What you need to know

Are There Different Degrees of Learning and Attention Issues?

By Bob Cunningham

I have two children, both of whom have dyslexia. But one seems to be having a lot more difficulty reading than the other. What could cause this?

Bob Cunningham

Advisor-in-Residence, Understood

This situation can be very confusing for parents. Some people think of learning and attention issues, including dyslexia, as black-and-white conditions. But learning and attention issues are better thought of as patterns.

When we say a child has dyslexia, we mean that we see a pattern in how she performs certain learning tasks, like reading and spelling. But it’s just that—a pattern. It’s similar to what we’ve observed in others, but it’s not exactly the same for everyone.

This means that in a group of people identified with dyslexia, there can be pretty wide ranges of skills. And as you’ve noticed, this can be true even among people in the same family.

For example, we might say that a child with dyslexia has trouble decoding. This could mean she has trouble remembering the sounds that go with individual letters. Or it could mean she’s OK with sounding out individual letters but struggles to sound out entire words.

Learning comes easily to some kids. But it’s important to remember that learning is actually a very complex activity.

Take something as “simple” as writing the correct shape when we hear the name of a letter. This requires the brain and body to perform a number of functions. All kids who do this are trying to do the same thing—write the letter. But the way each child’s brain and body complete the task is different.

These differences can be very visible, like the difference between kids who are right-handed and left-handed. Or they can be harder to observe, like the distinct ways kids’ brains process the sounds they hear.

This is all to say that learning and attention issues don’t affect everyone in the same way. The details are different and their severity varies from child to child.

Usually we judge how severe an issue is by how well a child responds to intervention. Those who respond well are said to have a less severe issue. Those who struggle even with extra support are thought to have a more severe issue.

Two children identified with the same issue, like dyslexia, can learn differently and progress at different rates. They’ll most likely have one thing in common, though: They’ll make uneven progress with learning.

This can be confusing to parents, too. For instance, a child who isn’t struggling as much may begin to struggle more. And a child who’s been struggling a lot may begin to learn more easily depending on the task and strategies he’s learned. This means that the severity of an issue can actually change over time.

It’s natural to compare children. But try to avoid making comparisons when you can. Keep in mind that each child is an individual when it comes to learning. The decisions and plans you make for one child might not necessarily be right for your other child.

Whether your child is struggling a lot or a little, there are great things you can do to help. Start by taking the time to really understand each child’s individual strengths and challenges. This is the only way to make sure you and the school address each child’s needs as fully as possible.

Remember, you can make sure both kids get the help they need to be successful—even if that help looks different for each child.

About the Author

Portrait of Bob Cunningham

Bob Cunningham serves as advisor-in-residence on learning and attention issues for Understood.

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