It is not uncommon to encounter parents of teenagers, or children in 5th/6th class, who discover their child is experiencing considerable academic difficulty, falling farther and farther behind in their school work, with no previous history of academic problems. This dynamic has been called by some “Hidden Disabilities”. I have written on the topic myself. Most of these children have been quite motivated to succeed in school and have doen well enough for many years. Suddenly, and without any environmental stressors, they begin to experience significant school related problems. Why is this?

If you think about the development of the human brain and realise that the frontal lobes, with all their neural systems designed to help us plan, organise, schedule time, attend and concentrate you get a real clue to what is going on. Match this brain development with the realiites of the primary school and its curriculum and most anyone will discover the reasons for the puzzling phenomanon.

The primary school curriculm is child friendly when it is taught properly and it can be developmentally appropriate in the junior cycle (again, when it is taught properly). Primary school teachers in the junior cycle and up to 4th class provide a lot of structure and support to children. They help them organise materials and resources, keep to time schedules and provide lots of reminders about deadlines. The curriculum in these years of primary school is realitively concrete and user friendly. All this changes in about 5th class. The curriculum begins to become more abstract, Teachers begin to withdraw extensive support in order to prepare children for the realities of secondary school.

It is the deepening complexity of the curriculum and the gradual withdraw of external support that begins to tax the brain. Neural systems can sometimes be slow to develop, especially in the boys. When this happens children find it more and more difficult to keep up with their work and to analyse and interpret the materials they are required to master. These two factors, brain development and weaker external supports, often create a cycle of school difficulty that gets deeper and deeper.

In the adolescent things are even more complext. By and large the human brain isn’t fully mature until the mid-twenties. The parts of the brain tha mature last are those responsible for planning, organisation and time keeping. In secondary school there are considerably fewer supports availble to students. Again, lack of external support and the normal pattern of brain growth make academic difficulties appear in some children.

Children and teens with sudden onset school difficulty require assessment. Far too often they are perceived as lazy or poorly motivated. A cycle of academic difficulty can certainly cause a student to lose self-confidence. It is important to recognise than when problems occur out of context a thorough assessment is essential to avoid secondary problems such as low self-esteem or behavioural difficulties which serve the pupose of masking a cognitive difficulty.

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