As a parent, it can be so stressful to see your child struggle in school. This can catapult into daily battles around completing homework, upsetting comments your child makes about their own self worth, notes home from the teacher, and potential behavior challenges at school. It is only natural to consider what could be contributing to these challenges, including the potential that your child has a learning disability. This article is meant to provide education about what a learning disability is and also highlight other challenges that can contribute to learning difficulty in school.
What is a Learning Disability?
According to the DSM-5, a specific learning disorder is a type of neurodevelopmental disorder that affects how an individual learns or is able to use specific academic skills, such as those needed for reading, writing, or mathematics. These skills are considered fundamental to an individual’s academic learning. The learning difficulties are considered unexpected, as other areas of development seem typical. It is possible to assess for learning disorders, though they should not be diagnosed until a child has had formal education opportunities.
To diagnose a learning disorder, the child must have experienced academic difficulty for at least 6 months despite provision of extra help or support; must exhibit performance significantly below expectation related to their age as measured by a standardized testing battery; must exhibit these difficulties during school-age years; and these difficulties must not be better attributed to another disorder. This is exceedingly important, as there are a number of reasons a child may struggle academically.
If it’s not a Learning Disability, What Could it Be?
Diverse cognitive functioning or Intellectual Disability: Learning can also be affected when cognitive functioning falls below the Average range (90-110). A child with less developed ability in certain areas could certainly experience difficulty related to learning depending on the exact nature of the difficulties. Formal testing can provide insight into a child’s cognitive development, which can provide clarification related to learning difficulties. An intellectual disability is characterized by deficits in cognitive and adaptive functioning. If an individual has an IQ measured 70 or below, then generally speaking, learning difficulties will be present, and are attributed to those cognitive deficits.
Executive Functioning: Executive functioning refers to the skills a person needs to attend to information, stay focused, plan, use judgement and exercise self-control. Certain disorders, such as ADHD, or even anxiety/depressive disorders can affect an individual’s ability to use executive functioning. In order to read fluently, a child must be able to retrieve, recount, and apply information previously read quickly and effectively in order to draw inferences and comprehend text. In fact, many children diagnosed with ADHD experience deficits in their working memory and processing speed, which can make retrieval of information difficult. Further, if a child is struggling to stay focused, they may be prone to missing important information while reading, skip words or sentences, lose track of their place in the text, and may struggle to pay attention to details and miss connections. They may have difficulty memorizing basic math facts, which can affect math achievement. Distractibility can also affect written expression, as it takes significant effort and concentration to produce meaningful text.
Trauma/Chronic Stress: Children who have experienced trauma may have difficulty functioning in a classroom setting. Trauma can affect how a child’s brain processes information and can lead to decreased ability to self-regulate. This can increase the amount of problematic or disruptive behaviors in a classroom setting. Trauma can also affect a child’s memory, ability to stay focused, plan, and think things through. These can all have impacts on a child’s ability to learn and could be contributing to learning difficulties.
Inconsistency in Schooling: Children who have moved frequently, switched schools, changed classrooms, or otherwise have experienced interruptions in their academic environments may experience challenges related to learning. Further, if it is the case that these sorts of changes are comorbid with other conditions (i.e. ADHD, home stress), this inconsistency could have negative ramifications related to learning.
If you are concerned that your child is having difficulty learning, then psychological testing may an appropriate way to learn about your child’s strengths and any areas of weakness to identify appropriate interventions. Carolina Pediatric Therapy can provide testing to determine the underlying reasons your child may be struggling! Ask your doctor for a referral and we can help determine the next steps in better understanding your child’s abilities.
Amanda Metze is a Licensed Psychological Associate who works at Carolina Pediatric Therapy. She is a part of an interprofessional collaborative team including behavioral health, occupational therapists, physical therapists, speech-language pathologists, and psychologists dedicated to supporting and promoting children’s development and well being.