Kids with multiple learning and thinking differences: What you need to know

At a glance

  • It’s common for kids to learn and think differently in more than one way.

  • Different challenges need different kinds of support.

  • Kids with multiple challenges can thrive in school and beyond.

Do you wonder why even though your child’s reading differences are being addressed at school, writing is still a struggle? What about the outbursts you thought were due to frustration over math challenges? Why haven’t they stopped now that your child gets help in math?

It’s not unusual for kids to have multiple learning and thinking differences. This is known as co-occurrence (or comorbidity). Find out more.

Why multiple differences are common

People often think that kids who learn and think differently only struggle with one thing. For example, they might think kids with dyslexia only have trouble reading. Or kids with just have trouble paying attention.

But that's not usually the case. Research shows, for instance, that kids who struggle with reading often struggle with math, too, and vice versa. and are different. But they often co-occur.

Reading and math differences aren’t the only two that co-occur. Kids with ADHD often have other stuff going on, too. Dyslexia and ADHD often co-occur. And many kids with ADHD have mental health issues, like depression or anxiety.

Challenges with executive function are at the core of ADHD. They can also be a factor in learning difference. Learn more about executive functioning skills.

Helping kids with multiple differences

When different issues lead to similar challenges, it might seem like you can tackle them in the same way. But it doesn’t work like that. Getting the right support for a struggling reader won’t automatically help them with math. Each learning difference needs to be approached on its own.

Even the same issue might not show up in the same way all the time. For example, trouble with focus doesn’t look the same when it comes to reading, math, and ADHD.

How the school can help

This can be a tricky topic for families and schools, especially when it comes to and . A school evaluation may not lead to a diagnosis at all.

Schools sometimes use terms like dyslexia and dyscalculia. But knowing the official name of all of the issues a child has isn’t the most important thing. What’s important is identifying which tasks and skills a student is struggling with. Then the school can figure out how to give the best support.

School services and supports are designed to meet each child’s unique needs. When kids have an IEP, the team should look at how they do in all areas to create annual goals. That way kids can work on trouble spots and keep strengthening skills at the same time.

Understanding the root of challenges

It can be hard enough to figure out what’s going on and how to help when there’s one issue at play. With multiple, it can be even trickier.

Keep in mind that a child’s diagnoses can’t be neatly teased apart. Hear from a mom who struggled with separating her kids’ issues into neat categories.

Still, it’s important to track your concerns. If you’re unsure where to start, try using a frustration log. It can help you keep track of when and why your child is struggling.

If your child is struggling even with support, it’s good to seek further help. It may mean there’s something else going on.

For example, when kids are diagnosed with ADHD at a young age, it might be too soon to see signs of a learning difference. So, problems later on might be blamed on ADHD when it’s actually something else. (Read an expert’s advice for families of kids who were diagnosed with ADHD at a young age.)

Kids who learn and think differently are also at higher risk for mental health issues like anxiety and depression. But you might not notice this until middle or high school.

Managing your own feelings

For some parents and caregivers, hearing that their child is struggling with more than one thing can come as a blow. Some parents feel guilty. But keep in mind that kids can thrive even with multiple issues.

Watch as families of kids who learn and think differently tackle tough topics, like guilt. And hear from Marcos, a young man with dyslexia, ADHD, and other learning differences, on what it’s like to cope with multiple challenges at once.

Key takeaways

  • Kids with ADHD often have other challenges.

  • It’s common for kids who struggle with reading to struggle with math, too.

  • A school evaluation can pinpoint specific things kids are struggling with.


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