Learning Disorders and Brain Organization (page 3)

— NYU Child Study Center
Updated on Jul 21, 2010

Other Cognitive Functions


While attention is an important precursor to remembering information, and a process that helps people guide their behavior (a set of skills described below that are called executive functions), it is also a skill worth examining on its own because it is critical to learning and to success at meeting the demands of a child's environment. Attention has the following components:

Attention span is the amount of information a child can hold in mind at any given moment. (it is commonly thought that 7 things or 7 digits, as in a phone number, is the amount of information that can be held in mind)

Selective attention refers to the decision to choose to focus attention on one specific thing rather than another. When children are described as distracted, they often have difficulties in this area. Selective attention can be examined by asking children to perform simple tasks that require minimal focus such as repeating or recalling numbers, letters or sentences, or searching for visual images from an array of many pictures.

Concentration is the ability to maintain attention and work with material on which the child has focused. Concentration may require a child to hold onto information presented to her for a short time while she solves a problem using that material. This ability can be examined by asking the child to do things like mental arithmetic.

Sustained attention is the process of maintaining focused attention on one task for a longer period of time. Sometimes, one must stay focused on a task for longer than one or two minutes, and it is important to know if a child can do this, particularly when things are not stimulating. Sustained attention can be examined when children are asked to focus on a task for a long period of time, typically between 4 to 15 minutes.

The observations of the examiner and the reports of parents and teachers also help to determine if there are difficulties with attention. Since teachers and parents see the child throughout the day and for longer periods of time, they can notice instances when attention fades that may not be observed by an examiner.

Executive functioning

Executive functions are best thought of as those aspects of cognition that relate to an internal supervisor who directs a child's thinking and guides her behavior. These skills directly help a child make goals for herself and come up with the ideas that will help her meet those goals efficiently. These skills develop in young children and continue to evolve well into the teen years and young adulthood. Specific aspects of these broad skills include:

Verbal working memory refers to the efforts a child makes in order to guide behavior and stay on task. Often children exhibit this when they use internal "self- talk" to remind themselves of how to act in a special situation and may also be seen when they internally generate rules about the way they should behave.

Nonverbal working memory also allows the child to guide behavior, but it is more focused on the ways to do this that are not verbal in nature. In this way, a child often holds events in mind, sequences these events and uses a sense of time to help manage behavior in a coordinated way.

Inhibition reflects the ability to stop oneself from doing something that is automatically done in favor of acting in a more goal directed manner and using feedback to coordinate responses in a more specific manner.

Fluency and flexibility are skills related to being able to quickly generate strategies for problem solving and to being able to use forethought and planning to make solutions happen quickly and easily. These skills also refer to how easily a child can adapt her behavior to fit the demands of a particular situation and to shift between different scenarios smoothly.

Self-regulation/motivation/arousal are a set of processes that encompass a child's awareness of himself and help him to maintain appropriate behaviors, control interest and enthusiasm for activities (even if he is not thrilled to be engaged in these activities), and to be consistently alert to the events and stimuli around him.

Visual Skills and the Sensorimotor Domains

These areas refer to visual and tactile ways of taking in information as well as motor planning, motor speed and coordination, and the precision of motor skills to accomplish a set goal. The child has to recognize and discriminate what information to look at, touch and feel. The child then has to decide which modality to use for providing an answer - a verbal response, a constructional response, or a graphomotor response through writing.

Difficulties in any of the areas described above may lead to problems in academics. Children with compromised intellectual functioning will not be expected to perform as well as their peers in academic areas. Similarly, problems with language, reduced skills for remembering new information, and weaknesses in attention, executive functioning, visual-spatial skills, or sensorimotor functioning may contribute to or cause problems with learning in general. These cognitive weaknesses may also be related to difficulties learning specific subjects or may lead a child to be less invested in learning because it is difficult for him to perform some of the basic skills required for solid academic performance. It is important to note that some children may show some problems in the areas described above which do not appear to lead to any academic delays.

Putting it All Together - Academic Functioning

Demands change

All academic areas of functioning have two features; a mechanical aspect and a higher level, or language-based, aspect. In reading, a child learns the mechanics of decoding words and also reads for meaning. In mathematics, a child computes written problems and also solves functional word problems. In writing, a child learns handwriting skills and also organizes and expresses her ideas in paragraphs. By third grade a child is no longer learning to read. It's assumed that he's mastered mechanical decoding skills and is reading for meaning: making inferences, drawing conclusions, processing ambiguities and comprehending figurative expressions; in other words, he is reading in order to learn. The emphasis changes in middle school, where a child is learning how to learn. She needs to adjust her reading to the demands of the text and has to express her thinking in writing. There are increasing demands for metacognition, which is concerned with developing strategies and understanding the purpose of their work. In middle school, a child is required to become more independent, and, in high school, it's assumed that he's independent, that he has developed strategies and knows when to use them. For example, in middle school a teacher might say "this is how you should study; now go home and do it." In high school he has to figure out which strategy to apply in order to be successful.

In all academic areas, some children have good basic skills development, but have difficulty with study skills, such as monitoring and checking work familiarizing themselves with school requirements studying by reorganizing the material rather than merely reading and re-reading it acquiring strategies for retaining information, moving information to long term storage knowing how to consolidate or integrate what they've learning prioritizing and keeping track of long and short term assignments


The mechanical aspect of reading is decoding; the higher level, language-based aspect is comprehension. Assessment of reading includes

  1. decoding (sight words, phonemic awareness, reading rate and accuracy)
  2. comprehension, literal and inferential
  3. fluency and automaticity

Some characteristics in a child with a reading problem are: lack of automaticity in learning letters, associating letters with sounds, rhyming and playing sound games, hesitant and dysfluent reading, difficulty retaining facts or a story line, understanding character, plot, setting or theme.


The mechanical aspect of math is computation; the higher level aspect is understanding and solving word problems.

Assessment of math includes

  1. calculations (automaticity and computational processes)
  2. word problems
  3. fluency of math fact recall and steps involved in problem solving

Some characteristics of a child with a math problem are: using fingers for computation, poor ability to complete simple math computation in addition, subtraction, multiplication and division with whole numbers, then fractions and decimals, lack of automaticity of math fact recall, confusing columns, poor spacing when writing out math problems, not understanding the mathematical implications of words such as half, second, etc., inability to identify the key word in a problem or what operation the problem calls for.


The mechanical aspect of writing is spelling and handwriting; the higher level aspect is the ability to sequence events, write an outline and write a paragraph or story. Assessment of writing includes

  1. handwriting (grip, posture, motor planning and production)
  2. spelling (rules and conventions, spelling of words with predictable vs. irregular patterns)
  3. writing process (planning, revising, formulation, fluency, structure, mechanics)

Some characteristics of a child with a writing problem are: motor problems, lack of automaticity in letter formation, copying from the board, organizing and sequencing of ideas.

How the Child Thinks and Feels

Some children with learning difficulties may feel demoralized or guilty or worried or sad or angry. Questionnaires completed by the child, parent and teacher can be helpful, and for some children projective measures will contribute to understanding the child's psychological functioning.

Next Steps

Formulation of diagnosis

Good evaluations offer a comprehensive approach and tailor the assessment to the needs of the child. The evaluation appointments provide a time for structured tests as well as a setting to try specific interventions that may then be used at home or at school. Recommendations to the school and family should be useful, specific and practical so that the appropriate resources are brought to bear in a child's behalf. A good evaluation should help the parents, teachers, and the child know what things can be done so that the child can do better in school and learn skills necessary for life after school. They can also help all people involved know how to have reasonable expectations about the child's abilities and to know when, where, and under what conditions she may have more difficulty with learning.

Collaboration between home and school in reviewing findings in the context of the child's history, including medical, familial and social factors, is critical. Depending on the child's age, the child should be included as a partner in order to help him understand himself, to be able to advocate for himself, and to cooperate with a remediation plan, when appropriate. The family should be informed of their legal rights.

Possible diagnoses, according to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fourth Edition (DSM-IV), that might result from a neuropsychological evaluation include Reading Disorder, Mathematics Disorder, Disorder of Written Expression, Learning Disorder Not Otherwise Specified, Developmental Coordination Disorder, Expressive Language Disorder, Mixed Receptive-Expressive Language Disorder, Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder.

Educational options

After the evaluation has been completed and the parents and professionals have met, the next step is a meeting with school personnel to make decisions about what class placement would be appropriate and what special services the child requires to be successful in class.

Class placement options

The child may remain in the mainstream in a regular class or in what might be called a "collaborative" or "inclusion" class. When a child remains in the mainstream, in a regular education class, daily instruction is provided by the classroom teacher, sometimes in consultation with any specialists with whom the child works. In an inclusion class, which consists of a selected number of students with special needs, there is a team of teachers -- one regular education classroom teacher and one special education classroom teacher. Often in an inclusion class the class size is somewhat smaller.

A self-contained special education class is another placement option. Usually this classroom is in a child's home school, but sometimes the class can be anywhere within the school district. Special education classes can have 8 to 12 children, one special education teacher and one paraprofessional. The size of a special education class depends on the classification of the students and the severity of their special needs.

Special or related services required by the child during the school day.

These services can be included or "pushed in" to the classroom, or they may be provided in another room so that the child is "pulled out' of the classroom for the services. Sometimes push-in and pull- out services are combined. Services may consist of the following:

A child in the mainstream may receive one hour daily of resource room services with a special education teacher who is often a learning specialist by training. This service can be in a small group of 5 or as many as 8 children. The focus of resource room services can be development of an academic skill area as well as specific strategy development in one domain. In addition, resource room teachers work on organizational skills and time management.

A child with specific needs related to speech and language development requires special services provided by a speech /language pathologist. These services can target articulation (the clarity and mechanics of speech), or language development, and can be provided individually or in a small group from one hour weekly to five hours weekly.

A child who struggles with motor coordination may meet with either an occupational therapist or a physical therapist who targets fine motor precision, motor planning, or other motor coordination issues, including adaptive needs such as use of a laptop or other aids. These services can be one hour per week or more, individually or in a small group. Some children who struggle with motor coordination might be in an adaptive physical education class.

The last related service that might be appropriate would be related to a hearing impairment, visual impairment or auditory processing issue. In some cases, a consultant works with the child and classroom teacher regarding hearing or visual aids, or auditory training equipment.

About the Authors

Susan Schwartz, MA.Ed., Clinical Instructor of Psychiatry, is the Clinical Coordinator of the Institute for Learning and Academic Achievement at the NYU Child Study Center Ms. Schwartz has expertise in the assessment and treatment of children with language, reading, writing, math and study/organizational difficulties. She has worked extensively with children and adolescents and has lectured to professionals and parents at numerous conferences and seminars.

Matthew Cruger, Ph. D., is an Assistant Research Scientist with the Institute of Learning and Academic Achievement at the NYU Child Study Center. Dr. Cruger has a strong interest in neuropsychological and psychological assessment and has worked with children, adolescents, and adults with a variety of problems including learning difficulties, mental health problems, traumatic and acquired brain injuries, and medical illnesses. He is also the Director of the Prevention and Relationship Enhancement Program (PREP ®), a research-based program designed to help couples improve their communication and satisfaction, through the Family Studies Program.

Related Articles on

Homework: trials and tribulations parent_letter/homework_2_04_e.pdf

Parent-Teacher Conferences: Working as a team parent_letter/homework_2_04_e.pdf

Gifted Children: Are their gifts being identified, encouraged or ignored? articles/giftedchildren.html

Transition Points: Helping students start, change and move through the grades articles/transitionpoints.html

Back to School for Kids with Special Needs aboutour/articles/transitionpoints.html

Social and Emotional Learning: What is it? How can we use it to help our children? aboutour/articles/socialemotional.html

Understanding Special Education and the Law aboutour/articles/specialed.html

Central Auditory Processing Disorder aboutour/articles/capd.html

Kids with ADHD Go Back to School articles/adhd_backtoschool.html

Learning Outside the Lines: A personal perspective on learning disability and attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder aboutour/articles/learn_adhd_ gr02.html

About the NYU Child Study Center

The New York University Child Study Center is dedicated to increasing the awareness of child and adolescent psychiatric disorders and improving the research necessary to advance the prevention, identification, and treatment of these disorders on a national scale. The Center offers expert psychiatric services for children, adolescents, young adults, and families with emphasis on early diagnosis and intervention. The Center's mission is to bridge the gap between science and practice, integrating the finest research with patient care and state-of-the-art training utilizing the resources of the New York University School of Medicine. The Child Study Center was founded in 1997 and established as the Department of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry within the NYU School of Medicine in 2006. For more information, please call us at (212) 263-6622 or visit us at

View Full Article
Add your own comment
DIY Worksheets
Make puzzles and printables that are educational, personal, and fun!
Matching Lists
Quickly create fun match-up worksheets using your own words.
Word Searches
Use your own word lists to create and print custom word searches.
Crossword Puzzles
Make custom crossword puzzles using your own words and clues.