Why it’s important kids’ learning issues should be picked up quickly

Time-poor parents, or parents who are at a loss as to how to teach their children about cyber safety or sex education or other life lessons, often wish that schools could take on these tasks. But we also expect schools to provide our children with the academic education they need to get through life. So, let’s work with schools to allow them to teach the curriculum, while we do as much as we can at home to prepare them for adulthood, write Dr Ginni Mansberg and Jo Lamble

Learning difficulties
According to the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, one in every 10 school children has a learning disability. The Australian Psychological Society reports the same percentage in Australian schools. It’s so important that learning issues are picked up quickly, because the frustration that follows from a learning disorder can easily trigger emotional and behavioural issues. So, what are the most common forms of learning disorders, what causes them, and how do you know if your adolescent is struggling with a disability? The main types of learning disorders are:

  • Dyslexia (difficulty reading and comprehending – the most common disorder, by far).
  • Dysgraphia (difficulty writing down thoughts and trouble with grammar).
  • Dyscalculia (difficulty with numbers and maths, problems with telling the time and working out money).
  • Dyspraxia (difficulty with motor tasks, such as hand–eye coordination, and balance).
  • Auditory processing disorder (difficulty translating sounds into coherent thoughts).
  • Visual processing disorder (difficulty translating images into meaningful information).
  • Non-verbal learning disabilities (difficulty interpreting non-verbal cues, such as facial expressions and body language).
  • Attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).
  • Autism spectrum disorder (ASD).

Learning disorders occur when the brain has difficulty receiving, processing or communicating information. They often run in families, so there can be a genetic component. According to the Mayo Clinic, learning disorders generally affect people of average or above-average intelligence. As a result, they can often show up as a discrepancy between expected skills and academic performance. Other possi­ble causes include perinatal factors, such as foetal alcohol syndrome and premature birth, psychological trauma in early childhood, head injury, and exposure to toxins, such as lead. Common signs to watch for:

  • Intense dislike or difficulty with writing, reading or numbers.
  • Extremely bad spelling.
  • Severe frustration with schoolwork.
  • Inability to do homework without significant help.
  • Taking far longer to do schoolwork than their peers.
  • Efforts made in study don’t translate into good results.
  • Having difficulty understanding abstract concepts.
  • Finding it hard to take notes when a teacher is speaking.
  • Extreme disorganisation and frequently losing belongings.
  • Extremely messy schoolwork.
  • Inconsistent learning and results.
  • Difficulty understanding and following instructions.
  • Difficulty remembering what’s been said.
  • Trouble telling right from left or a tendency to reverse letters or numbers.
  • Difficulty understanding the concept of time (yesterday, today, tomorrow).
  • Withdrawal or acting out.
  • Lack of coordination in fine and gross motor skills.
  • Poor social skills.
  • Difficulty sitting still.
  • Impulsivity
  • Poor concentration and focus.

That’s obviously a very long list – teens with learning difficulties won’t show all of these signs, and kids who are displaying some of these signs won’t necessarily have a learning disorder. It’s also easy to miss some signs, because a lot of kids are able to disguise or compen­sate for the difficulties they’re having because they’re very intelligent. But, if some of these signs are ringing bells for you, it would probably be a good idea to look into it. As always, start with your GP and then consider getting your teen assessed by a paediatrician, psychologist or child and adolescent psychiatrist.

Many parents don’t want to have their child assessed because they don’t want them to be singled out or labelled. But a clear diagnosis is needed to help determine whether treatment is necessary. Early inter­vention is essential because the problem can snowball and lead to anxiety, depression, low self-esteem, chronic fatigue or loss of motiva­tion. The child can start to think that they are stupid and might be told that they are lazy.

We won’t go into the specific treatments for learning disorders here, because that will be between you and your medical professional, but parents can support an adolescent who has been diagnosed with an issue by helping them find their strengths and passions, creating and reinforcing good routines, and finding good professional help.

The new Teen Age cover small

Extract from The New Teen Age by Dr Ginni Mansberg and Jo Lamble. (Murdoch Books RRP $32.99) How to support today’s tweens and teens to become healthy, happy adults.

Being a parent of a teenager can be daunting. How do we help them navigate the modern world while keeping them safe and happy? Their physical and psychological changes throw up a while range of issues that we aren’t always equipped to handle. Here, finally, is a practical and direct guide for parents that covers the lot. Phew! Amanda Keller OAM
(Amanda is an Australian television and radio presenter, comedian, writer, actor, journalist and media personality, best known as the host of the popular Australian lifestyle program The Living Room.)