Learning Disabilities

Parents are often worried and disappointed when their child has learning problems. There are many reasons for school failure, but a common one is a specific learning disability. A child with a learning disability is usually bright and initially tries very hard to follow instructions, concentrate and “be good” at home and in school. Yet despite this effort he or she is not mastering school tasks and falls behind. Some learning disabled children also have trouble sitting still or paying attention. Learning disabilities affect as many as 15 percent of otherwise able school children.

It is believed that learning disabilities are caused by a difficulty with the nervous system that affects receiving, processing or communicating information. Some learning disabled children are also hyperactive and/or distractible with a short attention span.

Child and adolescent psychiatrists point out that learning disabilities are treatable, but if not detected and treated early, they can have a tragic “snowballing” effect. For instance, a child who does not learn addition in elementary school cannot understand algebra in high school. The child, trying very hard to learn, becomes more and more frustrated, and develops emotional problems such as low self-esteem in the face of repeated failure. Some learning disabled children misbehave in school because they would rather be seen as “bad” than “stupid.”

Parents should be aware of the most frequent signals of learning disabilities, when a child:

  • has difficulty understanding and following instructions.
  • has trouble remembering what someone just told him or her.
  • fails to master reading, writing, and/or math skills, and thus fails schoolwork.
  • has difficulty distinguishing right from left–for example, confusing 25 with 52, “b” with “d,” or “on” with “no.”
  • lacks coordination–in walking, sports, or small activities such as holding a pencil or tying a shoelace.
  • easily loses or misplaces homework, schoolbooks or other items.
  • cannot understand the concept of time; is confused by “yesterday,” “today,” “tomorrow.”

Such problems deserve an evaluation by an expert on the whole child and his or her health and mental health. A child and adolescent psychiatrist will work with the school professionals and others to have the necessary comprehensive evaluation and educational testing done to clarify if a learning disability exists. After talking with the child and family, evaluating their situation, reviewing the educational testing and consulting with the school, the child and adolescent psychiatrist will make recommendations on appropriate school placement, the need for special help such as special educational therapy or speech-language therapy and steps parents can take to assist their child in maximizing his or her learning potential. Sometimes individual or family psychotherapy will be recommended, and sometimes medication will be prescribed for hyperactivity or distractibility. It is important to strengthen the child’s self-confidence, so vital for healthy development, and also help parents and other family members cope with the realities of living with learning disabilities.


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Copyright © 1997 by the American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry.

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