An Overview of Learning Problems

By Alan Brandis, Ph.D.

Almost everyone struggles a bit with learning, but if the struggling persists and your child starts falling farther behind, it's probably better to be cautious and take a closer look at what could be causing the problem. Perhaps your child's school is hinting that "attention" should be looked at. Or. maybe your child is misbehaving so much that he or she is spending as much time in the office as in the classroom. Misbehavior can be caused by problems in learning, too, since a frustrated child is more likely to cause disruption and conflict.

The process of learning - acquiring information, relating it to information you already have, using the information in different ways, and communicating the information so that others can know that you have learned it - has many sub-processes that must work together. When one or more of those sub-processes are not working well, it can affect the whole learning process, although most of the sub-processes may be working well.

One of the things that psychologists are especially good at is teasing out and separating the various factors that comprise the learning process, so we can figure out which ones are working well and which ones may be holding your child back. We use symptom and behavior checklists, we look at work samples and standardized test results, and we take a thorough history of your child and your family situation. However, we do not believe that symptom checklists alone are enough to properly diagnose a condition. We would certainly not recommend a treatment solution based only on such a checklist.

Often, we utilize specialized tests to determine the specific cognitive strengths and weaknesses that may be contributing to the problems in school. We have specialized tests for attention, memory, abstract reasoning, visual processing, visual-motor integration, numerous academic abilities and a wide range of emotional factors, all of which can have a direct effect on your child's ability to acquire, retain and use information.

One of the most challenging aspects of diagnosis is determining whether a problem is "primary" or "secondary." For example, if a child has difficulty with visual processing, he or she will lag behind in academics. Often, such a child will present with depression, which can cause problems in concentration, motivation and learning. In this example, the learning problem is primary, while the depression is secondary because it is a reaction to the learning problem. If the child is treated for depression or anxiety, but the visual processing deficit is not discovered and treated, then the best that will be achieved is an under-performing child who is not so bothered by being behind.

Another scenario we see often is the child who is impulsive and misbehaving, who has been given medicine for ADHD because his behavior fits the "typical" ADHD symptom pattern. At first the medicine seems to help, but then it fades, so the dosage is increased. This may happen several times, so that by the time we see the child he is on a high dose of stimulant medicine, as well as other medicine to reduce the side effects of the stimulant - and he is still getting in trouble at school, maybe even more than before! A significant portion of the time, when we test the child without the stimulant medicine, his attention performance is within the normal range, or perhaps slightly below. Obviously, something else was causing the impulsive behavior. We have a wide range of tools to help figure out what is really causing the problem.

Please refer to the other articles on this site for more information, or schedule a consultation to begin the process of discovering what is blocking your child from reaching his or her full potential.