The At in the hAt: Are We Viewing Learning Issues All Wrong?

Father helps child with homeworkRandy was short, scrawny, and well below the average size for an elementary school boy. This could not have helped him acclimate to the relative dog-eat-dog mentality of his competitive school culture. His undersized physique and introverted personality were all too apparent as he sulked his head, staring down at the results of his first-ever spelling test. He shuffled one foot in front of the other, walking at a snail’s pace, as schoolmates passed him by with the jovial, high-pitched mannerisms expected of schoolchildren headed to recess.

He paid no attention to the jubilee that surrounded him, as he was lost in the depths of the red “X” marks glaring across his exam. Holding back tears, he shuffled forward—one step, two—and before he could make the third, his toes crossed the threshold at the top of the second-floor staircase. He may have realized he was about to tumble down, but the devastation of his academic shortcoming kept him frozen, unable to react.

Lying on his back at the bottom of the staircase, he did his best to avert eye contact with the kids who looked down at him. “That’s got to hurt,” said one who walked by. “Better watch where you’re going,” another murmured. But the most devastating of all was Randy’s assumption about what they were thinking. He laid there, convinced they could see the red marks that littered his test—convinced they believed, as he did, that he was stupid.

The pain of the fall paled in comparison to the humiliation of the mere thought that classmates were discussing his failed attempt at a seemingly simple three-letter-word spelling test.

Randy left school early that day with his mom, and when they got home, she looked over the spelling test. She found that the words were actually spelled correctly, although Randy capitalized the center vowel (cat was cAt and hat was hAt). She tried to console him, but the damage was done—the first of endless experiences of shame that engulfed Randy as a result of his learning difficulty.

Randy is one of the 20% of school-age children who struggle with a learning disability (National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse at Columbia University, 2000). With such a substantial number of American children battling learning challenges, it is vital that parents and caregivers, teachers, and students themselves take note of the effects those unseen disabilities have on their fragile psyches.

Significant research (Barrett and Jones, 1996) points to a correlation between the presence of learning disabilities and diminished self-esteem in children and adolescents, which is likely to continue to adulthood if left unaddressed. Additionally, empirical data (Wentzel and Caldwell, 1997) link peer acceptance and social prowess with academic achievement.

Unfortunately, many children with learning issues face not only academic struggles but social ones as well.

Parents, teachers, and caregivers have an opportunity to look beyond the ABCs of learning difficulties. This is indeed an invisible disability—unnoticeable from the outside, yet all-consuming from within. We must take it upon ourselves to look at these children with trust in all they can become.

The American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry (2011) warned that some children who struggle with learning difficulties may act out behaviorally; they would prefer to be seen as a “bad” kid rather than a “dumb” one.

Randy is one of almost 11 million American students (CASA, 2000) who experience the academic and psychological defeats of learning difficulties, and this is a call to the caregivers of these students. While an individualized education plan (IEP) is extremely valuable for improving academics, it is important to remember to nurture the students emotionally and psychologically as well.

Individuals who have been diagnosed with learning disabilities are far more likely to be able to handle the emotional stress associated with combating their difficulties if they participate in psychotherapy (Brooks, Davies, and Twigg, 2013). In particular, two prominent studies indicated a stark improvement in cognitive intelligence and emotional intelligence in individuals with learning challenges who participated in psychodynamic psychotherapy (Cottis, 2009; Simpson and Miller, 2004).

As beneficial as these therapeutic options are for children and adolescents struggling with senses of self, they cannot do it alone. People have a difficult time making progress without the integration of their environment (Gifford, 2007). It is up to guardians, family members, teachers, and other mentors to help them establish a strong support system. When a group of supporters become engaged in their lives, individuals are more likely to combat internal questions about self-worth (Burlingame and Beecher, 2008).

Parents, teachers, and caregivers have an opportunity to look beyond the ABCs of learning difficulties. This is indeed an invisible disability—unnoticeable from the outside, yet all-consuming from within. We must take it upon ourselves to look at these children with trust in all they can become.

“Unless someone like you cares a whole awful lot, nothing is going to get better. It’s not.” —Dr. Seuss, 1971

Note: To protect privacy, names in the preceding article have been changed and the dialogues described are a composite.


  1. American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry. (2011, December). Children with learning disabilities. Facts for families (No. 16). Retrieved from
  2. Barrett, H., & Jones, D. (1994). The inner life of children with moderate learning difficulties. In V. P. Varma (Ed.). The inner life of children with special needs (pp. 45-62). London, England: Whurr.
  3. Brooks, M., Davies, S., & Twigg, E. (2013). A measure for feelings – using inclusive research to develop a tool for evaluating psychological therapy (Clinical Outcomes in Routine Evaluation – Learning Disability). British Journal of Learning Disabilities, 41(4), 320-329.
  4. Burlingame, G., & Beecher, M. (2008). New directions and resources in group psychotherapy: Introduction to the issue. Journal of Clinical Psychology, 64, 1197-1205.
  5. Cottis T. (Ed.) (2009). Intellectual disability, trauma and psychotherapy. London; New York: Routledge.
  6. Gifford, R. (2007). Environmental psychology: Principles and practice. Colville, WA: Optimal books.
  7. National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse at Columbia University (CASA). (2000, September). Substance abuse and learning disabilities: Peas in a pod or apples and oranges? Retrieved from
  8. Seuss. (1971). The Lorax. Random House Children’s Books.
  9. Simpson, D., & Miller, L. (Eds.) (2004). Unexpected gains: Psychotherapy with people with learning disabilities. London: Karnac.
  10. Wentzel, K., & Caldwell, K. (1997). Friendships, peer acceptance and group membership: Relationships to academic performance in middle school. Child Development, 68, 1198-1209.

© Copyright 2016 All rights reserved. Permission to publish granted by Ron N. Gad, MA, MFT, Learning Difficulties Topic Expert Contributor

The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

  • Leave a Comment
  • mills

    March 15th, 2016 at 10:06 AM

    The problem is not with most parents, because i think that those of us who have a learning disabled child have tried every way under the sun to make sure that our children are grasping the appropriate concepts and that they are learning all that they need to do in a way that meets their needs.
    the problem many times come form within the schools when the teachers are unwilling to go outside of the box that they are accustomed to and so there is no accommodation for their individual needs.

  • Kade

    March 15th, 2016 at 2:31 PM

    It would be wonderful if everyone could be on board with what works best for each child so I thought that this was what an IEP was all about. But how are you to always know that this is being done for each child who actually needs it? And who observes closely enough to know that it is always being followed?

  • Ron N Gad, MA, LMFT

    March 15th, 2016 at 5:19 PM

    Mills ~ I hear your frustration. The reality is that it is impossible to get everyone out there to understand, let alone join our plight. The challenge is really placed on the child’s support group, and parents’ willingness to introduce their children to psychotherapy, so that they can get the coping skills they need to overcome the psychological challenges associated with learning difficulties.

    I think the point of the article is that it is not enough to merely focus on the academic component; rather, we need to provide these fragile individuals the psychological tools to strengthen their own identity, and to help them avoid falling prey to living a life where they believe they are beneath their peers.

    Thanks for your comment!!

  • hal

    March 16th, 2016 at 7:52 AM

    This can be so hard because they are often made to feel inferior by their peers from a very young age and it can difficult when you feel that others believe that about you to then think any differently about yourself.

  • Ron N Gad, MA, LMFT

    March 17th, 2016 at 11:44 AM

    Kade – you raise an amazing question… Who is looking out for these kids? The answer has to be the parents, the guardians, and the adults in their lives. We have to stay aware of the way our kids are feeling. It is a HUGE task, but it falls on us. I don’t want to overwhelm all the parents out there, because it is not for them to FIX it, only for them to NOTICE it. Once it is apparent that a child is overcome with self-doubt and questions about him- or herself, the option for psychotherapy should be explored. This could help the child become more aware of the beauty inside, and less concerned with comparisons to others.

    This is why I personally love group therapy for students with learning challenges. Group therapy puts like kids together, so they can discuss with one other their experiences, and come to understand that they are not the only one… The most difficult thing about personal experiences, is that they are so lonely. Group therapy offers companionship through the difficult times.

    Thanks for commenting, and Good luck!!

  • Michelle

    March 17th, 2016 at 3:17 PM

    Unfortunately this can be a horrendous cycle that can become very difficult to break. The child for whatever reason starts out by thinking that they are stupid or not up to par academically with his classmates and then this could manifest into a full fledged learning disability. And then of course as a result he continues to believe that the he is not gifted in school. It can be a horrible thing that can very much diminish quality of life for a whole lot of students and adults as well.

  • gladys

    March 18th, 2016 at 10:57 AM

    My grandson is dyslexic and for the longest time before we knew that he was always so down on himself because of course he did poorly in school and thought that he was stupid.

    A diagnosis was such a blessing for he and his parents, really for all of us because we knew then what we could and couldn’t do to help make things a little less challenging for him. He is a fighter and is overcoming but there are things that he still experiences every day that I will never be able to understand. But he seems to handle it like a champ so needless to say we are all so proud of him.

  • Fran

    March 19th, 2016 at 7:18 AM

    There is some sort of insecurity there when you automatically assume that others are talking about you when the reality is probably that they could not care less.

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