It was report card time at school and once again, my friend felt frustrated. Her three kids often seemed to have difficulty learning and she couldn’t pin down the reason.
She understood that there’s a science to learning disabilities and the exceptional education program, but she told me she didn’t think that’s why her kids have difficulty learning. She knew that I taught school for almost 20 years and wanted to ask: “Other than diagnoses like dyslexia, what are the most common difficulties kids have with learning?” I offered a wry smile. It is a question I field a lot from families.
Every child, exceptional education or not, A student or C’s and D’s, rich, poor, or middle-income, deals with stuff that gets in the way of learning. Not diagnostic, not one-size fits all, but in years of experience, observation, and banging my own head against a wall, the following popped up over and over and are 10 of the most common difficulties kids have with learning:
This is everything from homework not done to pencil not sharp to brain not tuned in to body not rested.
Solution: Be as in-tune with school as you expect your child to be, teach your child to take responsibility in all elements of life, make sure you know what your child needs to know.
Something is more interesting or more compelling than the lesson. Could be the girl in front, or the big game they’re thinking about, or the fight they witnessed before class, or the text they want to send. Learning requires concentration.
Solution: Collaborate with your child’s teacher, identify distractions, identify potential reinforcements, and design a short-term reinforcement schedule to encourage concentration.
Are they worried about their grades? Did something happen on the bus? Is your child being bullied? Is there trouble or illness at home?
Solution: Listen, ask open-ended questions, reassure, take steps to intervene.
There may be a dozen reasons a child acts out, is defiant, or disrupts the class. Regardless, behavioral issues have a real impact on learning.
Solution: Learn the “A-B-C’s” of your child’s acting out. A is for Antecedent (What comes immediately before the behavior?), B is for Behavior (What behavior is problematic?), and C is for Consequence (What happens as a result of the behavior?). It is often possible to modify B when we understand (and change) A and/or C. Work with the teacher to establish consistent interventions that reinforce appropriate alternatives.
5. Reading below grade level
Reading difficulties with both decoding and comprehension can compromise learning in every subject area, including math. Reading deficits compound over time if not addressed quickly. Conversely, progress in reading can quickly right the ship and lead to improvement across the board.
Solution: Read to and with your child every day, engage a tutor, talk to the school about a reading specialist.
6. Lack of motivation/laziness
This is even common in children who are otherwise good-natured and cooperative. Finding the right motivation and addressing the tendency to avoid hard work will impact the quality of learning.
Solution: Take steps to demonstrate that learning is fun; reward effort, not just results; be a motivated learner yourself.
There is much debate around “teaching to the test.” What remains clear is the fact that too much testing can interrupt the joy of natural inquisitiveness and introduce pressure that is incompatible with learning. It’s important to remember that “making grades” and “learning” are not always the same thing.
Solution: Expose your child to the arts, don’t pile on the pressure, join your PTA, get involved in the conversation, lobby for a well-rounded education.
It’s important to remember that ‘making grades’ and ‘learning’ are not always the same thing.
8. Lack of sleep
A child who routinely gets less than an appropriate night’s rest will not and cannot learn. Sleep deprivation negatively impacts physical health, mental health, and adequate learning.
Solution: Talk to your pediatrician about what is right for your child, establish a predictable evening routine, restrict screen time in the evenings, restructure bedtime rituals.
9. Poor nutrition
There is a growing conversation around the impact of “Food Deserts” (areas, especially low-income, that have limited access to affordable nutritious food) in the US. What we discuss less is how many children in homes where good food could be accessible still have low-nutrition diets.
Solution: Become educated when it comes to diet, approach better nutrition as a family, ask for help if necessary, do not assume “full” means “satisfied.”
Continuity is key to good learning. Children who routinely miss school for any reason will have difficulty learning regardless of other mitigating factors.
Solution: Take your child’s school attendance seriously, be a school cheerleader in your own home, become directly involved via PTA and other volunteer opportunities, get to know your child’s teacher.
What reasons have you identified in your children and what solutions have worked?
by Derek Maul