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How “Different” Is My Child?

Jennifer Hope, Ph.D.Brain function varies significantly among children, and manifests itself in different ways as children grow, and academic and intellectual demands change. Parents may ask themselves, “At what point should I assume my kid has a ‘disability’ and isn’t just ‘different’? Am I worrying about nothing? Will my child outgrow this?” Psychologists may ask themselves whether to conceptualize a child as either demonstrating a particular profile of strengths and weaknesses (developmental variation), a dysfunction or a disability. These are valid questions.

According to the well-known developmental expert Dr. Mel Levine, developmental variation need not have a significant impact on a child’s functioning unless this is complicated by other factors.

“Variation becomes significant when it impedes development,” says Levine, and can then be identified as a dysfunction. The effects of a dysfunction vary depending on its severity, others’ expectations for the child’s performance, the child’s use of compensatory strengths and the presence of other dysfunctions.

When developmental deficiencies interfere with task performance, the child is considered to be disabled. The extent to which a disability negatively affects a child’s functioning also depends on the importance of the affected ability, the child’s age, and the educational setting. When a disability is unable to be adequately compensated for, such as in the case of a severe reading disability, the child is considered handicapped.

Children can have dysfunctions that do not become disabilities, and disabilities that do not become handicaps. Furthermore, certain dysfunctions can present a more significant problem during particular ages or grade levels.

When questions about your child’s performance arise, assessment by a qualified professional may be helpful. For example, if a child is lagging behind his or her peers in reading by the end of the first grade, it is best to evaluate what is causing this lag (i.e. language processing issues, phonological deficits, visual processing problems) to identify appropriate interventions. Research has suggested that children with reading problems in the first grade who get no intervention are still lagging behind in the fourth grade, and in the eighth grade. As the child gets older, he will have that much more difficulty catching up, and more difficulty processing the larger and less manageable amount of material that is part of the upper grades.

The following are some indicators that your child may need evaluation:

  • Confused by new concepts
  • Fails to follow written or oral directions appropriately
  • Cannot identify salient information, or attends to too much information
  • Answers questions tangentially
  • Has interpersonal difficulties with peers, cannot understand social cues
  • Behaves inappropriately (i.e., withdrawn, aggressive, anxious-avoidant)
  • Seems depressed, anxious, or demonstrates other unusual behavior
  • Fails to pay attention in class, is restless, careless with classwork, is significantly disorganized
  • Frequently loses track of what he is doing
  • Cannot retain information previously taught
  • Cannot hand in a written assignment at grade level, avoids writing
  • Has no interest in reading
  • Is clumsy, uncoordinated and has poor handwriting
  • Performs inconsistently, excelling in one subject, failing another
  • Cannot get homework done, avoids schoolwork, does not turn in homework

A psychological, psychoeducational or neuropsychological evaluation is meant to provide information about why and whether aspects of the child’s cognitive or emotional functioning are significantly interfering with optimal performance in and out of school, and, if necessary, identify curricular, psychiatric or other interventions that can enable your child to perform at his or her potential.

About the Contributor: Jennifer Hope, Ph.D., licensed psychologist and certified school psychologist, is a regular contributor to the NYC Firm Schools Blog in the area of assessment of learning and behavior disorders.

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