Early Detection of Learning Difficulties in Children: Safeguarding Mental Health and Well-being

Understanding the intricate link between learning difficulties and mental health is essential to help children and adolescents. Learning difficulties can significantly impact their emotional well-being, self-esteem, and overall mental health. Emmanuelle delves into the concealed effects of learning difficulties on mental well-being and investigates methods for identifying early symptoms of these struggles.

What are learning difficulties?

Learning difficulties, also known as learning disabilities, refer to a range of neurodevelopmental conditions that affect a child’s ability to acquire, process, or express information effectively. These challenges can impact various areas of learning, including reading, writing, math, language skills and specific language impairments. Learning difficulties are not indicative of a child’s intelligence; rather, they are specific difficulties in certain cognitive processes. Common examples include dyslexia, which affects reading and language processing; dyscalculia, which affects mathematical skills, oral language skills, like receptive and expressive vocabulary and attention deficits, like hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), affecting focus and impulse control. Identifying and addressing learning difficulties early is crucial to providing appropriate support and interventions to help improve a child’s academic and emotional development.

How can Learning Difficulties impact Mental Health?

Academic Struggles and Behavioral Challenges

These conditions can hinder a child’s ability to acquire, process, and express information effectively, leading to academic struggles and emotional distress. Often, these children might be seen as being inattentive, having behavioural issues, not listening in class, judged as not working and even worse as being “lazy”. They tend to mask their difficulties by having an attitude, behavioural issues and refusal to study. 

Impact on Self-Esteem and Confidence

Often, teachers and parents explain that they feel the child is functioning below average. Early assessment can prevent further impact on their well-being. Indeed, children and teenagers facing learning difficulties may perceive themselves as being inadequate and they can struggle with low self-esteem. As they face repeated challenges in school, they may internalise feelings of incompetence and compare themselves unfavourably to their peers. This emotional strain can profoundly impact their overall confidence and self-worth. Their self-esteem can be affected as they usually try their best but cannot understand why they don’t obtain good results, leading to them giving up on trying. 

Anxiety and Stress

The constant struggle to meet academic demands can raise anxiety and stress levels. Fear of failure, performance anxiety, and worry about falling behind can create a perpetual cycle of stress that negatively affects mental health. Over time, untreated anxiety can develop into more severe anxiety disorders. Typically, these children hold the belief that they are “unintelligent” and harbour negative expectations about their future.

Social Isolation and Peer Interaction

Learning difficulties can hinder effective communication and peer interaction, leading to social isolation and peer rejection. The children may withdraw from social situations to avoid potential embarrassment or judgment, exacerbating feelings of loneliness and alienation. Persistent academic challenges, negative emotions, and social isolation can increase the risk of developing depression and mood disorders. As feelings of sadness and hopelessness intensify, it becomes essential to identify and address these emotional struggles to prevent further deterioration of their well-being. 

Behavioral Problems and Emotional Struggles

Learning difficulties may also be associated with behavioral problems, as children and teenagers may act out due to their frustration with academic performance. Externalizing behaviors such as aggression or defiance can manifest underlying emotional struggles. 

Early Detection and Intervention

Detecting learning difficulties early is crucial to initiate appropriate interventions and support. Recognising the signs of learning difficulties involves a comprehensive psychological assessment of a child or teenager’s academic, emotional, and social functioning. Persistent reading, writing, math, or comprehension difficulties may indicate learning difficulties. Frequent academic underachievement, despite effort and support, can be a red flag for further evaluation. 

Signs and Indicators

Unexplained changes in behavior, such as increased frustration, avoidance of schoolwork, or acting out in the classroom, may also indicate underlying learning challenges. It is essential to observe signs of anxiety, low self-esteem, or symptoms of depression, such as withdrawal, changes in sleep patterns or appetite, or loss of interest in previously enjoyed activities. Difficulty making friends or maintaining peer relationships may also be linked to learning difficulties that impact social communication skills.

Attention-Related Learning Difficulties

Persistent inattention, impulsivity, and difficulty following instructions might suggest the presence of attention-related learning difficulties. Learning difficulties will create inattention because the child might feel bored or lost, lose interest and then disconnect from the lesson. 

Early Indicators in Younger Children

In younger children, delays in language development or reaching developmental milestones could be early indicators of learning difficulties.

What types of assessments are used to diagnose learning disabilities?

Diagnosing learning disabilities involves a comprehensive assessment process conducted by qualified professionals, such as educational psychologists, clinical psychologists or neuropsychologists. The assessments aim to identify learning challenges and rule out other factors influencing academic performance.

Common assessments include:

  • Educational and Developmental History: gathering information about the child’s developmental milestones, family history, and educational experiences.
  • Cognitive Testing: assessing intellectual abilities to understand the child’s overall cognitive functioning.
  • Academic Achievement Tests: evaluating reading, writing, math, and other academic skills to compare the child’s performance with age-appropriate expectations.
  • Language and Communication Assessments: Examining language skills, including listening, speaking, and comprehension, will be carried out by a qualified speech and language therapist.
  • Executive Functioning Assessment: Exploring the child’s ability to plan, organise, pay attention and execute tasks effectively.
  • Observation: Observing the child’s behaviour in various settings, such as the classroom, to understand how they interact with academic tasks and peers.
  • Behavioural and Emotional Assessments: Identifying emotional and behavioural factors that may impact learning.

Recognising the hidden impacts of learning difficulties on mental health can help provide comprehensive care to children and teenagers. By detecting early signs of learning challenges, it is possible to intervene with appropriate support and interventions that can alleviate emotional distress and promote healthy development. Collaboration between educators, parents, and healthcare professionals is vital in ensuring the well-being and success of children and teenagers facing learning difficulties. This will help children reach their full academic and emotional potential.

A registered psychologist can organise a comprehensive psychological assessment to highlight strengths and weaknesses and help put the appropriate accommodations in place to help the child in school and learning development. 

Emmanuelle Mollet O’Grady

UpSolution Team

Emmanuelle Mollet O’Grady is a fully qualified French-trained clinical Psychologist with 20 years of clinical experience and the benefit of helping many children and families throughout her career in the USA, France, Ireland and Singapore.

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