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Column originally published Jan 31, 2017

Difficulty In Learning May Be Due To ADHD

Question: Our son is in grade 3. He is not doing well in school; he is far behind in reading, writing, and just about anything that he has to pay attention. He is a very busy boy, and was never interested to sit down and learn. We thought he would get better once he started school, but he hasn’t changed. Even though he is very smart, he just doesn’t have the patience to learn. Sitting down to do homework is a nightmare for both of us. My husband said that our son is just like him; he dropped out of school in grade 9. Our son’s teacher is recommending a psychological test, but he has to wait for at least three years before it can be done. By that time, he will be in grade six already. Is there any other thing that we can do to help him in the meantime?


I understand your concern and frustration; it is most distressing for parents to see their children struggling in school. The wait time for a psychological assessment is unacceptably long. Unfortunately, this is not a provincial problem; it happens all across the country. We are not training enough psychologists in Canada. Many well-trained psychologists also elect to work privately instead of working for the school system.

A psychologist can do a series of tests to determine a child’s IQ; this is to make sure that the learning problem is not because of low intelligence. Additional tests can find out whether a student has difficulty learning language or math, or both. The psychologist can pinpoint what kind of learning disability and recommend strategies to support a student’s learning.

Parents and teachers are required to fill out questionnaires before the psychological assessment. From this information, psychologists can often determine whether a student also has ADHD (attention deficit hyperactivity disorder). Many children with ADHD have difficulty focusing attention on academic subjects. They are often intelligent, but they have difficulty learning because they can’t pay attention. Sometimes teachers can tell that a student has difficulty focusing attention, and gets distracted more easily than his peers. Parents often have difficulty getting them to do their homework.

Some children with ADHD can still do well in school, if they can pay some attention to their teachers. However, it is not uncommon for me to hear problems like your son: even though he is very intelligent in every other way, not able to pay attention is going to affect his learning. Over time, he will likely get frustrated, lose his self esteem, and may even give up altogether. I wonder whether this is the reason why his father quit school in grade 9.

If you have financial resources, you can take him to a private psychologist for assessment. This can cost a few thousand dollars, depending on individual practitioner. Most schools will accept the assessments from private psychologists and implement the recommendations.

Another suggestion is to consult a paediatrician to see whether ADHD is the underlying cause of his learning problem; I am sure that the wait time is much shorter. Most paediatricians in Canada are trained to diagnose and manage children with this medical condition. It is important to help him as early as possible, before he gets too frustrated and loses his self esteem. Children with ADHD can be helped with medications that are both safe and effective.