It’s not your fault. You’ve taken the advice of well-meaning experts, Googled a few topics, and heard that tutoring helped your neighbor’s daughter after she missed two weeks of school due to appendicitis. And you’re not alone. The myths you’ve believed about learning disabilities have been around for years (with no ill intent!) because we didn’t know better! But now, thanks to advances in science, cognitive remediation programs, and genetic research, we understand more than we ever have about the intricacies of the brain and learning.
Here are 10 of the more common myths surrounding learning disabilities and why we now know they’re false.
- Accommodations are the best options for students with learning struggles.
Why it’s false: In many cases, accommodations at school simply “enable” the learning disability by working around the child’s need, rather than addressing the root cause. A child with slow processing speed, for example, may regularly be given extra time to complete tests. Likewise, a child with attention struggles may be allowed do work in a separate room from his class to avoid being distracted by other students. These accommodations do nothing to help the child prepare for academics down the road (or adulthood) where teachers, professors, and bosses don’t cater to the individual’s needs.
- Tutoring is the only way to help kids with learning disabilities.
Why it’s false: Much like accommodations, tutoring doesn’t get to the root cause of most learning disabilities. It can be effective for a child who has missed a lot of school due to an illness, injury, or family move. Essentially, it provides a way for a student to “catch up” on material that they’ve missed due to an extended absence. But because tutoring teaches WHAT to learn, not HOW to learn, it doesn’t address underlying learning struggles and it’s certainly not the ONLY way to help kids with learning disabilities.
Studies show most learning disabilities are rooted in weak cognitive skills, so it makes sense to try cognitive skills training.
One form of cognitive training is called personal brain training, and involves working one-on-one with a trainer, doing fun, challenging mental exercises that train weak cognitive skills. Personal brain training incorporates immediate feedback, intensity, and loading, among other features, to target brain skills. Effective brain training customizes programs based on the results of an initial cognitive skills assessment and uses exercises founded on years of clinical and scientific research.
- Smart kids can’t have a learning disability.
Why it’s false: Have you ever wondered how your child can be so funny, creative, and smart, but still struggle with school? If so, you’re not alone. That’s because it’s not only possible—but even common—for intelligent children to have a learning disability.
A learning disability can impact the way children of average to above average intelligence receive, process, or express information. It impacts their ability to learn the basic skills, like reading, writing, or math.
Did you know that Albert Einstein had ADHD? Or that Thomas Edison had dyslexia? Because IQ is simply a measure of cognitive abilities, it’s easy to see how a very smart child could still have a learning disability. Just imagine a child whose cognitive skills are all very strong, except one. A bright child who struggles with selective attention, that is, the ability to remain focused on a task while being subjected to distractions. Or a brilliant teen whose memory skills are so weak that he can’t remember what his homework assignments are.
- IQ can’t be changed.
Why it’s false: We now know about neuroplasticity – the brain’s ability to change at any age.
With our better understanding of neuroplasticity comes the realization that our IQ isn’t set in stone. Our intelligence is measured by the strength of our brain skills. These skills include visual processing, logic & reasoning, auditory processing, memory, attention, and processing speed. Unlike subject matter exams, which test your knowledge of specific content, such as history facts and math formulas, IQ tests measure the strength of the brain skills needed to learn, process, remember, recall, and apply those facts and formulas. When these skills are stronger, children and adults rank higher in IQ scores.
- ADHD symptoms are the same in boys and girls.
Why it’s false: When people think of ADHD, they often think of boys bouncing off the walls. While hyperactivity is a common symptom of attention struggles—especially among boys—it’s often accompanied by things like impulsivity and an inability to multitask. But ADHD is now the generally accepted umbrella term for the three types of ADHD: Inattentive Type, Hyperactive/Impulsive Type, and Combined Type. For girls, ADHD tends to manifest differently, often as inattentiveness and disorganization. Because these symptoms aren’t as disruptive to class, ADHD in girls is often missed.
- Boys are twice as likely as girls to have autism.
Why it’s false: According to Autism Speaks (www.autismspeaks.org), boys are actually FIVE times more likely than girls to have autism spectrum disorder (ASD) (1 in 42 boys, 1 in 189 girls). Why? One DNA study suggests that girls tolerate neurodevelopmental mutations more than boys do in utero. So when only mild genetic abnormalities exist, most girls won’t develop autism. But girls who ARE diagnosed with the disorder are more likely to have more extreme genetic mutations than boys who show the same symptoms. It’s also important to note that girls with mild ASD are often diagnosed later than boys because their symptoms are less severe.
- Dyslexia is about seeing letters backwards.
Why it’s false: The most basic symptom of dyslexia is not seeing “reversed letters” as many people believe. The truth is that 85 percent of learning-to-read difficulties are caused by weak phonemic awareness—the cognitive ability to blend, segment, and analyze sounds.
The word dyslexia actually means “poor with words or trouble with reading.” This could mean reading fluently, out loud, reading new words, and/or pronouncing words correctly.
Some of the most common symptoms include:
- Difficulty transferring what is heard to what is seen and vice versa.
- Struggles pronouncing new words.
- Poor at distinguishing similarities/differences in words (no, on).
- Weak at letter sound discrimination (pin, pen).
- Low reading comprehension.
- Genetics are the main reason kids are bad at math.
Why it’s false: There’s no such thing as someone being born bad at math, and it’s certainly not a pre-determined destiny.
Although genetics can play a role, most people with dyscalculia (“trouble with numbers”) have poor visual processing and memory skills. For example, weak visual processing skills might cause someone to transpose numbers (68 becomes 86). When working memory is weak, someone doing mental math (say, 23 +28) might forget that they “carried the one,” leading them to answer 41 instead of 51.
Many experts now agree that we do our kids a disservice by steering them away from the challenges of math to alleviate their fears. Instead, we should be eradicating those fears by strengthening the fundamental building blocks to learning math: strengthening the brain skills needed to do any type of math.
- Physical fitness has little effect on learning.
Why it’s false: There are countless studies showing the impact of physical fitness on both immediate and long-term learning and memory. For example, studies have shown a link between obesity and academic achievement in teen girls; that regular moderate to vigorous exercise improves teens’ academic performance (and especially helps girls do better in science); and that an 18-year-old boy’s IQ and cardiovascular fitness can determine his risk of early-onset dementia later.
- The effects of concussions are the same for boys and girls.
Why it’s false: Although female athletes may suffer fewer concussions, the effects on girls may last longer. This may be because male athletes have greater neck strength and a higher BMI, making them more resilient. One study found that eight days after a concussion, girls’ symptoms—including fatigue, headache, and reduced cognitive skills (e.g., visual and verbal memory)—were worse than boys’ symptoms.
Now that we’ve dispelled some of the myths about learning disabilities, you can take the information you’ve learned and apply it—when appropriate—to your child’s struggles. After all, you’ll always be on the front lines of your child’s fight against learning struggles!