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What's Going On In There? How the Brain and Mind Develop in the First Five Years of Life
- By Lise Eliot, Ph.D

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Bright Kids with Learning Problems - When IQ and Achievement Don't Match Up

By Dave Palmer, Ph.D


When some parents think of high-achieving or gifted students, what comes to mind is a child who shines in every aspect of life - one who can be expected to get straight A's in school, have tons of friends, and be a star in sports. The idea is, if you're smart, you're smart, and you should be able to apply your mind and talents to just about anything and do well. Problem is, this idea just isn't true. Yes, some kids and adults do appear to know it all and have it all, but this is really more the exception than the rule.

And when it comes to academic abilities, most children, even those who are very bright or high-achieving, have a definite set of strengths and weaknesses. We all do. Think of your own school experiences. Were there classes or subjects that were easier for you - where you felt most comfortable and in your element? How do you learn best? Are you someone who needs to read something to understand it, or do you retain information better when you hear a lecture, or see a picture or a visual presentation? How about your child - does he or she breeze through certain subjects and struggle with others?

Some variation in abilities, including those involved in doing well at school, is normal - a fact that is consistent with many current views on human intelligence. That is, intelligence should be thought of as a group of distinct abilities, rather than a global or general factor that filters down to everything we do. One child may be great at art and reading, but not so great at math or athletics. Another child may be truly creative in the way he views the world or in the way he approaches problem solving, but have a hard time getting his ideas down on paper. In other words, intelligence is not one "thing" that we can point to, and just because you excel in one area doesn't mean you'll do as well in others.

For most of us, these differences are no big deal. We get through school and life by working a little harder at the things that don't come as easily, or we learn to compensate for our weaknesses by using our strengths. If we have a hard time understanding information that we read, we may use pictures or diagrams to help us learn, or we visualize the material in our minds. If our memories are weak, we might learn to take detailed notes, study more often, or develop other strategies to help us recall information. We learn, often unconsciously, to adapt. For some children, however, the differences between their abilities are so great that it is difficult, if not impossible, for them to succeed in school just by working harder or through compensating. These children have a true learning disability - a persistent and obvious block when it comes to learning certain types of material. For some, the problem may involve reading, for others math. Still others may struggle with written or spoken language. These are otherwise capable children who, even though they have had great teachers, help at home, and plenty of opportunity to learn, still don't seem to "get it."

What Causes Learning Disabilities?

No one can say for sure, but many experts believe that learning disabilities are the result of a neurologically based difference in the way that the brain processes information. These differences may have to do with the number, arrangement, and efficiency of neurons or neural connections in specific locations of the brain associated with the skills needed for reading, math, or whatever task the child is having problems with.

In some cases, there may be an identifiable cause for such brain-based problems, such as a seizure disorder, birth trauma, or head injury. However, in most cases there is no obvious explanation. It may be that the neurological irregularity was caused by some undetected event during pregnancy, child birth, or infancy, when the rapidly developing brain is particularly susceptible to injury through such things as a lack of sufficient oxygen or the presence of toxins. Alternatively, some learning disabilities may simply be the result of a genetically inherited difference in the way the brain processes information - a "trait" the child was born with. I've heard many parents of these children remark, "I was just like that when I was in school."

What to Look For Some signs that your child may have a learning disability are:

  • He appears to be trying his best, but is still struggling in one or more subject areas despite having a skilled teacher and support from you at home.

  • He shows a big difference in performance between subject areas - for instance, consistently doing well in reading and writing, but poorly in math.

  • There are obvious signs of problems with cognitive skills like attention, memory, understanding or using language, or following directions, and these problems appear to be getting in the way of school success.

  • He reverses letters and numbers much more often than others his age, or has a hard time recognizing words that he has seen repeatedly.

  • He forgets what he has learned from one day to the next.

  • His teachers are concerned about his lack of progress in comparison to other children of the same age or grade, or feel that he is working below his ability.

What You Can Do

If your child is struggling in school and shows one or more of these signs, it's time to call an individual meeting with the teacher to discuss your concerns. Often, parents and teachers can find solutions together, without having to look any further. A modification of homework assignments, extra tutoring, or a change in ability groups within the classroom are some common solutions.

If you've already tried accommodations suggested by your child's teacher without success, go to the next step and ask for a student study team (SST) meeting (sometimes called a student intervention team (SIT) meeting, a grade level intervention team (GLIT) meeting, a brainstorming meeting, or some similar term). Schools typically hold these meetings when interventions at the classroom level are not working and there is a need to get other opinions about how to best support a child.

The student study team is often made up of the child's general education teacher, other experienced teachers at the school, the principal, and sometimes a special education teacher or school psychologist. The team will listen to your concerns, discuss your child's strengths and weaknesses, and come up with recommendations that can be put into action by the general education teacher. These recommendations might include additional services during or after school, a change in the way your child is grouped for instruction, or enrollment in a structured remedial program designed to help your child catch up on the skills he or she is missing.

The kinds of remedial programs available to general education students vary from district to district, and often from school to school. Some schools have a general education learning specialist or special programs and materials available for students who need extra support. And some allow general education students to receive informal or "school based" support from special education teachers on campus. In these programs, general education students who need extra help are grouped with formally identified special education students for instruction in the areas where the support is needed. The instruction may take place in the general education classroom, or children may be pulled out once or more a week for instruction in a special "resource" room. If your child is still not succeeding despite the best efforts of the teacher and the school team, and you or your child's teacher still believe that a learning disability may be present, consider requesting testing for formal special education services.

By law, schools have a certain number of days after receiving a parent's written request for testing to respond assessment plan, outlining what types of tests will be used. The type of tests chosen will likely be determined by a review of your child's records, observation, teacher comments, and information you provide.

If your child is being tested, be sure to let the school psychologist know what you think the underlying problem might be. For example, if your child is showing signs of a memory problem or a short attention span, speak up now. The psychologist may only test in areas where a deficit is suspected, and your insight will help identify where that problem may lie. Once the assessment plan is signed and received by the school district, the assessment team (which usually includes a school psychologist, a special education teacher, and sometimes other specialists depending on the child's needs) has a limited amount of time - typically about two months - to complete the testing and hold a meeting with the parent to go over the results and determine whether the child qualifies for special education services.

Side Bar Material: "Is my child "dyslexic?" This is a common question heard by teachers and school psychologists. Dyslexia is an often-used term that many parents associate with a reading disorder caused by a visual perceptual problem in which a child reverses letters and words. For many educators, however, the term dyslexia has come to simply mean a learning disability in the area of reading. In the same way, dysgraphia means a learning disability in the area of writing, and dyscalculia means a learning disability in the area of math. Such learning disabilities may be caused by a visual perceptual problem, but they may also be caused by deficits in other areas such as attention or memory skills.

Side Bar Material: Special education law is often complex, and there is some variation in the way states and individual districts run their programs. Special education terminology and acronyms can also vary from district to district. If your child is being tested, you should be given a copy of the current special education laws and parent rights pertaining to your state in language that you can understand. Look this information over carefully and don't be afraid to ask questions. Your most basic right is that you have input into any decision that is made regarding your child's education. You are considered an important member of the school team, not just an observer. The assessment team needs your input in order to do a thorough evaluation and be a better advocate for your child. For a more complete review of special education law and services in your state, go to your State Department of Education web site and follow the links to the area dealing with special education - or do a web search using the search terms "special education law" and the name of your state.



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David Palmer, Ph.D., is an educational psychologist and author of the newly released, "Parents' Guide to IQ Testing and Gifted Education: All you need to know to make the right decisions for your children"



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