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Problems with School, Learning, and Attention

There are three main types of problems that can affect learning and school/work performance:

  • Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD)
  • Learning Disorders
  • Low Intellectual Ability or Mental Retardation

In addition, there are a number of other disorders that can mimic these learning problems. For example, a child can appear to have ADHD or other learning problems when, in fact, he is depressed or anxious. The depression or anxiety interferes with his learning, his ability to concentrate, and his motivation. In adults, mood disorders, anxiety, and heavy drinking can provoke symptoms that look like ADHD.

We are hearing a lot lately about the over-diagnosis of disorders like ADHD. That is why we use psychological testing to obtain objective measures of attention, yielding the most diagnostic accuracy that you can get. Only a psychologist can offer the full range of psychological assessment that covers attentional/learning processes as well as the other disorders that might be present.

Another point to keep in mind is that problems with learning can be expressed in a number of ways. Of course, poor academic performance is one. Others include behavior problems, resistance to attending school, low self-confidence, and negative comments about themselves (e.g., "I'm stupid").

In the sections below, we discuss ADHD, learning disorders, and low intellectual ability, as well as the role of psychologists in diagnosis and treatment.

Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD)

(Note: Despite the name, a person can have attention problems and not be hyperactive, or can be hyperactive and not have severe problems with attention. You do not need both to warrant a diagnosis.)

Things that could suggest the presence of ADHD include:

  • Having difficulty sustaining attention on one activity.
  • Having difficulty with attention to details.
  • Making careless mistakes quite often.
  • Being easily distracted.
  • Starting a lot of different tasks, but not finishing them.
  • Struggling to organize tasks or activities.
  • Avoiding tasks that require a lot of mental effort.
  • Frequently losing things that you need to complete a task.
  • Forgetfulness.
  • Difficulty waiting for your turn or standing in line.
  • Not listening when someone is talking to you, or drifting in and out of the conversation.
  • Answering a question before hearing the whole question, or acting without hearing all the instructions.
  • Talking too much, interrupting others, or butting in awkwardly or intrusively.
  • Being restless, squirmy, or fidgety.
  • Getting bored quickly by quiet activities, or having difficulty tolerating periods of inactivity.

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Learning Disorders

Most people with learning disorders have average or higher intelligence. Learning disorders exist when, despite being intellectually capable, the person seems unable to succeed in one or more specific areas of learning, no matter how hard they try. There are three primary kinds of learning disorders: Reading, Written Expression, and Mathematics. Sometimes other particular skills also are weak.

A diagnosis of a learning disorder requires documentation through psychological testing of skill development that lags far behind what is expected based on the person’s intellectual abilities.

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Low Intellectual Ability & Mental Retardation

A person’s intellectual ability gives an idea of their baseline aptitude for learning and academic success. When someone has consistent trouble with learning, it may simply reflect a lack of inherent ability.

Psychologists use standardized tests to assess a person’s intellectual ability. Identifying a person’s abilities can help guide appropriate educational planning and reduce some of the frustration that goes with being in over one’s head academically.

Intelligence is usually described in terms of an IQ score. Roughly half of all people have an average IQ, which is sufficient for most types of work and for getting through school without too much difficulty. Someone with average intelligence (and no learning disorders) should rarely fail in school.

About 25% of people have an IQ that is above average, meaning that learning is easier for them and they can succeed at more difficult jobs and professions.

Another 25% of people have IQs below average. The lower it is, the harder it is to learn.

It is a mistake, however, to think that someone’s IQ is all that matters. Three other factors are critical: Motivation, attitude, and the environment.

The person’s motivation and attitude can make a huge difference in how well they learn and in their ultimate success. We have seen people whose IQ scores were in the mentally retarded range (the lowest 2%) but who had outstanding social skills and work habits. We also have seen extremely bright people who never made use of their abilities and functioned at a much lower level at work or school than one would expect.

The environment in which the person is raised also plays a major role. You can take two children with the same basic intelligence, put one in an environment that encourages learning and the other in one that does not, and you are likely to see two very different outcomes in terms of academic and work success (and even in later IQ scores).

What makes an environment enriched and supportive of learning? Parents who encourage reading; watching TV shows that provide exposure to knowledge, science, and history; parental involvement in the child’s schooling and homework; and exposing the child to current events, culture, and adult conversation can all make learning a natural and valued part of the child’s life.

That’s not to say that children should not watch cartoons and just be kids, too. But things go better if there is a central value in the family that learning is important.

An enriched environment not only helps children make the most of their inherent intellectual abilities, but also fosters the kind of motivation and positive attitudes that make later success more likely.

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The Role of the Psychologist


Psychologists use standardized tests to assess these problems, including intelligence tests, measures of actual achievement in various academic skills, and a computerized test of performance that provides crucial insight into attentional processes.

We also use questionnaires filled out by the client, parents, and teachers. These questionnaires are rarely sufficient by themselves, however, to make a solid diagnosis.

Sometimes, additional testing will be done to clarify the diagnosis or to rule out other problems, such as depression or anxiety.


ADHD is most often treated with medication. If you do not already have a physician, the psychologist can refer you to one. Learning disorders are managed by developing compensatory skills, which can be taught by some psychologists or by some educational counselors.

People with ADHD and learning disorders also can benefit from academic accommodations that facilitate learning. Psychological testing reports will usually recommend certain accommodations, such as allowing the person to record lectures, granting more time for taking tests, and permitting the person to take tests in a distraction-free room.

The psychologist also can provide training in skills that help the person cope with the problem and minimize its negative impact, such as time management and modifying the study environment.

In children, the psychologist can teach behavioral management strategies that can make a big difference in the child's behavior and performance at home and school.

When low intellectual functioning is the problem, the psychologist can help with practical skills like social skills and help to clarify reasonable goals and expectations.

In addition, the psychologist can help the person deal with the frustrations they experience, and the effect of these disorders on their self-esteem and self-confidence.

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Disclaimer:  You know, we see a disclaimer like this in every ad that lawyers put out, and it probably is a good idea for us to use one, too:  "No representation is made that the quality of the psychological services to be performed is greater than the quality of psychological services performed by other psychologists.  The outcome of assessments or psychotherapy, or individual client satisfaction, cannot be guaranteed and is dependent on many factors.  Material on this site regarding symptoms, disorders, and treatment is informational only.  Diagnosis and treatment of mental disorders requires the expertise of a trained professional."

The information on this site regarding psychological disorders and treatment comes from many sources that cannot be credited, simply because they have been integrated over the years into our general knowledge base. However, one important source is the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, 4th Edition (1994) published by the American Psychiatric Association.