Acronyms abound in the field of psychology, but they are just labels used as a shorthand and shouldn’t be over-interpreted. Some learning, social, behavioral, and emotional difficulties are serious enough to meet criteria for a diagnostic label. In these cases special education services may be available at the student’s school through an IEP or 504 plan, in the community, or through private resources. However, it is important to appreciate that weaknesses that may not be severe enough to meet formal diagnostic criteria can still create significant impediments to a student’s success. Learning abilities present along a spectrum. Conner has gifted verbal ability and a strong interest in history but has difficulty displaying his knowledge on exams because he has weak long-term associative memory. He doesn’t have a learning disability, but he does have an area of weakness slowing him down from achieving his potential and this deserves attention.
Challenges may be overtly visible to teachers or parents, or they may be hidden. Bright students can often compensate for their weaknesses by performing within the broadly average range. But like a duck who appears to be gliding with ease across a pond while in actuality paddling furiously under the surface, such students may be working extremely hard to keep up appearances. Teachers and parents may wonder why such an obviously smart student is failing to do as well as expected. Perhaps they just need to try harder? Meanwhile, the student is often painfully aware that they have more difficulty than their classmates, and may have internalized the belief that they are just not all that smart.
What can I do to help?
A comprehensive neuropsychological assessment provides an in-depth understanding of the student: their cognitive strengths and weaknesses; social, emotional, and behavioral functioning; interests and affinities; and achievement as compared with ability. This leads to an actionable plan for in and outside of school that simultaneously emphasizes development of strengths and interests while focusing attention on remediation and accommodation in areas of skill deficit or weakness. After explaining the findings and discussing my recommendations with parents, I meet privately with the student to explain their learning profile in a positive and empowering way. This can have a significant therapeutic influence on motivation and self-esteem.