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Learning Difficulties Linked to Poor Connections in the Brain

Written by Evolve's Behavioral Health Content Team​:

Alyson Orcena, LMFT, Melissa Vallas, MD, Shikha Verma, MD, Ellen Bloch, LCSW, Lianne Tendler, LMFT, Megan Johnston, LMFT Meet The Team >

What causes learning difficulties?

Researchers have long believed that learning difficulties stem from specific regions of the brain. For example, studies link ADHD to the cerebellum, prefrontal cortex, striatum, and other areas.

However, a recent study from the MRC Cognition and Brain Sciences Unit at the University of Cambridge found that the connectivity between different areas of the brain is at the root of learning difficulties. It’s how areas of the brain share information, rather than a problem in specific areas of the brain, that causes children to struggle with language, memory, or other cognitive issues.

This may help explain why drug treatment hasn’t proven effective for many learning difficulties. For example, ADHD medications may help reduce hyperactivity, but they don’t improve cognition or educational progress. Medication can target certain nerve cells, but it doesn’t change communication between areas of the brain.

The researchers used machine learning and magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) to map brain differences in about 500 children, most of whom had been diagnosed with some type of learning difficulty. They found that children with well-connected brain networks had no cognitive difficulties, or only specific issues such as poor listening skills. Those with poor brain connectivity had more severe, widespread cognitive problems.

Tips for Helping a Child With Learning Difficulties

If your child is struggling with learning difficulties such as dyslexia, dyscalculia or developmental language disorder, or a developmental disorder like ADHD, the right kind of support can help. Here are a few tips for helping your child:

Work on Specific Skills.

While getting a diagnosis is important so you can get specialized support, the researchers recommend looking for interventions that are based on your child’s specific challenges, not just their diagnosis. Two children with the same learning disability can have very different symptoms and needs. For example, one child may benefit from interventions to improve listening skills while another needs help building their language competency. The treatment your child receives should leverage their strengths, shore up their weaknesses, and build practical, usable skills.

Use Positive Reinforcement.

Children with learning differences face challenges every day. While learning disabilities can’t be cured, children can learn how to work through obstacles and build resilience. By fostering an environment of encouragement and support and keeping a positive attitude, you can help bolster their self-esteem and motivate them to practice needed skills.

Become an Advocate.

Learn all you can about your child’s learning disability and the therapies and educational techniques available to them. You know your child best, so use your voice to advocate for their needs. The more you know about special education laws and your school’s guidelines, the better positioned you’ll be to negotiate for the services your child needs. If you’re not satisfied with the care your child gets, keep trying. Being an advocate for your child helps them learn how to advocate for themselves as well.

Nurture Strengths.

Like all children, your child has strengths and weaknesses. Be sure to celebrate their talents and carve out time in their schedule to cultivate their hobbies and interests. Children with learning difficulties may have to work harder than other children to achieve similar goals. Reward your child for persevering in the face of challenges.

Embrace a Healthy Lifestyle.

Exercising, getting enough sleep, and eating a healthy diet can help your child have the focus and energy they need to learn. Your child’s mental health is also part of a healthy lifestyle. Find outlets where they can safely express anger and frustration and manage stress. Playing outside or talking with you or another trusted adult both work. Don’t forget to give yourself permission to do the same. Practice self-care, join a support group, de-stress – so you have the energy and patience you need to help your child.

Right Diagnosis, Right Support

Between 14 and 30 percent of children have learning difficulties that require support. Many also struggle with behavioral problems. Understanding the root cause of learning difficulties can help parents find the best treatment and help children manage their behavior, feel more confident, and experience greater success in life.

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We are an expert team of behavioral health professionals who are united in our commitment to adolescent recovery and well-being.

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