And the Struggle with Learning Disabilities
Published: March 1, 2023
By: Carol Muse Evans
Our world is in a season where it feels as if the number of children struggling to read and to learn is multiplying exponentially. The struggle for children in foster care and going through adoption is even greater statistically. Recently, we talked with Karen Belcher, Co-Founder of Alabama Game Changers, a 501c3 nonprofit neurodevelopmental medica center located in Hoover, about learning disabilities, particularly for children of foster care and adoption.
DYSLEXIA & OTHER LEARNING DISABILITIES
“Dyslexia is a specific learning disability that affects the ability to read and process words,” says Belcher. “It is the most common issue that we see in our center.”
Dyslexia can be a disability in isolation or it can be accompanied by any of a number of other challenges, including writing, spelling, math, sequencing, processing, word finding, etc., according to Belcher. The incidence of dyslexia in the general population is between 10-20 percent. However, what may surprise you is that this number increases significantly in the adoption/foster care population.
According to Belcher, more than half of the children who come to the center seeking help are adoptees. “They tend to have more complex learning challenges as well. It is rare that we see dyslexia in isolation in these children,” she says.
Belcher is no stranger to adoption or learning disabilities. She is a 35-year veteran pediatric nurse and adoptive parent. Her daughter has spent the better part of her 17 years overcoming learning challenges. “Adoptive/foster parents know that when they come to Alabama Game Changers for help, they will work with professionals who truly understand the complexity of their child’s need,” Belcher explains.
According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, the incidence of learning disabilities in the adoptee/foster care population is double that of the general population. Pediatric healthcare professionals fear that the number is actually much higher. Dr. Jennifer Chambers (also an adoptive parent) and founder of The Adoption Clinic at UAB & Children’s Hospital in Alabama, says, “At the Adoption Clinic, we do assessments on children who are newly adopted. We also evaluate children who have been with their families for years but are struggling in some way emotionally or educationally. Because these children usually have a history of multiple transitions, foster care, orphanage life and/or neglect, they are significantly at risk for learning disabilities,” Chambers points out.
“The brain is growing rapidly in the first years of life. Any adverse events during that time can negatively impact the way a child learns,” Chambers continues. “At our clinic (The Adoption Clinic) we screen for learning differences routinely. While I do not know the numbers exactly, it seems like 50 percent of these children have some type of learning difference that needs to be addressed prior to them succeeding in a school setting. If these learning differences are not addressed, the child is prone to development anxiety, depression or difficult behaviors that impact their relationships both at home and in school. These learning differences must be addressed for the child to reach his or her full potential.”
There are a number of factors that contribute to the struggles seen in these children. Research indicates that elevated cortisol (stress hormone) alone in a biological mom, while pregnant, can interfere with brain development and connectivity, Belcher points out. “Most of the biological mothers of these children were under significant stress in their pregnancy. When you couple that with separation after birth, orphanage life, possible exposure to substances (before or after birth) such as lead or harmful organisms in drinking water, lack of one-on-one caregiving, you can see how a developing brain can be impacted,” says Belcher.
EARLY DIAGNOSIS & EVALUATION
Whether inherited genetically or acquired due to adverse circumstances, one thing is common in learning disabilities, early identification and intervention is crucial to future success, Belcher says. The Adoption Clinic and Alabama Game Changers collaborate frequently with these children.
“We are on a mission to identify these kids as soon as any red flag is seen,” Belcher says. “We know that the most successful intervention is one that takes a neurodevelopmental, trauma and attachment informed approach.
“If an initial cursory screening (often completed at another clinic or organization) is indicative of a problem then we will want to complete an evaluation to determine the extent of the deficits. Once we know where the problems are, we get busy implementing an intervention strategy that is also trauma-friendly because we know this is more than just a reading issue. The child must be considered with all that he/she has experienced in life up until now. We work to overcome anxiety, teach self-regulation, build coping skills in addition to addressing the developmental reading and learning deficits,” Belcher explains.
WHO THIS AFFECTS
There is no shortage of at-risk children in the state of Alabama. According to Rod Marshall, Chief Partnership Officer for Alabama Baptist Children’s Home (ABCH), there are currently 6,000 children in the foster care system. The average stay in foster care is 6-9 months, he says. The goal of fostering is to reunite families.
“About 90 percent [of foster children] will be reunited with their family or relatives” says Marshall. In the meantime, their social workers are very active in supporting the foster family. They have contact at least twice a month and a in-home visit at least once a month, sometimes more often if needed, Marshall explains.
“Because the state child welfare system can be pretty complex and the educational system can be pretty complex, and the family court system can be pretty complex, instead of asking our foster parents to learn those systems and learn how to maximize those systems, our social workers can act as a buffer between that family and those really complex and complicated systems,” Marshall says. Oftentimes they are able to leverage the systems that exist to get the maximum amount of resources available to the child.”
The social workers know how to ask for things because they have done it so much, adds, whereas a parent can get overwhelmed pretty quickly. So if there is an IEP meeting, the ABCH social worker may be in attendance with the foster parent. They know what services the child is entitled to and can advocate to ensure that the child is getting all the services that they need. They are a tremendous resource in navigating a path for these at-risk children, Marshall explains.
It is said that it takes a village to raise a child. Birmingham has multiple organizations who understand the complex needs of children of adoption and foster care. There is a beautiful collaboration among Alabama Game Changers, The Adoption Clinic and the Alabama Baptist Children’s Home to recognize needs early, initiate interventions\services and to be strong advocates for these children, according to their leaders.
Carol Muse Evans is publisher/owner of Birmingham Parent.
SAVE THE DATE – May 19, 2023!
AGC will host a fundraising concern featuring well-known Alabama singer and American Idol winner Taylor Hicks at 7 p.m. on May 19, 2023 at the Wright Center at Samford University. Learn about how to buy tickets to help make services available to all children at alabamagamechangers.org/agc/.