At a glance
You may be referred to non-medical specialists to help your child with learning and thinking differences.
It helps to understand which services each type of specialist can provide.
These professionals work in public schools, private practice, and hospitals.
Your child’s teacher and doctor may be the first people you talk to if you’re concerned about your child’s development. They may refer you to specialists who can identify strengths and weaknesses and help kids improve skills. Depending on your child’s issues, you may work with different types of non-medical professionals who specialize in learning and thinking differences.
Some of these specialists work in public schools. Others have private practices or work in hospitals or clinics. This overview can help you understand which services are provided by different kinds of specialists.
Clinical child psychologists
Clinical child psychologists assess and treat a wide range of mental health issues in children and teens, including social and emotional problems. These psychologists may work in a variety of settings, including hospitals, mental health clinics, and private practice.
Clinical psychologists have a doctoral degree — either a doctor of philosophy (PhD) or doctor of psychology (PsyD). They often coordinate care with pediatricians, psychiatrists, or other physicians who have medical degrees and can prescribe medication.
Parents sometimes seek out professionals who can coach kids on how to handle issues with time management, focus, and organization. These coaches often concentrate their efforts on helping kids who have problems with executive function as well as those who have social-emotional challenges. These professionals are sometimes referred to as executive function coaches or coaches.
Kids who struggle with organization, planning, and impulsivity may benefit from working with homework helpers. These helpers provide structure and support to students who don’t work well on their own. Many afterschool programs have homework helpers. Some helpers work privately and double as babysitters or tutors.
Learning specialists and educational therapists
Learning specialists and educational therapists evaluate children’s learning and behavior needs. They also provide intervention and support to children, teachers, and parents.
Licensed counselors help diagnose and treat kids with mental health disorders like ADHD and depression. They also assess behavior issues. However, they can’t prescribe medication.
Many work in mental health clinics and government agencies. Some work for managed care organizations that provide mental health services. These counselors are trained to work with individuals, families, and groups. They’re sometimes called licensed professional counselors or licensed mental health counselors.
Occupational therapists (OTs) focus on fine motor, visual-motor, and sensory processing skills. These skills include handwriting, keyboarding, planning, and organizing. OTs help children learn to perform tasks related to school success, self-help, and independent living.
Paraprofessionals are trained to assist teachers and special educators. Sometimes referred to as “paras,” they often work as classroom aides and tutors to students who are receiving services and supports. Although they aren’t required to have a professional license or to have a college degree in education or a related field, paraprofessionals can be very helpful to students.
Pediatric neuropsychologists assess children for issues with focus, attention, problem-solving, and learning. A neuropsychological evaluation looks at a range of cognitive (mental) and behavioral strengths and weaknesses, including language and social-emotional development. This evaluation is used to create a treatment plan. It can also serve as documentation needed for requesting accommodations such as getting extended time on standardized testing.
Reading specialists work in public schools and are responsible for the literacy of all students, especially those who struggle. They lead school reading programs and provide instruction as well as assessment.
They can provide individualized instruction and remedial support to kids with learning and thinking differences. Some reading specialists have training in interventions that research has shown to be effective in helping children with .
School psychologists are trained in psychology and education. This training prepares them to help kids succeed with academics, social skills, and behavior management. School psychologists must be certified or licensed by their state. They conduct educational evaluations and attend Individualized Education Program (IEP) meetings.
When a child is having trouble in school or is referred to a mental health facility, a social worker may be one of the first people a child sees. School districts hire social workers to support students, parents, families, and teachers.
Licensed social workers are trained to assess the needs of kids and their family. Social workers also help diagnose psychiatric problems and develop a treatment plan with the family.
Special education teachers
Special education teachers work with students with disabilities, including learning disabilities and ADHD. These teachers help assess students’ needs and develop IEPs. They also provide behavior management interventions in the classroom. They may be licensed by a state department of education and may have taken advanced coursework to become certified in a particular methodology.
Special education itinerant teachers (SEITs)
SEITs are teaching specialists who help children who have issues with behavior, social skills, emotions, speech, language, or development. They usually work with children one-on-one.
Speech-language pathologists (SLPs) test children for language delays and communication problems. SLPs help children with speech issues like articulation, voice production, fluency, and comprehension. These therapists can also teach kids how to use augmentative and alternative communication systems.
SLPs can identify the cause of certain problem behaviors and delays. They can also address some learning and developmental disorders.
Tutors give students individualized support, education, and practice. Many tutors know a lot about a certain subject. Working with a tutor can help students better understand the subject and catch up if needed.
Understanding who does what is a good first step. You may also want to read expert advice on how to work effectively with specialists. This site can also help you think through big decisions, such as whether it’s time to get a tutor, try psychotherapy, or change doctors.
Your child may benefit from seeing more than one non-medical specialist.
Many of these specialists work with families as well as kids.
You can get advice on Understood.org about how to work effectively with specialists.
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About the author
About the author
Sheldon H. Horowitz, EdD is senior director of learning resources and research at the National Center for Learning Disabilities.