There’s a lot of confusion around executive function (EF)—and how it relates to Attention Deficit (Hyperactivity) Disorder (ADHD). Is ADHD an executive function disorder? Is every EF disorder also ADHD? What even are EF and ADHD? The answers depend on what we mean by “executive function,” and how it presents in a learner’s life academically and socially. Let’s examine the key relationships and differences between ADHD and executive dysfunction. We’ve also included additional resources linked below to help you dig deeper. 

Webinar: The Similarities & Differences of ADHD & EF

Does EF Always Overlap with ADHD?

The term “executive functioning” was coined in the 1970s by Karl Pribram, whose research indicated that executive functioning is mediated primarily by the prefrontal cortex (the part of our brain that controls planning of complex cognitive behavior, personality expression, decision making, and moderating social behavior). Those who struggle with executive functions on a clinical level aren’t diagnosed with an executive dysfunction disorder—you won’t find executive function in the DSM-5. But, a clinician can still detect EF weaknesses—especially those that create excessive, persistent, and severe (well beyond age and gender norms) symptoms that lead to harm or impairment. Many people without an ADHD diagnosis struggle with their executive functioning, though not all who struggle with executive functioning warrant an ADHD diagnosis. So, while executive dysfunction is often a symptom of ADHD, the opposite is not always the case. 

Key Ways EF and ADHD are Related

There are so many connections between ADHD and executive dysfunction. Learners who struggle with both may:  

  • Have a hard time paying attention
  • Have difficulty with self-control
  • Have trouble managing emotions
  • Have difficulty holding information in working memory
  • Have trouble switching easily from one activity to another
  • Have trouble getting started on tasks
  • Have problems organizing time and materials
  • Have difficulty keeping track of what’s going on
  • Have difficulty completing long-term projects
  • Have trouble with thinking before acting
  • Be easily distracted 
  • Be often forgetful
  • Have trouble taking turns
  • Have problems remembering assigned tasks

One Key Difference Between ADHD & EF

ADHD can receive an official diagnosis while an executive function challenge cannot. However, trouble with executive function is not limited to diagnosable symptoms present in ADHD learners. EF refers to weaknesses in the brain’s self-management system, and people can have trouble with executive function for many reasons—not just ADHD. In fact, the majority of kids with learning differences struggle with one or more of the eleven executive function skills (i.e. working memory, cognitive flexibility, and emotional control)—making EF challenges much more widespread than ADHD, even though we’re just starting to understand how prevalent these challenges really are.

Taking Action to Support Our Learners

Now that we have uncovered how the two conditions connect with one another, it is imperative that we as parents, caregivers, and educators are cognizant of and equipped with evidence-validated strategies to treat learners who face this adversity, and to prevent unnecessary stress and frustration. Awareness of ADHD and EF can help caregivers advocate for proper accommodations and treatment. Learners with ADHD or executive dysfunction can learn to use their interests, strengths, and knowledge to further develop their underlying sensory-cognitive skills and advocate for their personal learning needs. 

If you think someone you know may have challenges relating to ADHD or executive function, contact us and we’ll be happy to offer guidance. You can also call or text us at 650-459-5900

What people think ADHDers are good at vs what they are actually good at
The ADHD Strengths Iceberg

Additional Resources

My daughter received many diagnoses before the official diagnosis of autism. She was born before the rise in autism cases we’ve seen over the past decade or so and, being a girl, autism was rarely at the top of a physician’s list of considerations.

What is dyspraxia and how does it relate to autism?

Doctors thought she might have a hearing impairment, a speech disorder, poor vision, hypotonia, the list goes on and on. But the one diagnosis that stuck-–the one that made the most sense besides autism—was dyspraxia. 

Dyspraxia, sometimes referred to as developmental coordination disorder, affects fine and gross motor skills. Individuals with dyspraxia often have difficulty controlling their movements with precision. Gross motor activities like jumping are often difficult as are small motor tasks like writing or using scissors. 

According to a study published in Molecular Autism, Dyspraxia is more prevalent in people with autism. As autism is frequently associated with motor coordination difficulties, the link to dyspraxia may be the culprit.

From birth my daughter was what I can only describe as a  “floppy” child. Poor control of her arms and legs caused delays in all of her major milestones. Difficulty with fine motor skills made her unable to feed herself finger foods or fasten her own clothing. Her speech was also affected; she spoke loosely, words and sounds rolled out of her mouth. The small muscles needed to form precise sounds and chew food carefully didn’t seem to be working together the way they should.

How dyspraxia helped my daughter qualify for early intervention

As I waited for an autism diagnosis I knew would eventually come, her dyspraxia diagnosis was the one diagnosis that made the most sense. Dyspraxia was my jumping off point. I took this label, did my research and used it to qualify my daughter for occupational, physical, and speech therapy. Because her dyspraxic tendencies were apparent by the time she was 18 months old, my daughter qualified for insurance coverage and my 18 month old was soon in therapy three days a week.

To this day I believe the early, targeted therapy made a huge difference in my daughter’s long-term growth. She was born at a time when the importance of early intervention was not yet understood. If we had waited for someone to finally agree she had autism, even though she wasn’t a boy and had no Rainman-like characteristics, she would have never received the early therapies she desperately needed.

Researching and understanding dyspraxia, what it meant for my daughter’s movement and speech delays, what types of therapy were most effective and how we could help her at home, gave me a path forward in those early days of fumbling around for answers. A dyspraxia diagnosis comes with many challenges but for us, it was one more piece of the puzzle that began our autism journey. 

What to do if you think your child may have dyspraxia

  1. Talk to your pediatrician and ask for an evaluation for occupational therapy.
  2. Contact your school district, let them know about your concerns and ask that they evaluate your child for services.
  3. Contact Learnfully for specific educational methods proven to work with dyspraxic learners.

About the Author

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Jessica Watson is a mom to several kids with learning differences, including one with autism. As a homeschooling parent, a published author in this space, and a marketing specialist, she has found a great balance between her personal life and her work with the neurodivergent community, and adds a blend of proven and practical advice to our Executive Functioning panel.

Just like there are with physical illnesses, many different types of treatments exist to support a child with a learning or other neural difference. A mental health consultation and therapy can be an essential guide to help you navigate your child’s holistic needs. Although there is no single universal treatment that works for all, there are many different approaches that can help your child and family make progress and cope with emotions, thoughts, and behaviors. 

Treatment approaches vary from therapy, exercise, social support, education, and medication. Outlined below is a brief description of the available evidence-based psychotherapy inventions (that is to say, research-based interventions that have been selected by an experienced therapist to meet the individual needs and preferences of the child receiving them): 

What is Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT)?

Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) is a talk-based therapy that focuses on thoughts and emotions that impact mood and behaviors, as well as integrating tangible ways for children to empower themselves. During CBT, the therapist will guide the child to learn how to replace negative thought patterns with positive and productive ones through role-playing, journaling, and talking about alternative strategies to handle difficult situations. Cognitive behavioral therapy will help your child discover new perspectives and tools on how to approach challenges and learn coping techniques cognitively. In addition to acquiring new coping skills, CBT allows your child to improve their self-image and gain problem-solving skills. 

This type of therapy can range from play, such as arts and crafts, meditation, to talking through stressful situations to reframe thoughts from negative to positive. For example, a student may think a challenging math problem is a reflection of their academic ability and that their potential is predetermined. Therapists can reframe their thinking, so challenges are seen as beneficial and opportunities to grow. 

​What is Parent-child interaction therapy (PCIT)? 

​Parent-child interaction therapy (PCIT) is a short-term treatment that is designed to help families acquire specific skills that will strengthen their relationship with their child and build the parent’s ability to build confidence in directing the child’s behavior and re-establish positive feelings into interactions. A typical PCIT session has the parent(s) and children together participating in play, such as engaging with action figures or creative visualization, while a therapist observes through a two-way mirror and guides the parents’ discipline skills and interaction through an earpiece. Parents are subsequently coached one-on-one to further establish a specialized skill set that models what was practiced during the session. 

What is a Speech-Language Pathology (SLP)?

Speech-Language Pathology (SLP) is a treatment that aims to improve speech and language skills ranging from voice and sound production, fluency, comprehension, expression, and early language skills. A speech-language pathologist diagnoses and treats communication and swallowing problems, such as stuttering, when the flow of speech is interspersed between pauses. For children, the therapy sessions often involve reading stories and play, including language-based board games that integrate making inferences, problem solving, and social routines. SLP can offer numerous benefits to the child and their ability to comprehend and express ideas and improve school readiness by enhancing their fluency. 

What is Exposure Therapy (ET)? 

Exposure therapy is a type of cognitive behavior therapy where the child is exposed to something that provokes feelings of anxiety. During ET, the child unlearns patterns of avoidance by working with the therapist to overcome fears and anxieties centered on the object or situation. ET works with the child and family to identify specific fears as well as techniques such as reasoning to assess the overestimation of the severity of the threat to gradually expose the child in controlled doses associated with the stimulus. Exposure therapy is an effective model for modifying the child’s thoughts and experiences from anxiety-provoking to establishing a feeling of neutrality and no sense of danger. ET is beneficial in treating anxiety disorders such as phobias and separation or social anxiety. 

What is Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA)? 

Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA) therapy integrates the science behind behavior and learning to 

increase and reinforce communication, social, learning, and fine motor skills. ABA therapy helps children by improving their social abilities such as completing tasks, implementing self-regulation, and teaching them the transferability of the skills to different challenges and environments. Treatment goals are established in collaboration with the therapist and are based on the age and behaviors being exhibited. 

Applied behavior analysis consists of two main components, including positive reinforcement and Antecedent-Behavior-Consequence (ABC) Model. Positive reinforcement refers to when the child reaches a goal behavior, established by the family and therapist before the sessions, and is rewarded by something of value to the child, such as a toy or book, whereas the ABC model works to understand what happens before a behavior occurs (antecedents), the behavior itself, and what happens after the behavior (consequences). The model helps children identify the harmful behavior, the triggers behind the behavior, and the effect it has on the child’s well-being and works to improve fundamental skills while decreasing unhealthy behaviors. 

What type of Therapy is Right for my Child?

Overall, there are many types of interventions and treatment options available to support the child’s specific needs that will promote their holistic well-being. It is recommended to contact your child’s healthcare provider to explore what option or combination of options is best suited to address your child’s needs and then curate a personalized plan with your child’s therapist. Not sure who to ask for help? We can recommend who to contact based on your child’s current needs and other factors. Please contact us for assistance.

About the Author

Alexis Takagi is an Educational Specialist at Learnfully, Inc specializing in English and mathematical tutoring. She is a doctoral candidate studying social justice leadership in higher education at Santa Clara University’s School of Education and Counseling Psychology, and currently researching how memorable messages (affirmations) about school impact academic retention and growth mindset.

Caregivers (and their children) have enough to worry about, and while they shouldn’t have to research the correct terminology when describing their child’s learning characteristics and challenges, it’s important to represent different populations accurately. In this article, we break down terms practitioners use when discussing learning needs and challenges so that you can feel comfortable when referring to your loved ones.

What are Learning Disabilities? 

A learning disability is a permanent disorder that affects the manner in which individuals with normal or often above average intelligence acquire, retain, and express information. Such difficulties in processing information can significantly interfere with academic or social development. Learning disabilities are commonly recognized in adults as difficulty in one or more of these areas: reading, comprehension, spelling, written expression, handwriting, mathematics, oral expression, and problem-solving. Adults with learning disabilities may also have perceptual difficulties. It is important to remember that no two students with learning disabilities have the same profile of strengths and weaknesses. Examples of diagnosable learning disabilities include, but are not limited to: 

  • Dyslexia
  • Dyscalculia
  • Dysgraphia
  • Dyspraxia/Developmental Coordination Disorder
  • ADHD 

Children with specific learning disabilities (SLD) are eligible for special education services or accommodations at school under the Individuals with Disabilities in Education Act (IDEA)

and an anti-discrimination law known as Section 504. The U.S. Department of Education issued a ‘Dear Colleague’ letter providing clarification to both parents and practitioners about ensuring a high-quality education for children with specific learning disabilities, including children with dyslexia, dyscalculia, and dysgraphia.

How Learning Disorders are Different

But, wait, didn’t we just say a disability is a disorder? So, what is a disorder then? Simply put, having a learning disorder means that a child has difficulty in one or more areas of learning, even when overall intelligence or motivation is not affected. Some learning challenges are defined as a disorder by clinicians because the term can be used more broadly to describe anything that creates excessive persistent and severe (well beyond age and gender) symptoms that lead to harm, impairment and, as a result, suffering. Thus, all learning disabilities are disorders, but not all disorders are qualified as a medical diagnosis.

Ok, so What is a Learning Dysfunction?

Dysfunction is traditionally used to describe one’s lack of executive functioning abilities and is not commonly used to describe learning disabilities. Executive functioning—the cognitive skills such as working memory, emotional control and cognitive flexibility—is the precursor to all other learning pathways. If you are unable to cognitively function effectively and efficiently, then your daily operations and happenings can become chaotic and impact your ability to learn and function fully. 

These are all Learning Differences 

Diversity and variety is what makes life worth living. Every single brain is different and requires different strategies and care to fully thrive. At Learnfully, we utilize the term “differences” to explain the normality of variability among us. Neurodivergent and neurotypical brains all learn differently and these differences contribute to the greater good. Neurodiversity is the range of differences in individual brain function and behavioral traits, regarded as part of normal variation in the human population. Learning differences take into account individual learning motivators; learner aspirations, interests, experience and cultural background; and individual students’ strengths and needs.

“I think the concept of Neurodiversity has been world-changing, by giving us a new perspective on humanity.” – Sociologist and author Judy Singer 

Can you believe it’s already October? 

That means that the days are getting cooler and shorter. There is seemingly a pumpkin spice flavor for just about everything. And parents and kids have settled into their new school year routines. 

October also means that it is Learning Disabilities Awareness Month. As former Secretary of Education Arne Duncan said about the month, “This is a time to understand how these disabilities impact students and their families, to reflect on the significant achievements that these students have made, and to renew our commitment to creating a stronger future for them.”

At Learnfully, we take it a step further: we believe this month is a time to recognize and celebrate our differences. We recently launched the LDA Toolkit page to help our community share a message of awareness, empathy, and understanding for all of our learners in need.

In the last few Octobers, though, it’s been hard to feel celebratory. In 2020, we were in the midst of the Covid-19 pandemic, gearing up for our first Covid winter. In 2021, we were still dealing with surges in variants and a cobbling together of remote and in-person learning. People with learning disabilities, who are generally more reliant on the rhythms of routine, were impacted more than others by the disruptions caused by the pandemic.

In the same breath, there were some silver linings. We became a more aware society. Mental health was no longer a taboo subject. People became more open about their vulnerabilities – including how they work best, learn best, process information, and function. Companies became more accommodating to the different needs of their employees. Parents who saw their children everyday in the virtual classroom, gained a greater understanding of their needs, how they learn, and how they interact with their teachers and classmates. These insights made us better parents, but also quicker to act when issues arise. We learned first-hand about the value of collaboration between parents and teachers—and now come informed about our child’s needs.

Now, we’re emerging on the other side of the pandemic. Children have returned to the classroom, even as hybrid and remote work remains prominent – which means parents are more present in their learners’ daily lives. For all these reasons, this October feels different from recent years. It feels like there is finally a twinkle of light at the end of the tunnel—finally an October worth celebrating.

The idea of designating a specific month as an “awareness month” implies that the wider public is generally unaware of a certain condition or issue. That the public is unaware of a problem.

But as we kickoff October and Learning Disability Awareness Month, the Learnfully team has a different perspective. We’re not trying to raise awareness of something negative, but rather call attention to something we see as a positive. We see this October a celebration: a celebration of diversity and of differences.

We believe all of us learn differently. But what is most important is that we are all able to learn fully.

When you hear names like Elon Musk, Nikola Tesla, Daryl Hannah, Anthony Hopkins, and Bill Gates, the word ‘autism’ is probably the furthest thing from your mind. These names are equated with success, innovation, talent, and creativity. As you may have guessed by now based on the title of this article,  every one of those well-known icons is also autistic.

According to the CDC, there has been a sharp increase in autism cases in recent years. In 2016, 1 in 54 children was diagnosed with autism—up from 1 in 150 in 2000. But these numbers are misleading. While it’s true more children are being diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder, it’s not because autism suddenly became more prevalent. More diagnoses are occurring because of a better understanding of the disorder, and due to more sophisticated assessment tools to help identify these children.

Better tools are necessary since many children on the autistic spectrum are considered high functioning (they require little assistance to function in their daily lives), making their autism difficult to detect. Before 2013, high-functioning autism (HFA) was diagnosed as Asperger Syndrome, but it was reclassified to ensure those on the high end of the spectrum had the same access to support.

Why the Autism Diagnosis is Important

My son was diagnosed with high-functioning autism when he was seven years old (as I’ve previously shared, along with my experiences raising him). It was not a simple process. I knew he was different and had been from specialist to specialist, but it took a while to pinpoint exactly what was happening. Many people didn’t understand my quest for a diagnosis, proclaiming it wasn’t fair to put a label on him. But they were missing the point: when you know what you’re dealing with, you become empowered. You can educate yourself and understand your child better. It prevents you from getting frustrated when they behave in certain ways because you know why.

As the names I dropped earlier indicate, an HFA diagnosis doesn’t prevent someone from having a reasonably straightforward education experience, functioning in society, or establishing families and careers. Still, it does mean that they’re often misunderstood.

Because high-functioning autism isn’t obvious, children are expected to behave in a socially acceptable manner—which can be extremely challenging. As a result, they are often ostracized, as they are still learning to adapt and adjust to their environment (sometimes referred to as ‘adapt or die’).

The diagnosis also comes with the obvious stereotyping. “Oh, you must love Big Bang Theory; you’re just like Sheldon Cooper!’ Sheldon exhibits extreme misanthropic behaviour and obsessive compulsion, sprinkled with a hefty dose of genius. And while my son often displays these typical behaviors, it is never to that extreme—and the same can be said for most people with HFA.

When you visit a school for gifted and talented children, you will be astonished to see how many of them meet the criteria for high-functioning autism (I experienced this many times over during my eight years teaching at a school for gifted and talented). Like those with autism, gifted children have heightened senses and are extremely sensitive to sound, light, sensations, and other sensory experiences. And because they are cognitively advanced, they have difficulty fitting in and interacting with their neurotypical peers.

Anticipate Different Behavior with Children who are Autistic 

Children with high-functioning autism tend to have difficulty regulating their emotions. This can lead to extreme emotional reactions that others may consider over the top. Conversely, they may underreact to situations others would find distressing.

My son, now 18, had many incidents and misunderstandings throughout his childhood. When he was six, his beloved grandfather died. People were perplexed when he asked if we would ‘flush grandpa down the toilet’. It sounded callous, but his only experience with death had been with his pet goldfish.

In high school, a teacher was highly offended when he stated that he didn’t feel sad when the main character died of cancer in a book they were studying. She said he was cold and had no empathy for those who had lost loved ones to cancer. She didn’t give him a chance to explain, but he later told me that after having lost loved ones in real life—which really hurt—he couldn’t grieve for a fictional character because they weren’t real. Fair enough, right?

He would also become overwhelmed by too much sensory input and was often in trouble for ‘sleeping’ in class. The reality was that to hear and take in the auditory input, he would close his eyes to prevent the visual input from distracting him. And, of course, as his mother, I was constantly accused of making excuses for him if I tried to explain how HFA works.

HFA also comes with what others might think are strange habits and questionable manners, like obsessive tendencies and ritualistic behavior. Children with HFA are comforted by routine and predictability. As a result, unexpected deviations from the plan can seem catastrophic. For my son, Monday was red sock day, Tuesday was blue sock day, and so on. One Monday morning we discovered one of his red socks had disappeared, going to the big pile of single socks in the sky. It was the end of the world for him.

Children with HFA are also extremely literal and don’t always understand the nuances of figurative language. My son was horrified when someone asked if they could ‘pick his brain’. And the challenges are not limited to verbal language. Understanding body language, interpreting facial expressions, and ‘reading a room’ are almost impossible. This has made it very challenging to create and maintain friendships.

As a parent of a child with HFA, I have made it my mission to educate others on the nuances and complex nature of autism. Proper understanding is critical, so these young people have the space to be exactly who they are without apology. In addition, their mental health needs as much nurturing as the next child—perhaps, even more, considering the additional challenges they face, like rejection and intolerance.

The Challenges Today Often Become Successes Tomorrow 

Incidentally, Elon Musk attended the same high school as me. He hated it, and school was a miserable time. He was bullied, tormented, and even assaulted. Yet the school wears his alumni status as a badge of honor. I was reminded of this when chatting with a friend who moved to the UK recently. Her son also has HFA, and his first day at school had been a challenge. She knows my son has also had his fair share of teachers who didn’t have the patience to understand him. I told her, “The irony is that in 20 years, the teachers that gave them the hardest time will sit around their dinner tables, boasting to their guests that they taught our children.”

About the Author

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Nicola is mom to James, a 2E 18-year-old, and she lives in Johannesburg, South Africa. Nicola is a writer who is focused on supporting parents and teachers of children who are “different” according to commonly-held views. Before starting her career as a writer, she specialized in gifted education and taught at Radford House School, a school for gifted children.

While parents everywhere look forward to the first day of school, those with neurodivergent and high-needs children hold this day with a particular affection that other parents may not understand. We’ve hustled through summer, finding camps or activities that suit them, and bartered with relatives to help get through the year’s longest days. When the calendar turns over, and we see the first day of school appear, we are excited at the prospect of taking a little bit of a break from the summer gauntlet.

Coping with the Anxiety of the First School Day 

The excitement of the first day also brings anxiety as our children head off into the classroom. We wonder if their teachers and peers have compassion and patience. Will they understand if a child with sensory issues says music class hurts his ears; he’s not being difficult; he’s being honest—music class hurts his ears! Will they believe he isn’t mischievous so much as not being  understood—due to his thinking being either overly rigid or too abstractly creative? Will they understand that kids like ours aren’t refusing to sit still because of poor self-control, but have a body driven by the need to be in constant motion? Ok, so maybe we worry about pretty much everything.  

While we prepare and do all we can to help ease any anxiety for our children headed back into the classroom, we still tiptoe through the first few weeks of school. We know that first phone call from the school will eventually come, shattering our fragile, false sense of security. Maybe we made it without any communication from the school for over two weeks. We know, inevitably, our phones will ring and end the short-lived grace period bestowed by the new school year.

Receiving the Dreaded Call from the School Office

This time It was the second day of a new school year when I felt my phone give off its ominous vibration, accompanied by an unknown number. As is my custom, I quickly turned to Google for a reverse number search. Before I could even finish my query, the same number appeared on my office line, and this was all the information I needed (it’s never good when they immediately call back on your second contact number). My body immediately went into PTSD mode (or what some have called CTSD). With a racing heart, sweaty palms, and churning stomach, I cautiously answered as any other parent would—pretending to be someone else. Initially my physiological response kept me from making out what the person on the phone was saying. My head was spinning. Was it a fight? Property destruction? How much superglue was involved?

My focus returned once I heard the words “minor head injury.”  I realized this wasn’t a typical SOS call. Guiltily, I welcomed the news of the minor head injury, “Oh, is that all?” I snapped back to my safe space. He was fine, and my crisis had been a false alarm (this time).     

When you have neurodivergent children, you may find yourself waiting for the other shoe to drop. Back-to-school time is a roller coaster, both exciting and scary, and it pays to be ready for calls home. . If you can save yourself the elevated stress during the fall, it’ll be better for your health and the wellbeing of your kids.

How to Prepare for Inevitable Calls from Your School

We see it coming: the string of calls and emails that we have experienced many times over this time of year. But we can prepare ourselves and proactively lean into communication from our school. Try these five steps to help you  adjust accordingly: 

  • Expect the call or email – Setting and managing your own expectations can reduce the anticipation anxiety and increase your overall receptivity. Remind yourself that things happen, and you aren’t alone. The calls will come and you couldn’t have prevented them—so release yourself from any associated guilt or other negative feelings.  
  • Assume good intentions – In order to actively listen to the school’s input and process what occurred, try to remain present in the conversation by assuming that they are well-intended and have your child’s best interests at heart. It’s easy to go on the defensive, but that will only escalate the situation. Starting out by assuming the best will result in a more productive call.
  • Activate your own self-regulation tools – It is just as important that you have a toolkit to help you feel centered and grounded throughout the call and the follow up with your child. Try taking a few minutes to sit in silence, chew some gum or breath in some fresh air—whatever will help alleviate some of your stress so that you can approach the situation with peace and positivity. 
  • Ask how you can support their efforts at home – Even though you, as the caregiver, most likely know how to approach the situation with your child, make sure you ask questions that allow your child’s team room to express their expertise so that you can build rapport and maintain a team approach. 
  • Practice the follow-up conversation you will have with your child – This way, you can play out their reaction in your mind and feel equipped to counteract whatever comes your way. 

As an aside, when it does come time to check in with your child, try not to punish them twice. Support the consequences the school may have planned, but also try to be a safe spot for your child. Let them know you don’t condone misbehavior, and help hold them accountable, but let them know you love them and they have a soft place to land at the end of a hard day. This will help keep communication open between caregivers and children, which is especially important if they are struggling in school.

The past two years may have created the perfect conditions for a potentially record-breaking number of these dreaded phone calls home. Many children are going back into a physical school setting after two years, and social and emotional skills may have eroded due to the lack of physical contact with peers and educators. It’s reasonable to expect phone calls will rise for families of both neurotypical and neurodivergent children. Try to trust that those familiar with these calls can provide the compassion and support to facilitate productive conversations, but prepare yourself accordingly so that you can make the most of any situation. 

About the Author

Kendra Demler is a single mom and parent writer living in the Bay Area. Her personal experiences have given her a talent for candidly retelling the good, the bad, and sometimes cringe-worthy adventures in neurodivergent and high-needs parenting. Raising her son as a solo parent has driven her passion for using her voice to spread awareness, increase acceptance, and provide support and resources for families of neurodivergent children.

This three-part series focuses on the experiences of parents and caregivers as they become aware of potential learning differences in their children and navigate the many challenges and surprises along the way. 

You can find part two here: A Caregiver’s Guide to Neurodivergent Learners: Education Therapy and Other Treatment Options. Or jump to part three: A Caregiver’s Guide to Neurodivergent Learners: Finding & Measuring Success for Your Child

Embracing Neurodiversity 

Seeing your child struggle can be one of the most challenging things you can go through as a parent or caregiver. The stigma and general lack of awareness surrounding neurodivergent learners can cause the problem to seem much larger than it actually is. But brain differences are totally normal, and neurodiversity shouldn’t be feared! According to a 2017 report from the National Center for Learning Disabilities, learning and attention issues are extremely common, affecting 1 in 5 children [1]. And awareness of neurodiversity in schools and families is on the rise; since the COVID-19 pandemic began, nearly three-quarters (72%) of parents have become aware that their children may have a learning difference [2].

Children with learning and attention issues are as smart as their peers and with the right support can achieve at high levels, but a lack of early or effective interventions leads too many kids on a downward spiral,” says Mimi Corcoran, President and CEO of NCLD.

Despite neural differences being normal, beginning your journey as a parent or caregiver to finding success for your child can be a stressful and confusing time. Discovering that your child may face lifelong challenges can seem overwhelming at first. But most kids with learning differences are just as smart as their peers—and many are even exceptionally talented and creative—their brains are just wired differently for learning. Neurodiverse learners (and indeed all learners) need to be taught in ways that are suited to their strengths and how they process information. 

As with many things in life, the first step is often the most difficult, but getting started as early as possible is crucial to academic and life success. With the right support and services, neurodivergent learners can succeed in life and achieve their full potential. This guide will help illuminate many of the common experiences parents and other caregivers go through on the path to finding success for their learner. 

Figure depicted distribution of learning disabilities. Specific learning disability (includes dyslexia, dysgraphia, and others) - 34%; speech or language impairment - 19.5%; other health impairment (includes ADHD) - 14.4%, autism spectrum disorder - 10.1%.
Learning disability distribution, according to IDEA classification
Embracing individual learners’ unique neurodiversity allows us to approach growth and education in a way that appeals to their strengths and finds the optimal path to unlock their learning potential.

When you first notice a difference in your child

A learning or attention difference doesn’t typically mean a child has a lower intelligence. In fact, individuals with learning challenges usually rank average to above average on normal scores of intelligence [3]. Many times learning disabilities aren’t diagnosed until adulthood, if they are ever discovered at all. It probably comes as no surprise to parents that when a learning difference is discovered, it is often the parent who notices it first. Neurodivergent traits can manifest early in childhood as behavioral, social, emotional, or cognitive differences, or not appear until a child is school age, when they may take the form of a learning disability. When this happens, it may appear as if there is some invisible barrier that is preventing your child from reaching their full developmental or academic potential. Your learner may be exceedingly bright, yet incapable of meeting the expected skill level for someone their age. 

List of learning differences by age from Preschool-High School

Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) in children can sometimes be detected at 18 months or younger, but sometimes a final diagnosis is not received until an individual is much older, even into adulthood. The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) recommends screening all children for ASD at the 18 and 24-month visits. By age 2, a diagnosis by an experienced professional can be considered very reliable [4]. 

If left unaddressed, these differences can turn into learning gaps which cause a precipitous drop in confidence and academic performance. Thankfully, providing support and specialized instruction help close the gap, enabling success in school and life. But identifying and accepting a learning difference is the necessary first step to meeting a child’s potential. 

One out of every sixteen public school students has an individual education plan (IEP) for a specific learning disability (SLD) or other health impairment (OHI), which covers ADHD [1]. 80% of children with an SLD receive special education in reading [5]. Data from the National Center for Learning Disabilities indicates that only 7% of students in special education were identified with an SLD by age 6. By age 10, this percentage had increased to 40.8%. This differs from ADHD, where nearly three-quarters of children are diagnosed by age 6 [6].

figure depicting learning issues compounding with age
If left unaddressed, issues stemming from learning differences compound with age

Starting the search for help for your neurodivergent learner—should you pursue an IEP?

The process of getting help for your child can seem daunting, but there are options available to learners and caregivers. The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) provides services and resources to help you on your journey. If your child is school age, talking with your child’s teacher is usually a good first step. Ask questions and share concerns, and build a partnership with the teacher to strategize how to support learning at home. If it is determined your child has a learning disability, IDEA states that all children in the U.S. have a right to a “free appropriate public education.” IDEA mandates the creation of an Individualized Education Program (IEP) document. Each IEP is designed to meet a child’s specific special education needs, and must be created specifically for one single student—it must be a truly individualized document. The IEP sets goals and objectives and describes what services a child will receive as part of their special education program. 

Unfortunately, the IEP process can be a time-consuming, frustrating, and bewildering experience for caregivers. Receiving an IEP is a bureaucratic process, and due to the gap that exists between what the law says and the reality of school budgets and resourcing, an effective IEP can take months-to-years to get in place. Often, when a child’s neurodiversity is first discovered (or suspected) by a parent, the child’s academic struggles haven’t yet fully manifested into poor grades or other school-related issues, leading to a disparity in how the school sees your child and how you see them. These problems result in delays that waste precious intervention time.

To get started on the IEP process, a child must first be professionally evaluated for eligibility. The earliest possible intervention is vital to the child’s success in school and life, and it is critical for a caregiver to get the process started as soon as they can if a learning difference is suspected. Waiting for a child to “outgrow” a disability is ineffective, and only wastes valuable intervention time that can’t be gotten back. Worse still, a child struggling due to a learning difference may become increasingly frustrated and hopeless with school as their motivation and confidence erodes. 

The IEP process won’t always catch learners at the right time. Often a learner won’t qualify for an IEP because their differences haven’t caused them to fall enough behind the expected grade-level performance to become eligible. However, their differences usually catch up to them by middle school—until then, they might have been able to effectively mask their neurodiversity and blend in with peers, but as school demands increase their delicate balancing act becomes increasingly difficult to sustain.

For parents and caregivers who don’t want to wait for the gears of the IEP process to begin to turn, Learnfully provides everything you need to immediately get your child on the path to their full potential. We will accelerate your learner’s path toward effective, evidence-based education instruction and therapy, starting with a comprehensive screener assessment, our SPARK Learning Assessment, that identifies their specific strengths and challenges. Request a sample SPARK Assessment

Receiving a Professional Evaluation

Parents and caregivers, along with a team of qualified professionals, must determine whether a child has a disability and is in need of special education and related services. For IEPs, the child’s teacher and a professional qualified to conduct individual diagnostic examinations of children, such as a school psychologist, speech-language pathologist, or remedial reading teacher, must be included in the assessment process. The assessment must also include observations made in the child’s classroom.

Usually, your child’s teachers want to help and will work with you to try and meet your child’s learning needs. They can help arrange a comprehensive evaluation to determine how well your child is performing in school and additional services that may be necessary. 

The comprehensive evaluation may not be the first step in receiving your child’s professional diagnosis. Commonly, when a child is struggling in reading or math, a school will have them take a short screening assessment to identify if they are at-risk for reading or math difficulties. The screener measures whether the student is performing at the benchmark level, a set of grade-level expectations for students’ progress of reading comprehension and related reading or math skills. If a learner tests below the benchmark level (which is about the 40th percentile nationally), the school may immediately begin to deliver intensive and individualized supplemental instruction before determining whether the student needs a comprehensive evaluation that would lead to a designation of special education eligibility [7]. 

Not all children who are behind grade-level benchmarks in reading or math have a learning disability, some simply need a change in how their instruction is provided. Structured, systematic instruction can help these learners catch up with their peers. This type of intervention is usually also beneficial for learners who are later diagnosed with a learning disability, so it makes sense to lead with intervention. This practice of using a systematic process for screening, intervening and monitoring is encouraged under the Individuals with Disabilities in Education Act (IDEA) and is known as Response to Intervention (RTI) [8]. 

Meeting with Your School and Learning Specialists

Parents and caregivers should know, however, that they don’t have to wait for some formal process of evaluation to be initiated by the school. You have the right to request a comprehensive evaluation under the IDEA law, whether or not your child is already receiving instruction under an RTI model [7]. If the IEP process is moving too slowly, isn’t working, or you just want to get a headstart on your child’s progress, you can engage Learnfully’s network of education specialists to evaluate your child and get them started with specialized, research-proven instruction and therapy. 

First, you’ll want to be sure your child has had a thorough physical examination by a medical doctor to make sure that there are no underlying health problems that might interfere with learning (specifically, issues related to correctable vision and hearing-related problems). This is also one of the first things checked by specialists who evaluate children for learning disabilities (the specialists are usually experts in education, speech and language, audiology, and/or psychology). Through a series of tests, evaluations, and interviews, they work to understand what is preventing your child from achieving success in the classroom. These tests may uncover any of a number of issues, ranging from hearing or vision impairments to problems with attention, emotional management, and use of language, reading, or mathematics [9]. 

Diagnosing a learning disability in public schools requires several types of tests. Common tests used to diagnose a learning disability include tests of intelligence, achievement, visual-motor integration, and language tests. For instance, some commonly used achievement tests are the Wide Range Achievement Test (WRAT), Woodcock-Johnson Tests of Achievement (WJ), and the Wechsler Individual Achievement Test (WIAT). These tests are generally brief in length and designed to measure grade level proficiency in reading, writing, spelling, and math. 

When preparing to meet your teacher and other specialists—including those outside of the school approval process—reflect on any observations you’ve made of your child. Include observations with respect to school work and performance, and behavior at home. Note any concerns you might have, and compose a list of questions ahead of time with the goal of gaining a better understanding of your child’s issues and how to address them in and out of school. Gather any records of previous parent-teacher conferences and other educational documents to bring with you to the meeting and share with school personnel. Be ready to listen and participate, sharing any information that may be helpful to your child’s assessment. 

When the meeting happens, here are a some things to keep in mind: 

  • Take detailed notes and record the meeting on your phone if possible. 
  • Ask for clarification about anything you don’t understand. This is new to you and your child, and no one expects you to be an expert. 
  • To better understand and effectively track your child’s progress, ask questions about the curriculum and how students’ work is graded.

Be compassionate and understanding with teachers and staff. This is a stressful situation for you and your child, and everyone involved wants to keep enthusiasm for learning high. Acknowledge that your child’s motivation and your full participation as a caregiver is crucial to achieving success [5].

Checklist - Preparing to meet your child's education team

This may be the first of several meetings with your specialist team, so be sure to set up check-ins to measure progress and next steps. 

Additional tests may also be used, depending on the evaluative team’s preferences and your child’s needs. The Individuals With Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) requires that a diagnosis of a learning disability is not made on the basis of a single test. Once an evaluation has been made, there are tools and techniques for managing almost any learning or behavior-related difference. 

When testing for common learning disabilities, such as dyslexia, dysgraphia, or dyscalculia, an evaluation of the critical underlying skills that are closely linked to these disorders will be included in the assessment. These tests can be conducted by trained school staff or outside specialists. In dyslexia, the most common learning disability, skills tested include auditory (listening) and oral expressive language skills, phonological skills including phonemic awareness, and also automaticity and fluency (a learner’s ability to rapidly name letters and numbers) [7]. If the test detects a profile of traits consistent with those of dyslexia, an individualized education program (IEP) must be developed for the child. 

Screening for autism spectrum disorder (ASD) and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) typically happens earlier in childhood. Most pediatricians regularly screen all children for developmental delays and disabilities (and check for markers of ASD) between 9 and 30 months. It is difficult to diagnose ADHD in children younger than 4 years, so your pediatrician will determine whether your child has ADHD using standard guidelines developed by the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) beginning at age 4 (and up to age 18). There is no medical test for ASD or ADHD—such as a blood test or genetic test. Early diagnosis requires a partnership between parents and pediatricians. Diagnosis of these conditions is based on monitoring and analyzing your child’s behaviors and overall development, and determining whether or not they fit criteria that characterize ASD or ADHD [10] [11].

Learnfully provides a network of education specialists and therapists, instructional content, and evidence-based programming to help you evaluate your child and get them started with individualized learning and therapy. Contact us to get started

In the next part of this blog series: learn about the treatment options that are typically considered and how education therapy is a great option for many learners with differences.


[1] National Center for Learning Disabilities. (2017, February 1). The State of LD. National Center for Learning Disabilities. Retrieved September 21, 2021, from https://www.ncld.org/research/state-of-learning-disabilities/.

[2] Survey commissioned in April 2021 by Understood surveyed 1,500 U.S.-based parents of children ages 5-18 (both neurotypical children and kids who learn and think differently) about how the pandemic has impacted their education, mental health, and finances.

[3] Learning Disabilities Association of America. (n.d.). Types of Learning Disabilities. Learning Disabilities Association of America. Retrieved September 22, 2021, from https://ldaamerica.org/types-of-learning-disabilities/.

[4] National Center on Birth Defects and Developmental Disabilities, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2020, March 13). Screening and diagnosis of autism spectrum disorder. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Retrieved September 22, 2021, from https://www.cdc.gov/ncbddd/autism/screening.html.

[5] Learning Disabilities Association of America. (n.d.). New to LD. Learning Disabilities Association of America. Retrieved September 22, 2021, from https://ldaamerica.org/support/new-to-ld/.

[6] Visser SN, Zablotsky B, Holbrook JR, et al. Diagnostic experiences of children with attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder. National health statistics reports; no 81. Hyattsville, MD: National Center for Health Statistics. 2015.

[7] International Dyslexia Association. (2020, March 10). Dyslexia basics. International Dyslexia Association. Retrieved September 22, 2021, from https://dyslexiaida.org/dyslexia-basics/.

[8] The National Center for Learning Disabilities. (n.d.). Is RTI mandated by federal law? RTI Action Network. Retrieved September 24, 2021, from http://rtinetwork.org/component/content/article/50-what-is-rti/249-is-rti-.

[9] Learning Disabilities Association of America. (n.d.). Eligibility: Determining whether a child is eligible for special education services. Learning Disabilities Association of America. Retrieved September 22, 2021, from https://ldaamerica.org/info/eligibility-determining-whether-a-child-is-eligible-for-special-education-services/.

[10] National Center on Birth Defects and Developmental Disabilities, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2020, March 13). Screening and diagnosis of autism spectrum disorder. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Retrieved September 22, 2021, from https://www.cdc.gov/ncbddd/autism/screening.html.

[11] American Academy of Pediatrics. (2017, January 19). Diagnosing adhd in children: Guidelines & information for parents. HealthyChildren.org. Retrieved September 22, 2021, from https://www.healthychildren.org/English/health-issues/conditions/adhd/Pages/Diagnosing-ADHD-in-Children-Guidelines-Information-for-Parents.aspx.

This three-part series focuses on the experiences of parents and caregivers as they become aware of potential learning differences in their children and navigate the many challenges and surprises along the way. 

You can find part one here: A Caregiver’s Guide to Neurodivergent Learners: When to Consider an Evaluation. Or jump to part three: A Caregiver’s Guide to Neurodivergent Learners: Finding & Measuring Success for Your Child.

What treatment options exist for learners with disabilities?

While there is no cure for a learning disability, therapeutic treatment and the earliest possible intervention can significantly lessen any negative effects. Children with these differences can develop ways to cope with them using strategies that can be generalized across academic, social, and personal environments. 

The most common form treatment takes for a learning disability is that of special education. This will be covered in more detail in the following section, but the basic approach is to teach skills explicitly and sequentially using multisensory instruction that builds on the child’s interests and strengths while correcting any weaknesses. Professionals such as speech and language therapists, and specialists outside the school also may be involved. Some medications may be effective in helping the child learn by assisting with attention and concentration issues. Additional educational, psychological, behavioral, and occupational therapies may also be used. 

Dyslexia, the most common learning disability, is a specific learning disability with language. There are no medications for dyslexia or other common types of specific learning disabilities (like dysgraphia, dyscalculia, and dysphoria, among others). Learners with dyslexia need specific and explicit instruction in reading. There are many programs designed to help kids with dyslexia, such as Lindamood-Bell© and Wilson Reading System©. These programs are built on an evidence-based direct instructional approach called Orton-Gillingham (OG). Instruction can be delivered in school as part of an intervention program, or outside of school through a reading specialist. Learnfully’s network of education specialists include many who are certified in OG-based programming.

Treatment for autism spectrum disorder (ASD) consists of a layered approach of medical and therapeutic interventions. Your child’s pediatrician may prescribe speech, behavioral, and occupational therapy. Parents and caregivers of children with ASD must often make a difficult decision whether or not to use medication. There is often no single easy or simple answer; to find the best option for a child with autism, it is recommended that parents work closely with healthcare providers, therapists, teachers, coaches, other family members, and others involved with the child’s treatment [1]. 

For children with ADHD younger than 6 years of age, the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) recommends parent training in behavior management before medication is included with treatment. For children over 6 years, the recommendations include a combination of medication and behavior therapy (with parent training in behavior management if children are under 12) and additional behavior therapy and training for adolescents [2].

Neurodiverse learners with ADHD or ASD often benefit from social-emotional learning skills and executive function training, using programs like Zones of Regulation© or SMARTS EF©, which develop appropriate emotional regulation and executive functioning capabilities (like working memory, planning, and organization skills). Learnfully helps identify these needs in learners and provides them with instruction and therapy using certified education specialists.

Therapeutic models differ in their approach and targeted outcomes. Speech therapy is the assessment and treatment of communication problems and speech disorders. It is performed by speech-language pathologists or speech therapists (SLPs). Speech therapy uses techniques, like articulation therapy or oral motor therapy, to improve communication skills. The specific type of therapy used depends on the speech or language disorder it seeks to correct. 

Occupational therapy works to enhance a person’s ability in performing everyday tasks, improving day-to-day life. Occupational therapy is often applied in ASD contexts to help children better process and respond to sensory information. The occupational therapist (OT) will work directly with a child’s parent and treatment team to set goals and progress windows for therapy. 

Behavior therapy refers to a broad range of techniques used to address maladaptive behaviors. The goals of behavior therapy are to learn or strengthen positive behaviors and eliminate unwanted or problem behaviors. There are many types of behavioral therapies, and you may have heard of certain behavioral therapies, such as exposure therapy, used in clinical practice. For neurodiverse learners (specifically a learner with ASD) a common type of therapy is Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA), which teaches play, communication, self-care, academic and social living skills, and works to reduce problematic behaviors.

Learnfully’s network of education specialists includes speech, occupational, and behavior therapists, and education specialists who provide training in behavioral therapies and programming, like Zones of Regulation© and SMARTS EF©, which develop appropriate emotional regulation and executive functioning capabilities.

How an IEP can Help (or Hinder) Your Child’s Learning

Following your child’s evaluation and diagnosis, the Individualized Education Program (IEP) can be formally developed. The IEP is a written document and educational program which must include all aspects of a child’s individual learning needs. In order for a child to receive special education services they must have an IEP. The IEP has two general purposes: it sets reasonable learning goals for a child, and specifies the services that the school will provide for the child [3].

Steps in an IEP
No IEP is required for a parent or caregiver to engage Learnfully specialists or to get started with educational therapy from our network of education specialists. If you think your child may have a learning difference, contact us for a free consultation.

After the evaluation, the next step required by law is the IEP meeting. As specified by the Individuals with Disabilities in Education Act (IDEA), there are strict legal requirements about who participates. The IEP meeting should include: parents or caregivers, your child’s teacher, a special education teacher, an official representative from the school district, and professionals familiar with your child’s needs and who can interpret the results of their evaluation (including social workers, school psychologists, therapists, or doctors). The law requires the entire team be present for IEP meetings. Your child may also participate and offer input at the meeting when it is appropriate.

The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) is a law that makes available a free appropriate public education to eligible children with disabilities throughout the nation and ensures special education and related services to those children. Infants and toddlers, birth through age 2, with disabilities and their families receive early intervention services under IDEA Part C. Children and youth ages 3 through 21 receive special education and related services under IDEA Part B. [4]

Once developed, your child’s IEP plan will include information about their current performance in school, changes to their education programming and services, annual achievement goals, and a set of measurable objectives for each goal. The objectives will be used as indicators to determine whether your child has moved toward or reached a particular goal. Progress for the academic year will be gauged based on achievement of these goals [5].

Out of all of the information contained in your child’s IEP, the most important is the section that outlines the services and support they will receive to help them make academic progress. This section must include a statement of the “special education and related services and supplementary aids and services” that will be provided to your learner. These services must be evidence-based programs founded on peer-reviewed research—this means your IEP team must select and use programs and methodologies that are supported by evidence which proves their effectiveness. 

IDEA further defines “special education” as specially designed instruction (“SDI”), specifying that it should meet the unique needs of the child with a disability. SDI essentially means that instructional content, methodology, and delivery (i.e. instruction) must be adapted to meet the needs of your child. The SDI must be integrated with general education curriculum and standards so that your child can meet the same educational standards that apply to their peers. 

While many parents have no other recourse, the IEP process can be frustrating and cost them valuable time during a child’s formative learning years. Receiving an IEP is often not a straightforward process, and what the law says versus what a school can realistically provide often means that an effective IEP can take months-to-years to get in place. Parents often notice a difference in their child first—long before this difference shows up as poor grades or social-behavioral issues. The school may not be prepared to pursue an IEP in these early stages, resulting in delays that waste precious intervention time. Reach out to Learnfully for a free consultation—we can get your learner started on a progress plan right away!

What’s in an IEP?
Each child’s IEP must contain specific information, as listed within IDEA, our nation’s special education law. This includes (but is not limited to):
  • the child’s present levels of academic achievement and functional performance, describing how the child is currently doing in school and how the child’s disability affects his or her involvement and progress in the general curriculum
  • annual goals for the child, meaning what parents and the school team think he or she can reasonably accomplish in a year the special education and related services to be provided to the child, including supplementary aids and services (such as a communication device) and changes to the program or supports for school personnel
  • how much of the school day the child will be educated separately from nondisabled children or not participate in extracurricular or other nonacademic activities such as lunch or clubs
  • how (and if) the child is to participate in state and district-wide assessments, including what modifications to tests the child needs
  • when services and modifications will begin, how often they will be provided, where they will be provided, and how long they will last
  • how school personnel will measure the child’s progress toward the annual goals.
Source: U.S. Department of Education, Office of Special Education Programs. (2017, August). The Short-and-Sweet IEP Overview. Center for Parent Information and Resources. Retrieved September 22, 2021, from https://www.parentcenterhub.org/iep-overview/.

What are 504s and IFSPs?

If your child has a medical condition, such as a physical handicap, that doesn’t directly impact academics, but which might require a change to their learning environment, a 504 plan may be used along with or in place of an IEP. Usually, everything that’s in a 504 plan (plus additional services that are only available in the IEP) can be included in an IEP. So if your child already qualifies for an IEP there typically isn’t a reason to also have a 504 plan [6].

If your child is under 3, the IDEA also includes support for the family under the Individualized Family Service Plan (IFSP), which focuses on your child and family, and the services that you need to support the development of your child. IFSPs are created for eligible children who need extra help with physical, language, cognitive, or social-emotional skills. It includes at-home services for speech and language therapy, occupational therapy, vision and audiology services, and other services [7].

Creating a strengths and interests-based learning plan

Science has proven that providing personalized, strengths-based instruction improves a learner’s achievement and outcomes.[8]. Across a variety of domains involving learning differences, studies typically favor instructional approaches that are direct, explicit, and systematic [9]. Learnfully services align with the special education and related services section of a learner’s IEP, utilizing learners’ strengths and interests to remediate educational instruction using multisensory, evidence-based programs. However, no IEP is required for parents or caregivers to engage Learnfully specialists or get started with educational therapy. For this and other reasons, Learnfully can be an attractive alternative to an IEP for caregivers who get stuck navigating the IEP process, or who simply want to get a jumpstart on their child’s progress. 

Learnfully employs methodologies and use instructional content from programs like Orton-Gillingham®, Wilson Reading Systems® and Lindamood-Bell®.  We also help learners practice academic and social-emotional strategies such as ZONES of Regulation® and SMARTS EF® that help them self-regulate emotions and behavior, and develop executive function skills, like planning and prioritizing. Learn more about Learnfully Services.

In the next part of this blog series: how do you measure progress toward learning goals for kids with learning differences? 


[1] Autism Speaks Inc. (n.d.). Treatments for autism. Autism Speaks. Retrieved September 24, 2021, from https://www.autismspeaks.org/treatments-autism.

[2] U.S. Department of Health & Human Services. (n.d.). Treatment of ADHD. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Retrieved September 24, 2021, from https://www.cdc.gov/ncbddd/adhd/treatment.html.

[3] U.S. Department of Education, Office of Special Education Programs. (2017, August). The Short-and-Sweet IEP Overview. Center for Parent Information and Resources. Retrieved September 22, 2021, from https://www.parentcenterhub.org/iep-overview/.

[4] U.S. Department of Education. (2020, November 24). About idea. Individuals with Disabilities Education Act. Retrieved September 22, 2021, from https://sites.ed.gov/idea/about-idea/#IDEA-Purpose.

[5] US Department of Education. (2000, July). Guide to the individualized education program. US Department of Education. Retrieved September 22, 2021, from https://www2.ed.gov/parents/needs/speced/iepguide/index.html.

[6] Jones, L. (2020, October 22). Can a student have both an IEP and a 504 Plan? Understood. Retrieved September 22, 2021, from https://www.understood.org/articles/en/can-a-student-have-both-an-iep-and-a-504-plan.

[7] Morin, A. (2021, May 25). What is an IFSP? Understood. Retrieved September 24, 2021, from https://www.understood.org/articles/en/ifsp-what-it-is-and-how-it-works.

[8] National Center for Learning Disabilities. (2017, February 1). The State of LD. National Center for Learning Disabilities. Retrieved September 21, 2021, from https://www.ncld.org/research/state-of-learning-disabilities/.

[9] Spear-Swerling, L. (2005, November). Achieving good outcomes in students with learning disabilities. LD OnLine. Retrieved September 23, 2021, from http://www.ldonline.org/spearswerling/Achieving_Good_Outcomes_in_Students_with_Learning_Disabilities.

This three-part series focuses on the experiences of parents and caregivers as they become aware of potential learning differences in their children and navigate the many challenges and surprises along the way. 

You can find part two here: A Caregiver’s Guide to Neurodivergent Learners: Education Therapy and Other Treatment Options. Or go back to the beginning: A Caregiver’s Guide to Neurodivergent Learners: When to Consider an Evaluation.

Monitoring your Child’s Progress

Your child’s IEP must contain goals with which their progress will be monitored. Progress monitoring refers to a standardized, scientifically-based process of measuring progress toward a performance target. IEP goals must be explicit as to which skills are being measured (e.g. reading comprehension or mathematical automaticity) and how progress monitoring will be conducted. A baseline of and how your child is currently performing (prior to receiving specially designed instruction) on these skills must also be included in the IEP goals.

There are many different commercially-available providers for progress monitoring that a school program might use, but they fall into two categories: mastery measurement (MM) and general outcome measurement (GOM)—commonly referred to as curriculum-based measurements or CBMs. When people use the term progress monitoring, they are usually referring to a CBM. A CBM focuses on achieving a single general task that provides an indication of change in the general outcome desired (as opposed to a mastery measure or MM, which assesses one isolated skill at a time). When a CBM is used, a child is tested briefly each week, usually for about 1 to 5 minutes, and the results provide the teacher with data on how to adapt their instruction to the learner’s needs.

What Happens to an IEP after the first year?

A child’s progress during the academic year must be reported to parents or caregivers, and they must be informed whether the child’s progress is enough for them to achieve the goals outlined in their IEP by the end of the academic year. Progress reports must be given to parents at least as often as parents of general education students are given progress reports [1].

According to the IDEA law, an IEP must be reviewed at least once a year, and parents must be invited to attend the review meetings. The review should assess your child’s progress and allow for any adjustments needed to their educational program. If necessary, the IEP must be revised. During the meeting, you can make suggestions for changes to the IEP, its goals, and your child’s placement. 

If you don’t agree with any part of the IEP, you can share your concerns with other members of the IEP team and discuss what needs to be revised in your child’s IEP. If necessary, you have options at this stage to request additional testing, get an independent evaluation, or ask for mediation or a due process hearing. If you are unable to reach an agreement with your IEP team, you can file a complaint with your state education agency [2]. 

At minimum, every three years your child must be reevaluated (this evaluation is often called a “triennial”). This evaluation is to determine if your child continues to be a “child with a disability,” (as defined by IDEA) and what the current educational needs for your child are. Some conditions necessitate that your child be reevaluated more often. A reevaluation must also be provided if you (or your child’s teacher) ask for one [1].

Whether or not your learner participates in Learnfully programming as part of a federally-mandated IEP, our technology-enabled platform provides insights into the growth & development of your learner. By integrating continuous inputs from your learner and their education specialist into our proprietary analytics engine, you’re always kept up-to-date and in control of your learner’s goals and progress. 

What Success Means for Your Child

Even if you and your child are at the very start of your learning journey together, it’s natural to wonder what lies at the destination. In considering academic and therapeutic outcomes, it is important to facilitate your child’s success by helping them establish their own goals. Learn about their dreams for the future—this will open up sources of inspiration that will fuel their motivation to learn and succeed. Be open-minded and non-judgemental, and try to avoid transposing your own desires for them onto what they want for themselves. Try to avoid imagining that their present limitations will prevent them from achieving potentially lofty or ambitious aspirations. Instead, help them envision success and work around their differences, using their strengths to their benefit in pursuing their goals. Help them turn their individual challenges into a determination to overcome obstacles.

What do journalist Anderson Cooper, comedian, actor, and activist Whoopi Goldberg, and entrepreneur Richard Branson have in common? They are just a few of the many successful and famous individuals with learning disabilities.

Specific outcomes will vary by your learner’s age, IEP, or explicit therapeutic goals, but in all cases the most important factors in achieving a successful outcome for a neurodivergent learner are quality of education—whether through an IEP, or supplemental programming provided by Learnfully’s network of education specialists and programming—and caregiver support. As a parent or caregiver, you know your child the best, and you must help them recognize their unique strengths, abilities, and learning style to gainfully influence their developmental progress and learning outcomes.

When early intervention can be leveraged, it is highly effective and desirable due to the fact that learning problems often become more complex and difficult to remediate as children get older [3]. The U.S. Department of Education, Office of Special Education Programs (OSEP) has identified three early general childhood outcomes that can be achieved through early intervention:

  1. Building positive social-emotional skills and relationships, which includes how children interact and play with other children and adults, how they show their feelings, and how they follow social rules.
  2. Acquiring and using knowledge and skills, which includes how children understand basic concepts, learn new things, solve problems, and use words or other ways to communicate.
  3. Taking appropriate action to meet their needs, which includes how children become more independent by learning to move on their own, feed themselves, ask for assistance, begin to get dressed, and take care of basic needs [4].

As students with learning differences transition from high school to college, research suggests that competence in several areas can be reasonably expected as outcomes of your learner’s journey. These areas include, but are not limited to: functional academic skills (in reading, math, writing, and problem-solving), personal-social skills, self-determination, and more [5].

Effective Learning Strategies for High Schoolers
As students with learning differences transition from high school to college, research suggests that competence in the following strategies appear to prove the most effective
  • functional academic skills (e.g., reading, math, writing, and problem-solving);
  • community living skills (e.g., money management, community access);
  • personal-social skills (e.g., getting along with others); vocational skills (e.g., career awareness, job search); and self-determination skills (e.g., self-advocacy, goal setting);
  • Participation in vocational education classes during the last two years of high school, especially classes that offer occupationally-specific instruction;
  • Participation in paid work experience in the community during the last two years of high school;
  • Participation in transition planning;
  • Graduation from high school; and
  • Absence of continuing instructional needs in functional academic, vocational, and personal-social areas after leaving school.
Source: National Council on Disability. (2004, May 17). Improving educational outcomes for students with disabilities. National Council on Disability. Retrieved September 23, 2021, from https://ncd.gov/publications/2004/mar172004.

Why multisensory programs work

Education therapists employing multisensory programs target the underlying sensory-cognitive functions that allow learners to strengthen, develop, and apply their skills into academics and beyond. They undergo extensive training in a multitude of behavioral, emotional, psychological, and educational modalities to support learners from all angles. 

Specialists at Learnfully leverage programming that supports both general and specific education skills-related outcomes through multisensory, evidence-based programs and teaching frameworks that engage and challenge each learner. This approach leads to improved instructional efficacy and outcomes. We use programs such as Orton-Gillingham®, Wilson Reading Systems®, Zones of Regulation®, Making Math Real®, SMARTS EF®, Handwriting Without Tears®, Lucy Calkins’ Writer’s and Reader’s Workshop®, Lindamood-Bell®, and Step Up To Writing®. These programs are validated by research and proven to:

  • develop literacy skills in the areas of phonics, fluency, comprehension, automaticity, and more
  • develops mathematical concepts and skills prescriptively in symbol imaging, automaticity, fluency, and other math areas
  • develop cognitive behavioral therapy strategies for self-understanding and self-management, improving emotional and behavioral control
  • strengthen critical executive function skills that boost student motivation and effort, improve working memory, and help with planning and prioritizing tasks.

Learnfully is not Lindamood-Bell Learning Processes. Learnfully is NOT affiliated with, certified, endorsed, licensed, monitored or sponsored by Lindamood-Bell, Nanci Bell, Phyllis Lindamood or Patricia Lindamood. Lindamood-Bell – an international organization creating and implementing unique instructional methods and programs for quality intervention to advance language and literacy skills – in no way endorses or monitors the services provided by Learnfully.

As a parent or caregiver, it’s important to take a long-term perspective on your child’s learning outcomes. This can provide a helpful mindset for you and your learner. The difficulties and stress experienced by neurodivergent learners often lessen over time, especially by providing strengths-based education instruction and therapy. School tends to focus on a relatively narrow range of academic tasks that may not play to  the strengths of your child. However, as children mature into adults, many of their abilities and talents transcend the narrow academic achievement realm to find a more appreciated and important place in a career setting, leading to job success and life satisfaction.


Contact us today for a free consultation if you believe your learner would benefit from multisensory programs.


[1] US Department of Education. (2000, July). Guide to the individualized education program. US Department of Education. Retrieved September 22, 2021, from https://www2.ed.gov/parents/needs/speced/iepguide/index.html.

[2] Logsdon, A. (2020, September 17). Idea annual reviews and learning disabilities. Verywell Family. Retrieved September 24, 2021, from https://www.verywellfamily.com/understanding-annual-reviews-2162059.

[3] Spear-Swerling, L. (2005, November). Achieving good outcomes in students with learning disabilities. LD OnLine. Retrieved September 23, 2021, from http://www.ldonline.org/spearswerling/Achieving_Good_Outcomes_in_Students_with_Learning_Disabilities.

[4] University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign College of Education Early Childhood Collective. (n.d.). Child outcomes: Measuring the benefits of early intervention. Illinois Early Intervention Clearinghouse. Retrieved September 23, 2021, from https://eiclearinghouse.org/einotes/child-outcomes/.

[5] National Council on Disability. (2004, May 17). Improving educational outcomes for students with disabilities.  National Council on Disability. Retrieved September 23, 2021, from https://ncd.gov/publications/2004/mar172004.