Is your child struggling academically? Does helping your kid with homework have you pulling your hair out and begging for mercy? Have epic meltdowns around school become customary?

Schoolwork can be difficult, but it shouldn’t be torture -- for you or your kid. If your child is struggling academically, maybe it’s time to consider your kid isn’t just being difficult. Maybe there’s something more going on than meets the eye.  After all, who wants to do badly in school?

Nonverbal learning disability (NVLD) is under-the-radar perceptual difficulties that affect the way children process information.  NVLD often doesn’t appear until middle or high school when work becomes more demanding. Longer essays, complicated math, and more intensive reading and writing assignments and suddenly your good natured A student morphs into a moody and irritable procrastinator struggling to pass.

Parents who bring their children or teenagers to me for therapy always balk when I suggest a neuropsychological evaluation, a psychological assessment that identifies NVLD.

“My son was a perfect student in elementary school.”

“My daughter has never had difficult in school before.”

“He’s just being lazy. He doesn’t apply himself.”

Commonly, children with NVLD compensate by being highly proficient in other areas. Sometimes elementary school academics weren’t challenging enough.

Here are three warning signs that your kid may be struggling with an NVLD:

1. Struggles are Centered Around Academics

If all your kid’s struggles are centered around school work, then the solutions you need are academic not therapeutic. Kids with NVLD usually have some social difficulties. But when it comes to school work, everything falls apart. If you can’t wait for school vacation so your kid is her old self, start thinking about an assessment for an NVLD.

2. Difficulty Concentrating and Completing Assignments

Does your kid have trouble focusing in class? Has note taking become unbearable or illegible? Are certain subjects more difficult than others resulting in wildly uneven grades? Such academic imbalances are often a sign of undiagnosed NVLD.

3. Erractic Moods and Fatigue

After a day at school is your kid irritability, sullen, anxious or depressed? Kids with NVLD are in a constant state tension that eats away at their mood and energy level. Simple assignments are exhausting. Even if they can keep up with the schoolwork, their outlook is bleak. No matter how much they try, they’re always behind. They give up without trying or tell parents they don’t care. Anytime a child says, “I don’t care” always be on the lookout for hurt feelings or fears of failure, common to kids with NVLD.

Primary Deficits in NVLD   

Dr. Preetika Mukherjee, a Manhattan based neuropsychologist who specializes in assessing children and teenagers with NVLD explains the four main deficits seen in individuals with NVLD:

1. Tactile Perception:

Tactile Perception (sometimes referred to as touch perception) is the brain’s ability to understand (perceive) what the hands are feeling. When you put your hand into your handbag and fish around to retrieve your keys, it is your touch perception that helps you to find your keys without using your eyes. If a child has poor touch perception, it feels to the child as if he/she is doing everything with rubber gloves on, as the brain is not processing the information that is sent by the child’s hands properly. So perhaps the child is really clumsy, always dropping small items or letting things slip out of his/her grasp. Or perhaps the child squeezes the pencil really tightly so he/she can “feel” it properly to control it.  

2. Visual Perception

Visual perception is the ability to see and interpret (analyze and give meaning to) the visual information that surrounds us. Without accurate visual perceptual processing, a student would have difficulty learning to read, give or follow directions, copy from the whiteboard, visualize objects or past experiences, have good eye-hand coordination, integrate visual information with other senses to do things like ride a bike, play catch, shoot baskets when playing basketball, or hear a sound and visualize where it is coming from (like the siren on a police car).

3. Complex Motor Skills

Motor clumsiness is often the first concern parents observe with NVLD children. There may be more noticeable problems on the left side of the body. Children hesitate to explore their environment motorically, instead they explore the world verbally by asking questions. When children start learning to walk they are unstable and fall a lot. They avoid jungle gyms and activities that require a lot of motor activity.  Fine motor skills are also impacted. For example, the NVLD toddler resists eating with a spoon or fork owing to the lack of dexterity in their fingers. The NVLD teen may have trouble writing class notes. Look for difficulties with tying shoelaces, unusual ways of holding scissors, pens or pencils.

4. Dyscalculia

Math involves visual spatial abilities. Conceptualizing math problems involves visualizing the operations. Addition, for example, is a mental operation of "seeing" sets of things being put together. Research has shown that NVLD individuals can understand the language and verbal reasoning aspects of a math problem, but cannot "visualize" efficiently the relationships between the parts of the problem to actually perform the arithmetic operations.

Dr. Mukherjee notes that these primary deficits lead to secondary deficits including difficulties with attention and social cue recognition, concept formation, organization and planning. Academically we will see difficulties in in the following skills:

  • Graphomotor Skills
  • Computational Skills
  • Quantitative Reasoning
  • Reading Comprehension
  • Written Organization

What to Do

Dr. Mukherjee suggests that if parents think their children suffer from a NVLD they should talk to his or her teacher, reach out to a school guidance counselor, or arrange for a private consultation with a neuropsychologist who specializes in learning disabilities. Getting an accurate assessment of your kid’s learning style is vital to evading the pitfalls of undiagnosed NVLD and keeping your kid’s school and home life harmonious.

Questions for Preetika Mukherjee, Ph.D.? Visit: drpreetikamukherjee.com 

To Order WHEN KIDS CALL THE SHOTS: How to Seize Control of Your Darling Bully—and Enjoy Being a Parent Again visit www.seangrover.com

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