Learning and attention issues are brain-based difficulties in reading, math, writing, focus, organization, social skills, motor skills, listening comprehension, or a combination. Two of the most common learning and attention issues are ADHD and Dyslexia but there are a large number of learning and attention issues that children can have (Dysgraphia, Dyspraxia, etc.). You may be surprised at just how common this challenge is, 1 in 5 U.S. children have a learning and attention issue.
That is why we wanted to take this time to explore the comorbidity between learning and attention issues and mental health challenges. Children spend a massive amount of their time in school and it is not shocking that when students who have learning and attention issues are struggling with their schoolwork, they are struggling in other places too. Throughout this blog you will get to hear some of the brilliant insights of Rick Lavoie who sat down with us to discuss this very important topic.
Lavoie is an internationally known expert on children with learning disabilities and has traveled the world speaking to educators and parents. He is also a best-selling author (It's So Much Work to Be Your Friend: Helping the Child with Learning Disabilities Find Social Success, F.A.T. City, The Motivation Breakthrough). He not only speaks and writes about children with learning disabilities but he has countless hours of hands-on experience educating these children. He served as the administrator at private boarding schools for children with special needs for over 30 years. He has been able to see firsthand the challenges that children with learning disabilities face both inside and outside of the classroom. He has dedicated his life's work to make sure that teachers and parents know how to best support these children.
"What some people ignore is the pervasive nature of the disability. If a kid has a memory problem in math class he brings that same problem with him to soccer practice. He's going to forget that when the coach blows the whistle he needs to stop talking. When he goes to grandmas house he's going to forget he isn't supposed to let the black cat out. It's pervasive - it isn't just a school problem. I think after 50 years of research on this there are still some teachers who think a kid basically takes their learning disability off at the end of the day and hangs it on a hook, and the next morning they pick it back up. This is just not the case," said Lavoie.
Below are the top 5 ways a learning and attention issue can impact a child’s mental health.
Having a learning and attention issue can cause a child a whole lot of anxiety. There are many factors that come into play as to why children with learning and attention issues are so much more likely to have anxiety than their peers. Feeling behind in school, getting overwhelmed or confused, and just in general thinking in a different way than their classmates can cause a child a lot of anxiety. A child with ADHD is three times more likely to have anxiety than a child without it (hillcenter.org).
Lavoie offered some advice for parents or teachers that may help a child who has a learning and attention issue alleviate their anxiety; “Something that helps an anxious child is to have the environment be as structured and as predictable as possible. Every Monday morning is spelling, every Tuesday is science and you can begin to create that very tight external structure for the child because he doesn't have an internal structure. People often misinterpret the word structure. They think of it as being militaristic and that's not the case, it means predictability. You know dad will come home and he's got 4 kids, 1 with special needs. He says 'Hey guys, guess what tonight we are going out for pizza.' The other three kids think that's great but the kid with the learning challenges says; 'Wait! Wait! Friday is pizza night tonight is Tuesday!' there you are messing with their structure."
Children with learning and attention issues are more likely to experience depression than their peers are too. They may feel “dumb,” or “different” from their peers and it can take a serious toll on their overall self esteem. As for depression, Lavoie gave an example that really helped to paint the picture of how much a learning disability can impact a child's mental health. "I often say to teachers; how would you like to go to work for 6 hours a day? Your supervisors don't understand you, your coworkers don't like you, and you fail about 70% of the things you're asked to do. That's not a very desirable job description but that is the job description for a lot of our kids. I would be surprised if it didn't impact their mental health because it's a pretty lousy hand they have been dealt."
3. Your child may get in trouble more
Are you getting used to calls from school? If so, many other parents of children with learning and attention issues are in the same boat. You may have noticed that your child struggles with their behavior and in turn is getting into more trouble during school than their peers.
I had the opportunity to interview my dad about his own journey with ADHD. He shared; "During math class, I would talk and joke until I heard 'MR. JOHNSON' yelled across the room, and then I'd do it again the next day. In retrospect, a lot of my fooling around in class was probably from boredom and an inability to pay attention." This is just an example of one way that a child with a learning and attention issues may struggle with their behavior. They could be bored, anxious, frustrated, overwhelmed, or confused by what's going on at school that they act out.
To read the full story about my dad and how seeking mental health support in his 30's changed his life.
Lavoie explained to us; “Have you ever corrected your child or student for something only to find them doing something similar 3 days later? This is a problem that both parents and teachers of children with learning disabilities often face. When you tell your child or student who is throwing markers across the room to "Stop it!" it is clear to you that you mean stop throwing things. However, that "it" to them is not always so obvious. Now, three days later you may find the same child throwing crayons. They didn't know that the issue was throwing things - they may have thought the issue was using the markers. If a child can't read, we teach. If a child can't do math we teach. If they misbehave we punish them. You wouldn't punish a child for not being able to spell. We shouldn't punish a child for misbehaving.”
4. It may be difficult for them to make friends
Lavoie explained; "After years of researching this, I have found that the biggest problem is that they just don't have any friends. Many kids with special needs simply don't have friends. My wife, Janet, was the Admissions Director at the school we used to run and she was interviewing a little 4th-grade boy with his mom sitting in a chair behind him. My wife asked the boy; 'Do you have any friends?' and he said ' Yeah I have 7 friends.' Janet looked back at his mom who shook her head no. Then Janet asked 'Who are your 7 friends?' and he rattled off 7 names. Janet continued by asking 'What makes them your friend?' and he said 'They're the kids who don't pick on me.'
“In other words, his definition of friendship is someone who doesn't pick on him or beat him up. I bet right now you could tell me your 4 closest friends in the 4th grade and I could tell you mine. Imagine not having those experiences. Many of our kids go their entire childhood without a real friend. Then when they do get a friend they often do what I call 'put out the flame'. They become so possessive of that friend and so demanding that that friend only talks to them that they basically self-destruct the relationship," said Lavoie.
Not having at last one friend can take a toll on their mental health. Making friends can be hard for any child, especially a child who is struggling with their mental health. Check out our tip sheet here on how you can help your children create and grow meaningful friendships.
5. It isn’t all negative!
As someone who was raised by a father who has ADHD, I can tell you for a fact that there are many positive ways that having a Learning and Attention issue can impact a person. When it comes to my personal experience I know that my dad attributes his sense of humor to his ADHD.
"I am not trying to brag or anything but I was able to joke and charm my peers and teachers to the point that I think my issues with attention kind of flew under the radar for a long time. I learned from an early age it was much easier for me to deal with people if I could make them laugh. I would move people on to a different topic with jokes and divert their attention from whatever the issue was. I made people laugh by changing the subject. I had a second-grade math teacher who wanted to break pencils over my head but she loved me and joked with me and passed me because of it. Being the youngest of 4 too I found out early if I could use my personality it was best for me."
Beyond potentially developing a good sense of humor there are MANY positive traits that can come with each and every learning and attention issue. For instance children with dyslexia remember things more like stories than like facts. This way of thinking has helped many people with dyslexia develop great memories (many of them taking on the role of family historian), they have the ability to remember a mistake they made as a story and can learn really effectively from it, and they are very good at seeing the bigger picture of situations. Children who have dysgraphia may develop good problem solving skills, a strong memory, and can be excellent storytellers.
Learning to navigate a learning and attention challenge is incredibly difficult for many children so a lot of them have a strong sense of resilience. Because they think differently from their peers, many of them are also creative and innovative. Lastly, because of the challenges they have, many children with learning and attention challenges have an immense amount of empathy for others.