What is Nonverbal Learning Disability (NVLD)?

3 min read
nvld brain maze

nvld brain maze

Nonverbal Learning Disability (NVLD) is defined by struggles in visual-spatial abilities, with limited to no struggles in verbal abilities. Struggles in verbal abilities are much more understood and identified because they manifest in very identifiable ways. For nonverbal learning disability, the impacts on visual-spatial abilities make it hard to identify and difficult to comprehend. In this blog, we will start off with a short overview of the visual-spatial and verbal aspects of the brain, then discuss how impacts on visual-spatial abilities impacts learning, and finally wrap up with some best practices to utilize to overcome these challenges.

Visual-Spatial and Verbal

The first thing to understand about the brain is that there are three main components: sensing, processing, and doing. With NVLD, there is a challenge in the processing of visual-spatial information. This manifests in a few areas that impact learning. Working memory, an executive function, has two “loops,” one is auditory and one is visual-spatial. Working memory impacts long term memory and learning. In NVLD, the visual-spatial loop does not work as well. Think about it this way, there are two main ways that information is communicated: verbally, and nonverbally (or visual-spatially). Those with NVLD struggle to engage with the nonverbal information. Albert Mehrabian, a researcher, identified that communication is made up of 55% nonverbal communication. No wonder so much information is missed by those with NVLD!

Impacts on Learning

As we just discussed, so much information is communicated nonverbally, and this is true with learning as well. If you think about classroom environments, you may say “teachers use verbal communication, so there shouldn’t be such a large impact on learning for the NVLD population,” but this is focusing on only one small sliver of learning.

There is a whole host of skills that are not taught explicitly with words. For example, learning how to study tends to be a process of observing nonverbal cues. As a student, you may walk into the library and observe what others are doing. A major benefit of study groups is to observe what others are doing so that you can incorporate those skills into your own repertoire.

With NVLD, unless those strategies are communicated verbally, chances are that these individuals won’t incorporate these skills because they never really processed that information in the first place. With this understanding, now consider all the other skills that aren’t communicated directly with language. Social skills, executive function skills, independent living skills, budgeting, and more are often not taught explicitly using verbal language. Individuals who struggle with NVLD also struggle in attaining these skills because it is not being communicated in a way that makes sense.

Best Practices in Supporting Nonverbal Learning Disabilities (NVLD)

For comparison’s sake, if you are an English speaker, but you took a few years of Spanish in high school, would you learn how to drive a car from an instructor who only speaks Spanish? It would probably be much harder for you, and, therefore, that would probably not be the best strategy to learn how to drive. You would prefer to learn from an instructor that presented the information in an accessible way. In other words, you’d prefer to learn from an instructor who spoke English.

I share this example, because the underlying strategy for those with NVLD is to try and learn through similar accessible means. Instead of translating from Spanish to English, individuals should encourage “translating” this nonverbal information into verbal information. Individuals can advocate for themselves by using questions to encourage others to do this translating. “Can you explain what you just did?” By using questions, you are helping others take that 55% of communication that is nonverbal and translate it into verbal communication. If you are supporting individuals with NVLD, try your best to lean on verbal communication as much as possible. You can use questions as well, prompting those you are supporting with questions like, “can you explain what I just did,” in order to gather how much of your communication they attained.

Closing Thoughts

One thing I always ask myself is “How do people learn this skillset?” This question helps me, as an educator, to question the process by which learning occurs. This helps keep me on my toes to always be thinking about how am I presenting information and how am I expecting learning to occur. This is important not just for educators but also for learners. Tap into your executive functions and goal-setting strategies: what am I trying to learn to do, how can I learn this best, and how can I advocate for others to teach this to me in a way that makes the most sense. Also know, coaching is always an option to help!

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