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.
- Difficulty waiting for your turn or standing in line.
- Not listening when someone is talking to you, or drifting in and out of the
- Answering a question before hearing the whole question, or acting without hearing all
- 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
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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 persons intellectual abilities.
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Low Intellectual Ability & Mental Retardation
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 persons
intellectual ability. Identifying a persons abilities can help guide appropriate
educational planning and reduce some of the frustration that goes with being in over
ones 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 someones IQ is all that
matters. Three other factors are critical: Motivation, attitude, and the environment.
The persons 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 childs 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 childs life.
Thats 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
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
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
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
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
When low intellectual functioning is the problem, the psychologist can
help with practical skills like social skills and help to clarify reasonable goals and
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
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