot of time and effort into reading to and with their children, or try to teach them the alphabetic system and maybe some phonics, if there is a specific learning difficulty of which they are not aware? If parents were expected to do these things then maybe reading and early learning with their children would become a chore in deference to a pleasurable activity, and parents may not want that to happen.

The literature suggests that these problems need to be addressed in partnership with professionals if and when the parents are ready to accept their child is different. Seemingly the end result could be a disappointment to all participants especially if these difficulties do not emerge until they are in school.

Nichols (2000) believes that even though parent involvement in children's performance before school begins is advisable, it is often not considered until they begin school and then any problems may become apparent and be sometimes difficult to address. Many schools accept readily that the majority of parents are interested in their child's education. If they are then teachers often send invitations home for parents to visit with staff members to discuss problems or just see how their own child is progressing. If parents take up this then a school/home partnership can be established and their child can benefit immensely. Intervention at an early stage is preferable to waiting until a particular problem has escalated out of proportion. Nichols (2000) says that some schools have developed and documented a policy committing them to including parents in general for their children, whether they have learning problems or not. Principals and teachers in schools who have this policy often feel that childr en whose parents endorse this appear to make better progress.

Are there any testing methods for helping teachers discover which children have learning and reading difficulties before Year 3 and are they reliable?

Research has shown that while children develop at varying rates and have individual differences schools have to fall within a reasonable understanding of 'normal development' and children who fall outside these parameters can be considered to be 'at risk'. Many well designed tests for 'at risk' children may produce false negative and false positive results due to the fact that some children may not show well defined learning difficulties during their first three years at school. Teachers also are reticent to misjudge because of educational or social consequences. Test results can only show the current position of each child and should be interpreted with care as some children may at a later stage of their development 'catch up' chronologically and appear to have no specific learning difficulties, while other children with problems may become increasingly severe. There are still some children who for obvious physical, sensory deficit or intellectual disability, and who have had the best of positive family and educational opportunities, still fail to read and write (Vaughan, 1995).

Teachers as professionals in a responsible position are accountable and obligated to do constant monitoring for the department, the school and the parents. Teachers and the educational system are often blamed for the failure of students being able to read or learn, even though teachers appear to be constantly monitoring, charting and assessing students during all phases of their education. These activities are very time consuming but they can help teachers detect students with problems, enabling them to implement preventative programs as early as pre-school. During research of whether testing was valid and useful some teachers showed preference for formal testing of individual children rather than expending extra time and cost on monitoring all children. The reasons given were that not all young children develop at the same rate and there can be different levels of maturity before school age (Vaughan, 1995).

Research shows that there are demands on educators to produce favourable student outcomes. One way to do this is to use the reflective model of teaching. The idea of reflection is for teachers to be flexible in their presentation of lessons so that they don't become grounded in and lack pedagogical development. By linking research with new thinking and widening their view as a teacher they can become a role model for students so they will be challenged to use their background knowledge and experiences. Students can be encouraged to become lifelong learners because the teachers are showing how they are promoting evaluation of themselves and displaying positive attitudes (Massam, 2004, p2).

Teachers should use collaboration with colleagues to pause and identify constructs, reactions and responses and be able to describe these to themselves. This is a way of clarifying and evaluating if methods are constraining. Collaboration can positively motivate them to model their energy and enthusiasm for the students they teach in a positive, noble, courageous and excellent way so the students are in turn encouraged to become life long learners knowing that teaching and learning is a co-operative environment (Massam, 2004, p2).

Drame (2002) says that teacher's perceptions of learning disabilities may sometimes be gauged on whether they are presented with negative temperament or interpersonal behaviours and not always on low academic performance. If teachers were to be trained to detect negative academic learning or learning difficulties with more accuracy then the number of students being referred unnecessarily to special learning centres would be less and programs could be put into place to counteract the negative behaviour. With guidance teachers should be able to implement instructional design activities therefore reducing the risk of students being wrongfully referred to special education institutions. Collaboration and consultation with colleagues and senior staff should be an essential part of a school environment. No teacher should be left to make major decisions about a student's future education without putting this into practice. Guidance should be the key word in all educational decisions (Drame, 2002, p52).

Cairney & Ruge (1999) were examining how support from community and home will reflect on how students learn. The importance of the early years of schooling is recognised as a vital part of a child's ultimate success in school by the National Plan of Literacy and Numeracy (DEETYA, 1998) and that parents and community need to know what happens in the school environment. It follows on that all reporting is in a form that is understandable to these sectors. DEETYA does not necessarily recognise that parents, families or community play a vital role in the education of their children, but somehow they do know that it is an important component of the whole system (DEETYA, 1998, p17).

An important factor that comes from this research is that teachers need to understand that there are immense cultural differences within communities and schools and they need to be able to recognise and work towards diversifying the students needs in the classroom. Teachers need additional help to be able to recognise the specific needs of students from these backgrounds and to be able to develop curricula to respond to them (Cairney & Ruge, 1999, p18).

Research into the impact of any existing programs between community, parents, schools and student outcomes is lacking and needs to be funded to increase the success of any program. Some school systems in Australia are using a framework that outlines the home/school initiatives and is being followed up with professional development work. However there is still a need to fund research and professional development initiatives. Undergraduate teachers need educational programs so that they can go into schools prepared to recognise students' needs and be able to implement intervention programs for them (Cairney & Ruge, 1999, p20).

Is it the educational system that causes students to slip through undetected or is it the lack of teacher training in this field?

As it can be seen, teachers appear to be ill equipped to recognise or deal with students who have learning difficulties. The educational advisers of the system appear to be doing their best to address the anomalies by giving finances and resources to schools and other learning institutions. As most normal classroom teachers are not trained to teach remedial students some are assuming that low achieving students have the pre-requisite skills and knowledge to cope with a normal curricula, when it is evident that they do not. Many teachers tend to see these student as low performers, dyslexic, ADD or ADHD, lazy and various other labels. Students who are labelled often live up to these expectations by becoming frustrated, confused and generally resorting to switching off or creating disturbances in the classroom (Prawat, 1989, pp 1-41).

Is a teacher's role to persuade students to be aware of and utilise their former knowledge?

Prawat (1989) says that teachers need to construct programs that are built on any knowledge that students bring to the classroom and construct concept maps to make connections to this knowledge. Teachers also have to make a conscious effort to get in touch with the students' informal knowledge to help the students have a self-awareness that will promote self-regulation so they will have the ability to orchestrate, monitor and check their own cognitive activities (Brown et al, 1981 pp 14-21).

As a relief teacher in many schools the researcher of this paper has discovered some of the ways teachers may miss detecting children who are having problems. One of these is the child who copies work from the child nex t to him/her and then hands in the paper to be marked with all the answers correct, when in fact if left to his/her own devices really has not been able to complete the answers correctly. Another way is when a child is transferred from another school and the teacher becomes aware that the child has missed out on the basic elements of a subject, can't copy work from the board and says that he/she is not able to understand the work. The child who sits in the classroom seemingly absorbed in the work, never asking for help and at the end of the lesson hands in less than satisfactory work. Does this mean the teacher is not walking around the room checking each child or just is not observant or trained enough to realise a student is having problems? Sometimes the quietist student or the one who finishes quickly in the classroom may be the very student that needs the most help (Sutherland, 2005, recent observations).


There are numerous reasons why students are slipping through the educational system. Throughout the research it is evident that the main one is because teachers in mainstream classrooms are not adequately trained to be able to see beyond the fact that students who present with behavioural problems are often those who are inadequate in the basics of education in all subject areas.

The lack of training leads to teachers referring students to special educational units unnecessarily, when they could have implemented preventative measures to help these students. Intervention programs are more beneficial than removing the student from his/her peer group (Drame, 2002, p 51).

It was found that children in lower school might only be having problems because of a developmental delay, which if recognised early and then using intervention strategies may have positive results. Raising parents awareness and using them as partners in learning would help resolve mild learning problems before they develop into major concerns (Williams & Holmes, 2004, p 43).

Undergraduate teacher education programs should show intending teachers that a home/school initiative is one solution t improving the connection between student and teacher. Teachers should liaise with parents on a regular basis so they can set up goals and plans so there is no chance that students will not succeed unless the plans are not followed (Cairney & Ruge, 1999, p17 ).

Parents can help their children achieve as long as they themselves do not have problems by following the strategies listed:

The best policy for teachers to assure that students receive correct assessments is to have a positive attitude to teaching and to pass this attitude on to failing students. Teachers need to show respect and acknowledge students' former knowledge has a lot to offer to their education and they should endeavour to integrate it into any program they might implement. They should deliver instruction in such a way that students do not succumb to failure by falling behind when early detection and changes in their program could have helped them achieve their goals (Gagne, 1985, p 319).

Case study

Can parents of children with learning disabilities expect to have the best facilities and education supplied to their children, so that they can have equality at their own level with mainstream students?

All about Matt (not his real name)

The study consisted of a questionnaire and interviews, which asked pertinent questions of teachers who may have to deal with students with disabilities in the normal classroom each day. The purpose of the study was to try to determine whether students with learning difficulties were able to: This case study was conducted in 1996 at a rural district high school about two hours north east of Perth, Western Australia, where a fully functional special educational support unit was established in 1952.

The centre was attached to the school as a separate building, but had its own principal and trained special educators. Students were sometimes sent to afternoon classes in the main school with an aide in subjects such as science, art, music, sport and social studies. A hostel was available to students who lived in surrounding towns on a weekly basis. Resources such as Occupational Therapists, Speech Therapists and Psychological Services were readily available for those who needed them. Members of the community came in on a regular basis to add voluntary support for the students' learning programs (Sutherland, 2000, p2).

The reason Matt and the other students from the support unit had been mainstreamed was because the Education Department had closed this and other rural units. It was never really clear why this happened except it made sense in a financial way, less cost to them. The aides who had worked with these students were gradually phased out over the next year, which left the students with only the classroom teacher's help. When resources and staff were taken away the students were expected to cope with a normal curriculum (Sutherland, 2000, p31).

Is it time to reflect on some solutions and patterns that emerge with children in the beginning grades, and to make recommendations for the high incidence of illiteracy in our youth emerging from schools, particularly in Western Australia, with low prospects for employment?
The study was about a student who had been mainstreamed into Year 8 after having been assessed as having a reading level lower than Year 4. Also as having -2 standard deviation on the Wechsler Intelligence Scale for Children and being below a 2.2 percentile, which categorised him as being intellectually disabled. The highest scores he managed on a scale of 1-19 for verbal and performance subtests was 7 for auditory sequencing, instant recall with concentration in the digit span and 6 for verbal tes ts. He also scored 8 for coding or performance subtest, speed of copying and learning and writing new symbols. His writing skills were almost indecipherable and all over the page. He had a large build and had problems with physical skills (Sutherland, 2000, p30).

He had not been diagnosed as a dyslexic even though many of his difficulties pointed in that direction and he was never a behavioural problem in the classroom. He had been treated for a speech defect in the lower grades and then again in Year 7 to help him to be less likely to become a target for teasing in his high school years. Tests were also done to rule out eye problems with a Permobil Eyetrack Recorder which found that he had a fixed left eye preference and minor difficulty with eye movements while attempting concurrent cognitive tasks. The analysis of his reading at Year 4 level was unreliable so there was no record that was helpful. It was found that Matt's difficulties were not connected to visual problems so there was no optometric intervention (Sutherland, 2000).

The high school teachers were fully aware that Matt had spent his previous seven years in the special educational support unit and they also had reports of any tests or treatment he was able to have while in the support unit. In an interview with the teachers they had said that he appeared to be not listening or paying attention while effectively switching off during lessons. Several of his subject teachers had accused him of being lazy, not trying hard enough and not doing set homework. This only added to his lack of confidence, the fact that he could not deal with stress and the existence of a low self-esteem. He had no idea how to deal with written problems or instructions in any other subject because of his low level reading ability (Sutherland, 2000, p138). Further to this the teachers had been told about his problems by his parents and his private tutor/researcher and had been asked to implement a lower level program. Several meetings were conducted between the principal, subject teachers, representatives from the District Office, a psychologist, Matt's parents and his tutor with the desired applications failing to come to fruition. On each occasion it seemed they all agreed that intervention was necessary, and that on the surface help was being given, but the parents felt frustrated when it was shown that not much was achieved. They strongly felt that their son should have a properly supervised, modified program to work with because as he was nearly at the end of his schooling. They also felt he needed to gain enough knowledge and skills to be able to have a career of his own choosing (parents of Year 8 student, 1996, p31). When all these meetings failed to procure a special program for Matt, the tutor who had worked with Matt from Year 6, at the parent's request, helped them write a letter to the Education Department. After receiving no positive reaction to the letter the tutor made a special trip to Perth to attend a meeting with the head of the Disabilities Section of the Department to put forward Matt's case. Again the parents were to be disappointed with no results and no special program.

When the student was asked how he felt about his inadequacies, which he said he was fully aware of, it seemed that those who could have helped him achieve his potential educationally were not willing to listen to his comments. It seemed also the parents and the tutor were being ignored and Matt was told he just had to "get on with it" and whether he achieved or not was seemingly not important (Sutherland, 2000, p28).

He said that in spite of his learning problems he was able to learn some things such as playing board games and some very basic mathematical concepts such as his times tables. The tutor had set up a system using an audiotape to be played during the night starting at bedtime. The parents especially bought a reversible tape player that would continue to play both sides of the tape all night while he slept. It was found that the subliminal method was working because when he was tested he soon began to be able to answer correctly. This helped Matt to have more success with simple calculations. He knew that his lack of reading was the basis of most of his other problems and now that he had been mainstreamed he didn't want to return to a special education centre. He thought that being in a normal classroom was more acceptable (Sutherland, 2000, p28).

He did not like being placed in group situations because he felt intimidated by the normal students. He said that although they seemed to accept his opinions, he felt they were just tolerating him because most of them had been at this school from pre-primary and knew of him and his situation. He felt he needed a special program that he could cope with such as life skills that his tutor introduced to him and taught him twice weekly. The tutor was also helping him finish his homework, which he found difficulty with. Often he was not able to copy down his homework in his diary but sometimes could remember what he had to do. If he couldn't remember a phone call to another class member would help (Sutherland, 2000, p28).

He said that he knew the teachers were aware of his problems but did not give him the help that he thought he was entitled to and that they became angry and spoke loudly to him when he could not understand the concepts they were presenting. He did not feel that he needed special treatment but he would have preferred to have a modified program that he could cope with. He thought he would benefit from having an aide with him in some of his classes. When asked if he enjoyed coming to school he said no, mainly because of his learning problems. He did not like the way he was humiliated in classes, made to feel different and was targeted by the teachers insisting that he should be able to do the work, knowing that he had been a special education student with special needs (Sutherland, 2000, p29).

He was angry about the whole idea of the way he was not receiving an education, how the system was failing him and causing a problem with his future employment opportunities. He considered that going to school was a formality until he turned 15 and therefore gave up trying to do any work in the classroom. His ultimate trick in the classroom was to sit with his file closed so that he avoided confrontation and embarrassment of not being able to succeed during lessons (Sutherland, 2000, p29).

The teachers in their interview said that they did not have time to keep on at him so he would continue to go through the motions of being at school for a further two years. Most of them also said they were inadequately trained to deal with students with learning difficulties. The mathematics teacher was adamant that Matt could do the work and would not give him any dispensations. The tutor sent a note to this teacher when it was apparent that Matt was not able to do the homework she set. Her reaction was to become angry and speak to Matt more loudly in the classroom (Sutherland, 2000, p28).

Matt lived on a farm and couldn't wait to leave school to help his father doing farm work, and learn how to shear, when he became strong enough to hold a sheep. He could already drive the tractors enough to rip up paddocks for seeding and he had his own wheat crop, which by himself, he prepared the paddock, seeded and harvested each year (Sutherland, 2000, p29).

Matt's mother also agreed to be interviewed to give a history of Matt's developmental years from birth to 4 years old. She said that he appeared to be a bright, active baby and had shown no signs of abnormality until he started to crawl, walk and talk. Instead of cross pattern crawling he moved around the floor on his bottom. He began walking much later than other children and did not begin to talk until he was 12 months old. Before long it was evident that he had a speech defect. Communication with children his age was limited because the family lived on a farm about 30 km out of town. He began pre-school at age four. There it was found that he had problems with small and large moto r activities, eg. cutting with scissors, pasting pictures, balance, skipping and hopping. Testing was carried on him by an Educational District Officer at the end of his pre-school year and it was decided to place him in the Educational Support Unit from Year one. In the course of the interview it was revealed that his older sibling also had learning problems but not as severe as Matt. He was also tutored by the researcher (Sutherland, 2000, p30).

Eventually when he reached Year 10 there was a change of principal at the school. This turned out to be a lifesaver for Matt. The parents immediately requested another interview with all staff, district officers, psychologists, themselves and the tutor associated with Matt's schooling. Matt was also invited to attend the meeting. Again all those present agreed that Matt needed a special program that would help him achieve his goals. Goals were discussed with Matt and one of the goals he put forward was that he would be able to gain his driver's license and ride his moped to school from the farm. Most importantly was the fact that the principal appeared to be more interested in finding a program for him within two weeks from the meeting. Again the parents and the tutor knowing that this had been said before and nothing had happened said they would wait and see what was going to happen. Success came within the two-week period and Matt came to the next tutoring session with his program in his hand. The principal had made up some booklets with modified programs for each subject that Matt was working on and he already had been able to gain satisfactory results in a short time. He would also be able to join in with other students in practical subjects such as science, cooking and sport. Matt's attitude to going to school changed dramatically and became one of positiveness because he could see where he could cope and he quickly developed an eagerness to complete his work with excellent results. The principal also helped Matt to write a story of his attempt to follow his older brother shearing sheep. It was published in the school paper and also in the town's local newspaper. It was quite humorous and is included in the Appendix. In November 1998 he attained his goal of passing his driver's license test with help from his tutor and then was able to ride his moped to school for the remainder of the year. He graduated with his peers at the end of Year 10 with his parents proudly looking on. They presented the tutor with a photo of his graduation. He left school to work with his brother in a shearing team as a rouseabout (Sutherland, 2000, p 32).

Discussion of case study

This study was just one example of how a student can fail and as it can be seen how the persistence by the parents and tutor were the essential ingredients for this student's success.

The teachers' attitudes to students with disabilities being integrated into mainstream classrooms, especially at high school level, appeared to be one of helplessness mainly because they did not have the time or expertise to deal with the immense problems that these students have. They do not think that the students should follow a dual curriculum or be put into a separate unit, but should have a modified program of their own with full teacher aide support for each student.

Normal students' attitudes to students with disabilities were lacking in co-operation during group work and in social situations. Group situation learning for students with disabilities is not conducive to the benefit of them and it is obvious that the normal students will not accept them as peers because they believe that their grades will suffer by their presence. No amount of convincing or pleas to accept these students is going to change the attitudes of normal students.

Teachers found it difficult to maintain good attention levels with these students because of time constraints and had left them alone to sit in the classroom sometimes doing nothing for much of the period. The teachers in the mainstream classrooms do not have time or expertise to change the way they teach so those students with disabilities would have a slight chance of understanding the concepts presented. As it is most of these students are so far behind that they did not have any idea of higher learning because they had not grasped the basic concepts in most of learning areas.

Accessing aid from the District Office (DO) at the school in this study was difficult because the DO is an hour away (100 km). The DO has an extremely wide spread area, servicing 24 schools from District High Schools to two teacher schools in an area of approximately 860 sq km, so time and distance limits the number of visits a school has in a year. Sometimes it may take more than a term to resolve problems unless they are extremely urgent and pressing.

Socially and academically the results of this study showed that students with disabilities needed a modified curriculum that suited their individual needs so that they would be able to achieve at their own level and feel comfortable in a normal classroom. They also needed to feel that they were useful class members when a separate unit could be supplied for them. Whether the reasons for closing the unit at this school was financial or the lack of trained staff to supervise, these students were always going to have difficulty fitting in with normal students. The recommendations point to the fact that the whole system of remedial teaching needed to be reviewed to help schools, teachers and the formation of the curriculum. This would allow these students to have equal opportunity to learn and become productive members of society instead of joining the 30% of students who have recently been reported to be leaving school illiterate and therefore mostly unemployable. Equal opportunity to learn is not happening at this particular school, because of the problems the teachers are encountering in providing special programs for the current students and the lack of sufficient teacher aide support (Sutherland, 2000, p34).

Overall this study has shown that the teachers, students and parents thought that the Educational Support System should not be reinstated. That the students would be able to achieve if their program was modified to suit their individual ability levels and they were allowed to work at their own pace. It also has shown that the system needed to be updated and more financial assistance was going to be necessary to support the resources and programs that teachers and senior staff needed to put in place to help all students with disabilities (Sutherland, 2000, p35).


Brown, A. L., Campione, J. C. & Day, J.D. (1981). Learning to learn: On training students to learn from texts. Educational Researcher, 10(2) 14-21.

Cairney, T. H. & Ruge, J. (1999). Developing partnerships: The home, school and community interface. Queensland Journal of Educational Research, 15(1), 17-24. http://www.iier.org.au/qjer/qjer15/cairney.html

Curriculum Council of Western Australia (1997). Curriculum Framework Consultation Draft for Kindergarten to Year 12 in Western Australia. Education Department of Western Australia. Perth. pp 1-328.

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Other references which may be consulted for further, relevant research

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Appendix: newspaper cutting

Author: Margaret Sutherland BA, BEd, MEd, Grad Cert Educ, c/- Post Office, Bencubbin WA 6477. Email: mssuther@student.ecu.edu.au

Please cite as: Sutherland, M. (2005). How do children with learning difficulties slip undetected through the educational system? What can be done to prevent this happening? Proceedings Western Australian Institute for Educational Research Forum 2005. http://www.waier.org.au/forums/2005/sutherland.html

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