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Distinguishing a Learning-Disabled Child from a Learning-Dependent Child

Distinguishing a Learning-Disabled Child from a Learning-Dependent Child

By Dr. Kenneth Shore

Matthew’s homework habits are a puzzle to his parents. He sits at his desk for hours, seemingly working but accomplishing little. It is only when his mother or father sits with him that he perks up and things begin to click. His teacher reports a similar pattern in school.

Matthew’s parents aren’t sure what to make of this. Is he showing signs of a learning problem or is he trying to get someone to ease his frustration? In short, is the problem one of disability or dependency?

While answering these questions can be a challenge for parents, fortunately they have the benefit of some useful information sources. A learning disability, namely a specific problem in acquiring information resulting in academic deficiencies, may be evident from reviewing your child’s standardized test scores, examining his classroom work, and working with him on homework. Perhaps most important is the teacher’s perspective because she will have a keen sense of how your child’s skills compare with those of his classmates.

After reviewing this information, you may conclude that your child does not have a learning disability but rather is a dependent learner, namely is only motivated to work when an adult sits with him. This may reflect his lack of confidence or his low tolerance for frustration. He may elicit your or the teacher’s attention by sending out an SOS, which may take the form of putting his head down, slamming down his book, or doodling on his paper.

If your child is a dependent learner, try to fight off the impulse to constantly rescue him from a difficult assignment. Giving your child answers or completing his assignment conveys your lack of confidence in him. Self-confidence wanes and dependency grows. In addition, the teacher may get a false picture of your child’s strengths and weaknesses.

Does this mean that you are to be uninvolved in your child’s homework? Not at all. Supervising his homework is an important way of promoting school success. But supervising does not mean working by his side all the time. Think of yourself as a resource person to your child, available to help if needed but otherwise letting him handle the assignment. Try to provide clues or pose leading questions rather than simply giving him answers.

Your work with your child may, however, intensify your concerns that he has a learning problem. He may struggle in understanding homework, not retain material from one day to the next, have trouble focusing, fail tests regularly, and misunderstand directions. If you see a pattern of these problems, consider requesting an evaluation by your school’s evaluation team to determine if he has a learning disability.

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