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
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
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
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.
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"