There are many different types of learning problems. We all learn some things more easily than others. I believe it is most important to determine what type of learner your child is, what kinds of things does he or she learn most easily. What does your child do when she can do whatever she wants to do? It is also important to determine whether it is a specific academic subject that is difficult for your child, or it is something about school more generally that is keeping them from enjoyment and success at school. You will be the most effective advocate for your child when you have the best understanding of their learning and social emotional style.
The term “learning” is one of those problematic words that is used both in common language and as a technical term in a specific field. In my field, cognitive neuroscience or neuropsychology, “learning” refers to a change in the connectivity in the brain, the acquisition of a skill, understanding, or set of facts. It results from experience, and it changes us, by changing what we can do or how we think. Learning is closely related to “memory” (another of those everyday words that I get all excited and opinionated about). The term “learning disability,” means something very specific in the world of public education and federal education law.
There is motor learning, like how to ride a bicycle, more complex sensory motor learning like how to play a musical instrument, quick and specific learning, like humming a tune, or complex and long-term learning like learning a foreign language. We all learn some things more easily than others. This depends on our brains, our interests, our past experience, our motivation, our health, our teacher, our stress level, and more.
Very rarely, a child has a very specific learning problem with a particular academic skill. More often, the problem is more general, but it interferes with the acquisition of one or more specific academic skills, and that is what is focused on. Problems making friends, problems staying focused on lessons or activities, problems staying seated, behaving appropriately, whether in class or during less structured time, are all significant issues for a child, who spends most of the day, most days, in school.
A child may be too anxious and distracted to concentrate in class, either because of a genetically based anxiety disorder or because of an emotional trauma they have suffered in their life. They may have a cognitive processing deficit in an area such as auditory perception or visual spatial perception that interferes with their understanding and retention of a particular type of information. They may have a primary attentional deficit, or ADHD (rare) in which they cannot maintain their focus on the lesson. Of course sometimes a child’s problem with school is due not to the way their brain works, but to the way we are teaching them or the expectations we have for them that may be inappropriate. Or, it may be that they are unable to attend school consistently because of health issues or problems within their home or family.
A child may have difficulty learning a particular academic subject, such as reading, mathematics, or written expression. In neuropsychology, we are interested in the underlying cause of the learning problem, in order to most effectively overcome it. Because it is the brain that is doing the learning, we can identify differences in the way the child’s brain works that may interfere with their learning or performance in a typical classroom or educational program. We also nee to understand the information processing systems and component processes that are at work in performing a particular academic task, such as reading (see: The Neuropsychology of Reading) or doing Math calculations. We can then relate the child’s processing strengths and weaknesses (their ThinkPrint) to the difficulty they are having with learning a particular academic skill. In addition, we can devise alternative ways of teaching that tap their strengths and work around their weaknesses, making teaching more effective.
For many children, the problem is not so much with learning a particular academic skill, but with some other area of performance or participation in the classroom, such as paying attention to the lesson, working independently, participating in group discussions or getting along with other children. At least in the elementary grades, these children may make good progress with learning or acquiring academic skills despite these problems.