A daughter complains of stomachaches each morning. A son insists that reading is "boring." These possible signs of learning or attention issues are not obvious, and even intuitive signals are hard for parents to pick up on when they're not regularly observing their child in school.
Undiagnosed attention and learning issues can affect not just academic achievement but also a child's self-identity, mood, social interactions, and self-esteem. Yet experts agree that when they are identified and managed well, these issues don’t have to stop your child from succeeding. "I have dyslexia and ADD myself," says Edward Hallowell, M.D., a psychiatrist and co-author of Delivered from Distraction, "and I majored in English at Harvard." In fact, one in five children has learning and/or attention issues. (Roughly 30 percent of those kids have both.) Here's what to be aware of, and what to look out for:
Common signs of ADHD include low tolerance for frustration, as well as impulsiveness, forgetfulness, and restlessness. "If a fifth-grader has trouble sitting still for more than 10 minutes, it's a red flag," says Manju Banerjee, Ph.D., vice president of educational research and innovation at Landmark College and an expert on learning disabilities. "But it's important not to jump to conclusions. Discuss the behavior with a teacher to sift out other possible reasons, and get an evaluation from a professional."
Your child might have a learning disorder if he or she is significantly more challenged by some tasks or subjects than other children his or her age. "Here's where a teacher's input is so important, because otherwise parents might not know how a child is doing in comparison to peers," says Dr. Hallowell. Dyslexia, or difficulty with reading, is the most common learning disability. Others include dysgraphia (problems with writing), dyscalculia (problems with math), and working memory challenges.
In order to diagnose ADHD, your child’s symptoms have to appear in multiple settings, says Dr. Hallowell. Modern life is certainly rife with distractions, so some kids may appear to have ADHD when they don’t. Observe your child's behavior in different contexts: “If he is as antsy and distractible at his grandfather's farm in Vermont as he is in a noisy, screen-filled home in a city, he might have an issue."
While hyperactivity is a hallmark of ADHD, some children (especially girls) are "lost in the clouds" as opposed to bouncing of the walls, says Dr. Hallowell. Ask your child's teacher if he or she daydreams more than her peers. (Daydreaming doesn't necessarily connote a problem, but it can be an overlooked sign of attention issues.)
Children with ADD or ADHD can actually focus very intently on something that really interests them, Dr. Hallowell adds. This can lead parents to wrongly dismiss suspicions that their child is generally distracted.
Social, emotional, and physical signs of learning and attention issues can misdirect parents. If a child seems to be having a lot of conflicts with peers, or doesn't want to go to school, or has physical symptoms of stress such as head or tummy aches, or starts complaining that they "hate math," or are "bored" by reading, consider the possibility that an attention or learning issue is leading to seemingly unrelated consequences.
Just because a child is very bright doesn't mean he or she couldn't have an attention or learning issue. Conversely, there is no reason to believe that a child with these challenges is less intelligent than peers. "It's really important for parents to decouple this link between intelligence and performance," says Dr. Banerjee. "Quite a bit of research shows that learning disabilities are not due to differences in IQ or intelligence. Some research even suggests a trade-off, where a deficit in one area leads to strengths in another."
Reading problems can show up in kids as young as 4, or later in high school when the workload becomes much more intense, says Dr. Banerjee. The earlier the intervention, though, the more effective it will probably be.
It takes a village to diagnose: “Gather as much information from as many people who work with your child as possible,” says Mark Griffin, Ph.D., founding headmaster of Eagle Hill School in Greenwich, Connecticut. “Once you have gathered this information for everyone, and add your own as a parent, it will be much easier to determine if a diagnosis of ADHD or a learning disability by a qualified professional is appropriate. Then everyone can be part of an integrated plan to help your child be successful.” (Dr. Griffin recommends Understood.org for excellent resources and free access to experts.)
While getting a correct diagnosis is crucial, parents should also cultivate a "growth" versus "fixed" mindset around learning and achievement, to prevent kids from defining themselves by their struggles. "I don't like the deficit-based model," says Dr. Hallowell. "It's demoralizing. If I've been told I'm substandard and can't do certain things, and I come to believe it, it might become a self-fulfilling prophecy."
"Diagnosis is not your destiny," adds Dr. Banerjee. "Parents need to know that there are many great strategies, techniques, and technologies for dealing with these issues."