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As parents, we worry for our children and want them to achieve their greatest potential. Getting your child assessed by a qualified psychologist early may be the best possible way to guarantee such an outcome.

If you suspect your child has a learning disorder, then book an appointment quickly (wait times may be long especially for the more established and well-known practitioners).

At the first session, the psychologist will interview you and your child to establish some information points. The assessment itself will most likely take place at a second appointment, where the psychologist will use standardised tests – these are tests published by internationally recognised learning and research institutes in a variety of formats, such as multiple-choice questions, puzzles, attention tasks and others – in order to assess your child and arrive at a test score.

Finally, the psychologist will norm the test score against a sample population and interpret the scores to arrive at a diagnosis. This is where art meets science and the more knowledgeable and experienced the practitioner, the more accurate the diagnosis.

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What are learning disabilities?

An individual is diagnosed to have a learning disability when they have a neurological disorder that affects how he/she processes information. Learning disabilities can interfere with very basic learning, such as reading, writing and simple mathematics. It can also affect a child’s grasp of higher-level skills, including organisation, time management, abstract reasoning, understanding figurative and inferential language, attention span, and long or short-term memory.

Some learning disabilities include attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), autism, speech and language delays, dyslexia, specific learning disorder in spelling and writing and mathematics.

Learning disabilities are not always as obvious as the inability to read well or do sums; sometimes, these assume the shape of an attitude issue or an unwillingness to try. Unfortunately, children with learning disabilities are often misunderstood and mislabelled as troublemakers who do not pay attention, will not try hard enough or can’t stop acting up. This frustration can be a slippery slope that leads to low self-esteem, anxiety, depression, frequent tantrums and more.

However, it is important to note that some children often try very hard but gradually become frustrated with their lack of working memory – the ability to hold, process and build on fresh information.  Working memory is important because it provides a mental workspace in which we can hold information whilst mentally engaged in other relevant activities. The capacity to do this is crucial to many learning activities in the classroom, as children often must hold information in mind whilst engaged in an effortful activity.

These students struggle with learning simply because they are unable to hold in mind sufficient information when reading to allow them to answer questions later on. In these situations, their working memory is overloaded. Losing crucial information from working memory will cause them to forget many things: instructions they are attempting to follow, the details of what they are doing, storing information whilst engaged in other cognitively demanding activities, place-keeping in complex tasks.  Furthermore, these students will need to use up more mental or cognitive energy to complete a complex task. As a result, they mentally tire faster than same-aged peers especially after a long day in school.

Why is early intervention important?

A timely diagnosis can make all the difference. A study published in a peer-reviewed journal has shown that children with ADHD respond well to multimodal treatment, which involves multiple treatment methods, such as combining medication and behavioural therapy with education. Children undergoing such treatments showed consistent improvement when it came to achievement tests and academic performance.

Studies also show that the brain grows most rapidly during a child’s first six years. This makes it crucial to intervene while the child is young, so as to avoid significant learning difficulties and a negative emotional impact. Children who are accurately identified at an early stage will be able to receive the right intervention before beginning formal education, which helps to close the developmental and learning gaps between them and their peers.

How can seeing a psychologist help your child with ADHD?

Parents who suspect their child may have a learning disability should opt for professional treatment instead of taking a “wait-and-see” approach. Child psychologists are trained to use standardised diagnostic tests which can accurately identify disabilities and can assist with effective intervention to bring out the best in each unique child. Professional help can make the difference between a child that is able to grow and achieve, and one that falls behind. At the end of the day, receiving a good start in life, learning to overcome challenges, and fulfilling their potential would be the best outcome for any child.

Typical steps taken by a psychologist may look like this:

Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder - The Lancet

Image credit: The Lancet

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Signs your child might be suffering from a learning disability

  • Difficulty focusing or understanding words and concepts.
  • Struggles with expressing thoughts.
  • Poor memory or maths skills.
  • Difficulties in reading and writing.
  • Inability to read social cues.
  • Trouble following instructions.
  • Difficulty with basic tasks, such as copying.
  • Struggles with time management.
  • Does not respond when spoken to.
  • Shows refusal and is uncooperative during study time.