There are as many kinds of learning problems as there are learners. Each of us is wired differently in terms of learning. Some of us learn better verbally – by listening, reading, and talking, others learn best visually – by seeing and drawing things, and others by direct sensory experience and movement, like natural dancers, musicians and athletes. This is the idea of ThinkPrint – a profile of your strengths and preferences in terms of the five processing systems.
- The Sensory (input) System – The first step in learning is getting information into the brain – the perception of things and events. Problems with primary sensory processes, such as vision or hearing, must be carefully ruled out at as early an age as possible, so that the brain development that depends on this input can be promoted in different ways. Children who suffer from frequent ear infections often have temporary or intermittent hearing loss, and can suffer permanent hearing difficulties. Children who are delayed in developing language skills should have an audiological evaluation. Children with autism are often thought to have hearing problems, because their language development is delayed and they are often unresponsive to the people around them. One important clue to distinguish between them is that children with hearing loss will try hard to communicate, using hand gestures, body language, facial expression, pointing and tapping and tugging on you, whereas children with autism do not make such efforts, or make them only when they have an urgent need, like hunger.
- The Cognitive (meaning) System – There is a problem with the processing of auditory verbal information, which interferes with comprehension of spoken language, visual spatial information, which interferes with understanding written language and learning that depends on spatial position – as in Math and Spelling, or social/emotional information, which interferes with group activities, peer relationships and comprehension of material involving people and their attitudes, as in literature and Social Studies. Problems with Cognitive processes are often the cause of learning difficulties in specific academic areas, as discussed in subsequent pages in this section. The most commonly identified are auditory verbal processing deficit (central auditory processing deficit) and a visual spatial processing deficit, both of which can underlie “dyslexia,” or reading disability.
- The Executive (control) System – There is a problem staying focused, keeping information in mind (working memory), or retrieving information from memory. Problems with Executive processes, as in attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder, are also a common cause of learning difficulties. Executive processing deficits are very common because these are the highest level and most complex processes, and therefore very vulnerable to disruption. Lyme disease and other infectious or inflammatory illnesses seem to interfere with the Executive processes (causing Brain Fog), as does even mild head injury.
- The Motor (response) System – There is a problem with fine motor control, which interferes with writing and copying, or gross motor coordination, which interferes with whole body activities such as sports, or oral motor control, which is necessary for the clear articulation of speech. Problems with Motor Processes such as motor coordination can interfere with learning by making writing, copying and drawing – important classroom activities – difficult and frustrating and therefore unappealing. Motor processing deficits frequently co-occur with other neurodevelopmental conditions.
- The Affective (motivation) system – There is a problem with the positive emotional pull that motivates learning, or with negative emotions that interfere – not enough pleasure or hopefulness, too much anxiety, irritability, sadness or anger. Problems with Affective processes (mood or emotional response) can be genetically determined or inherited, the result of traumatic experience post traumatic stress disorder or secondary to physical illness or injury. Children who are anxious, depressed, angry or irritable, will have trouble participating in and absorbing information in a classroom. Pain, of course, interferes with learning; none of us can think or learn if we are suffering physically or emotionally. Children who are not comfortable socially also have trouble with classroom learning, as the classroom is a social environment, a group experience, based on the assumption that children enjoy interacting with their peers and want to do what everyone else is doing. But some children are more internally motivated, and this approach does not work well for them.
Many children have processing deficits in more than one system, which is one reason why careful neuropsychological assessment is so important in addressing learning difficulties. Autism spectrum disorders always involve multiple system deficits. Children with autism spectrum disorders have learning difficulties due to problems with attention and a limited range of interest, as well as difficulty with novelty and change and emotional sensitivity that makes trying new things very risky. Children who have social difficulties will have trouble because the classroom is primarily a group learning experience.
Intellectual disability (developmental disability or mental retardation) involves limited processing capacity across all cognitive areas, and causes significant learning difficulties. Learning occurs slowly, requiring more exposure to the material and more practice, and regardless of instruction will not continue to develop beyond a certain level of skill that is significantly lower than that of an educated adult.
The highest level brain functions use up a tremendous amount of energy or resources and as such only work when the more basic and essential body systems are intact. Physical illness can interfere with Cognitive and Executive processes (thinking, paying attention, learning) presumably because these higher-level processes are non-essential in terms of survival, and are shut down in order to conserve energy for the immune system to battle the infection. Most of us recognize that with a bad cold or other virus we are not quite as sharp as we normally are. The cognitive impairment of illness seems to reflect the brain on “power saver” or brown-out mode. The “brain fog” of Lyme disease is well known, and autoimmune disorders such as rheumatoid arthritis and multiple sclerosis also cause cognitive impairment, as can the medications to treat these conditions. Chemotherapy causes significant brain fog as well.
Emotional trauma resulting from physical or emotional abuse, or the lack of experience with or exposure to healthy models for interpersonal relating, resulting from emotional neglect may result in disturbance of mood or emotional behavior, as well as a child’s ability to learn. This may result from physical pain from injury or hunger, fatigue from lack of sleep or malnourishment, or the secondary emotional issues, including anxiety, depression, anger, irritability and problems with personality development as occurs in dissociative conditions.