5 Extracurriculars That Are Great for Kids with Learning Disabilities

Extracurriculars are valuable for all children, but they can be especially important for students with learning disabilities and differences.

These children may not feel successful in school because of their academic struggles, but out-of-school offerings provide them with opportunities to succeed beyond the formal learning environment. Moreover, many of these activities enable children to strengthen the very skills they have difficulty with in the classroom, while also engaging in fun, creative experiences.

Read on to learn about five extracurricular activities that are especially beneficial to kids with learning disabilities (LD).

1. Theater

Acting has many academic and social-emotional benefits for children with learning disabilities. Multiple script readings help children improve their reading fluency, including vocabulary, reading accuracy, and intonation. In addition, the practice of discussing a script, its meaning, and character development helps children practice close reading skills and critical analysis, both of which are important for reading comprehension.

Acting also provides students with an outlet for their artistic expression, which can serve as a powerful confidence booster for children whose academic struggles may prevent them from recognizing their strengths. Moreover, the opportunity to be a part of an ensemble allows them to deepen their collaborative and social skills, and, in turn, improve their self-esteem.

2. Visual Arts

Visual arts provide an outlet for students to communicate their thoughts and feelings in ways that are both creative and therapeutic. Eye to Eye, a national organization for students with LD/ADHD, offers an arts curriculum and mentorship program through local chapters in which artist-mentors who also have LD/ADHD are paired with children with similar learning differences to develop and collaborate on art projects.

Thinking visually is a strength that many students with learning disabilities possess, and being able to produce visual work (in contrast to written pieces) can be especially empowering for them. A report by Very Special Arts (VSA), an international organization for arts, education, and disabilities noted that “[a]rt not only gave students with disabilities a way to express themselves, but it also enhanced their self-esteem.”

3. Sports

Sports offer experiences that can lead to improved self-image and metacognition — that is, planning and understanding how to carry out an activity — for children with learning disabilities. They can also provide opportunities for kids to develop skills that positively impact their academics, from improving mathematical abilities to strengthening organization and collaboration. Moreover, exercise has been linked to better behavioral and academic performance in students with ADHD as well as a reduction in ADHD symptoms.

Formal sports programs also enable students to develop a growth mindset, which is the concept put forth by Stanford University researchers Carol Dweck and Lisa Blackwell that our brains grow the more we learn. The coaching and practice in these types of programs help children see the ways in which their skills can develop with effective instruction and hard work. Dweck and Blackwell have shown that children who develop a growth mindset are more engaged and successful academically.

4. Music

Music too can be particularly constructive for students with learning disabilities or ADHD. Researchers have noted that people who play music tend to have improved executive function skills, an area in which students with ADHD often struggle. Many experts still regard direct organizational skills training to be the most successful approach in helping these students establish and maintain effective routines, but music activities can serve as tools for building organizational structures into a child’s life.

That said, traditional music instruction may be difficult for students with dyslexia or ADHD, since reading music presents similar challenges as reading words. For this reason, playing by ear can allow children who struggle with more traditional approaches to music education to develop their skills and passion for this art form. Researchers have also noted that individuals with ADHD tend to exhibit more creative and spontaneous thinking than their peers, making improvisational jazz and rap promising pursuits for these kids.

5. Coding Clubs

Increasingly, coding and computer programming classes are making their way into the classroom, and for good reason. The benefits of coding are manifold, including higher-order thinking, organization, and even spelling.

Coding clubs are also a way for students who are experiencing social difficulties, such as those with a Non-Verbal Learning Disability, to meet other children who struggle with social communication. For example, kids with High-Functioning Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) often thrive in coding environments. In fact, organizations like the nonPareil Institute are now helping to prepare students with ASD for technology careers.

If an extracurricular your child loves isn’t on this list, it doesn’t mean she’s not benefiting from it. Any activity that allows her to feel confident is worthwhile, and many extracurriculars have the added benefit of strengthening academic or other skills.

Follow this link to learn more about finding the right after-school activities for your child, where you can also read about how to get kids started on coding.

Sources:

Bourgase, Brock (2010, revised 2014). Sports and Learning Disabilities. From Coach Bourgase.

Fisher, D. & Frey, N. (2014). Close reading as an intervention for struggling middle school readers. Journal of Adolescent and Adult Literacy, 57(5). 367-376. From Journal of Adolescent and Adult Literacy.

Flink, David. (2014). Thinking Differently. New York: William Morrow Paperbacks.

Hoza, B., & Smith, A., et al. (2014). A Randomized Trial Examining the Effects of Aerobic Physical Activity on Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder Symptoms in Young Children. Journal of Abnormal Child Psychology. Retrieved March 15, 2015, from Springer Link.

Kimball, H. (2014, March 4). Kids With Learning Challenges Shine on Stage. From the Child Mind Institute.

Limb, C., & Braun, A. (2008). Neural Substrates of Spontaneous Musical Performance: An fMRI Study of Jazz Improvisation. Retrieved March 17, 2015, from PLOS One.

Liu, S., & Chow, H., et al. (2012). Neural Correlates of Lyrical Improvisation: An fMRI Study of Freestyle Rap. Scientific Reports, 2(834). Retrieved March 9, 2015, from Scientific Reports.

Pontifex, M.B., Saliba, B.J., Raine, L.B., Picchieti, D.L. & Hillman, C.H. (2013). Exercise Improves Behavioral, Neurocognitive, and Scholastic Performance in Children with Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder. Journal of Pediatrics, 162 (3), 543-51. From NCBI.

Therrien, W.J. (2004). Fluency and Comprehension Gains as a Result of Repeated Reading. Remedial and Special Education, 25(4), 252-261. From Center for Parent Information and Resources.

Zuk, J., Benjamin, C., Kenyon, A., & Gaab, N. (2014). Behavioral and Neural Correlates of Executive Functioning in Musicians and Non-Musicians. PloS ONE 9(6). From PLoS ONE.