Learning curves

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You may have noticed recently that something just doesn’t seem right. Your daughter spends a long time struggling with reading homework that should take no more than 30 minutes. Or your son, once an easy-going, excited pre-schooler, has become withdrawn, frustrated and defensive. It may not be anything specific – just a feeling or an instinct – but when you see changes in your child or notice that they aren’t keeping up with their peers, what should you do? How to keep your child progressing on the learning curve? 

The first step is to ask yourself if there have been any emotional issues that could be influencing your child’s life: for example, a recent separation or divorce, the death of a close relative, bullying or conflict in the home or at school. Any one of these could have a profound impact on your child’s happiness and emotional well-being. Physical changes can also explain a change in behaviour; perhaps your child might need his vision and hearing tested. If you have any of these concerns, speak to your family doctor.

Every child will go through phases of loving and hating school and favouring one subject over another. However, how can you know when this becomes more than a phase and a reason for concern?

Learning curves child learning shutterstock_89698870


Start to observe your child in their own environment. By looking for correlations with behaviour, you can start to determine the causes. For example, do tantrums coincide with homework time? Does your child seem grumpier when he comes home from school? Ask yourself, does he ever read just for pleasure? How are his spelling and his handwriting?

Additionally, if your child is under four years of age, look for:

  • communication delays, such as slow language development or difficulty with speech; problems understanding what is being said or problems communicating their thoughts.
  • poor coordination and uneven motor development, such as delays in learning to sit, walk, colour and use scissors. Later, watch for problems forming letters and numbers.
  • problems with memory and routine, such as not remembering specifics of daily activities and not understanding instructions, or problems remembering multiple instructions.
  • delays in the development of social skills, including playing and relating interactively with other children.In school-aged children, look for:
  • problems learning phonemes (individual units of sound) and graphemes (letters, numbers).
  • problems learning how to blend sounds and letters to sound out words; problems remembering familiar words by sight. Later, difficulty with reading comprehension.
  • problems forming letters and numbers. Later, problems with basic spelling and grammar.
  • difficulties learning maths skills and doing mathematical calculations.
  • difficulty remembering facts (when recalling events or storylines).
  • difficulty organising materials (homework, notebooks or school papers), information, and/or concepts.
  • inability to understand oral instructions or to express oneself verbally.
  • losing or forgetting materials, or doing work and forgetting to hand it in to the teacher.
  • an inability to plan out the steps and time lines for completing projects, especially long-term projects.
  • difficulty organising thoughts for written reports or public speaking.

Some types of learning difficulties are not apparent until later in a child’s academic career. With increased responsibilities and more complex work, new areas of weakness may become apparent. Your child’s teacher should have a good insight into whether there are some difficulties. Arrange a meeting and bring some questions: Is he keeping up with the classwork? How is she behaving in class? Don’t be afraid to ask the teacher to provide you with regular updates on your child’s development, as some changes can be temporary or just a phase. If you do suspect that there is an underlying reason for the changes, then it’s time to consider an assessment.


Many parents are concerned that there is a stigma attached to having your child assessed and question the benefits. However, it’s worth remembering that the key purpose of an assessment is to build a profile of your child’s strengths and difficulties, which will provide you with the knowledge and tools to support your child better. This, in turn, can make a valuable contribution to your child’s self-esteem by giving them the opportunity to learn in a manner that will make knowledge more accessible to them.

This type of assessment is often referred to as a psycho-educational assessment. Some of the common questions asked by parents starting the process include:

Is my child intelligent?

When you look up the meaning of intelligence, it is difficult to find one definitive description. That’s because we now know that there are many different components that make up intelligence and that people have different strengths and weaknesses and are intelligent in different ways. For example, some people are good with words but not very good with numbers. The instruments used in a psycho-educational assessment allow us to look at various types of abilities so that we can be clearer about the areas in which a child is strong and the areas in which some help might be beneficial.


Are these tests objective?

These tests have gone through rigorous assessment to ensure that they fairly represent all the different groups of children who might take them. However, like most things, tests are fallible, and there are lots of factors that can affect test performance other than the child’s ability in what is being measured. This is the reason that they should only be administered by professionals who understand their limitations and are qualified to interpret the information presented. Alongside other specific information the professional has acquired about the child, test results are used to create an informed and comprehensive profile of your child. Test information is used to supplement other information and is never used in isolation.

Years of research has allowed assessors to compare children’s abilities with their achievement at school. A psycho-educational assessment allows experts to compare your child’s abilities with their achievements, helping them to decide whether what is happening is unexpected. Qualified professionals have access to a selection of psychological tests that can focus on particular issues to help them understand why unexpected things might be happening.

“A psycho-educational assessment allows experts to compare your child’s abilities with their achievements … ”

What is being measured?

Simply put, the tests are designed to measure one’s general ability to make sense of the world through verbal and nonverbal means. This includes logical reasoning, problem-solving, understanding of language, the ability to perceive relationships between things, and the ability to store and retrieve information. The profile an assessment creates looks at particular dimensions such as:

  • spatial ability: the ability to make sense of the shapes in our environment
  • mathematical ability: the ability to solve numerical problems and use logic
  • language skills: vocabulary knowledge, understanding language and verbal concepts
  • memory: the ability to recall things presented either visually or aurally

Most assessments are performed in a fun and relaxed atmosphere in order to encourage the best responses from the child. The tests are designed in a way that allows the professional administering the tests to engage kids in a creative and imaginative way that veers away from the classroom-based test setting and makes it more interesting for them. Often a child will start to enjoy the process and feel encouraged.

Learning curves child listening shutterstock_87036104


It’s only natural as a parent to want the best for your child and to worry about the challenges he or she is facing. But remember, academic success is not the whole picture. What a child deserves is a happy and fulfilling life and, with the right support, there is no reason why children with learning difficulties can’t succeed and thrive at school and beyond. All you need to do is Google “famous people with learning difficulties” and you’ll encounter a range of names such as Richard Branson, Albert Einstein, Pablo Picasso, Winston Churchill and many more who have achieved enormous success despite their range of challenges.

You are the foremost expert on your child, so take charge when it comes to finding the tools he or she needs in order to learn. Your child will follow your lead. If you approach these challenges with an optimistic, conscientious but light-hearted attitude, your child is likely to embrace your perspective – or at least see the challenges as a speed bump, rather than a roadblock. Focus your energy on learning what works for your child and implementing it the best way you can.

Your child is not defined by his or her learning challenges and your child’s life – and schedule – shouldn’t revolve around them. They only represent one area, and your child will have many more strengths. Focus on your child’s gifts and talents and nurture the activities where he or she excels.

As a parent, your influence and opinion outweighs that of any teacher, psychologist or therapist. A child’s self-esteem is what helps them through tough times and positive reinforcement from the parent is what helps build it. You know your child better than anyone else and you know what social and emotional skills they need to work through challenges they encounter. Facing and overcoming a challenge such as a learning difficulty might actually help your child grow stronger and more resilient.

Dr Suzanne Meenan is a child psychologist who practises at Central Health Medical Practice and Southside Family Health Centre.

Read also: Which Learning Style Suits Your Child?

This article was written in 2016 and updated in January 2020.

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