Recognize signs of learning disorders in children

Learning disorders, also known as learning disabilities, affect a person’s ability to acquire and use academic skills, such as reading and calculating.

“Learning disorders aren’t the same as mental or physical disabilities and don’t reflect a child’s intelligence,” says Elizabeth Leschensky, family nurse practitioner at Mayo Clinic Health System - Franciscan Healthcare in Waukon. “They can affect a child’s ability to complete a task, use certain skills and can also affect a child’s self-esteem and motivation.”

A number of factors can influence the development of learning disorders including medical conditions, genetics and environmental exposure. Although identification can be difficult, a child may have a learning disorder if he or she:

• Has difficulty understanding and following instructions
• Has trouble remembering what someone just told him or her
• Lacks coordination in walking, sports or skills such as holding a pencil
• Has difficulty understanding the concept of time
• Resists doing homework or activities that involve reading, writing or math or consistently can’t complete homework assignments without significant help
• Acts out or shows defiance, hostility or excessive emotional reactions at school or while doing academic activities, such as homework or reading.

“Learning disorders can escalate quickly, so early intervention is essential,” says Leschensky. Studies show, if a child doesn’t learn to add in elementary school, they may not be able to succeed in algebra in high school. Children who have learning disorders can experience performance anxiety, depression and low self-esteem - and lose motivation. Some children can also act out in an effort to distract attention from the real issue.

Children can be evaluated by a child psychologist or neuropsychologist if they are showing signs of a learning disorder. Many schools offer tests to identify learning disorders.

The first step is for children to undergo tests to rule out vision or hearing problems or other medical conditions. Next, a psychologist or learning specialist will use tests, as well as talk to parents and children and look at a child’s school history, to determine if a child has a learning disorder. Further assessment is needed to make a diagnosis in many cases.

It’s important to keep in mind that some children are naturally slower learners and might need time to develop reading, writing and math skills, while some have disorders that affect their ability to learn, explains Leschensky.

There is hope for children with learning disorders. Early intervention and treatment is crucial and can fully remediate some learning disorders.

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