Diagnosing the Whole Child for Learning Disabilities

Parents and experts have learned that it’s important to diagnose the whole child for learning disabilities. There can be an overlap in different types of problems for children who learn differently. Because of this, it’s important to test several different brain systems when diagnosing and identifying the cause of learning differences and disabilities.

Every child is unique and looking at the whole child supports your child’s needs. It often includes more than one type of doctor or diagnostician.

When parents first learn about a learning disability, it’s easy to just get all of your diagnostic information from one professional, looking at just one set of skills.  Sometimes, that’s appropriate.  But this post gives you an idea of how other parents are looking at the whole child, even in addition to learning disability testing given by schools.

Full Educational Evaluation

To start with: if you’re asking your school to test your child, you should request a formal psycho-educational evaluation. For examples of what doctors look for in a full educational evaluation, see the Big Checklist.

A formal assessment for learning disabilities includes evaluation of cognition, memory functions, attention, intellectual ability, information processing, psycholinguistic processing, expressive and receptive language function, academic skills, executive function, social-emotional development, and adaptive behavioral functioning.

  • An educational specialist can give a full picture of a child’s cognitive strengths and weaknesses.
  • A neuropsychologist can also give a full picture of a child’s cognitive strengths and weaknesses, and they can also test for other conditions, such as autism or nonverbal learning disorder.

A diagnosis of the whole child for learning disabilities can include any of the following:

Vision and Hearing

Up to 25% of children aged 5 to 17 have a vision problem, and it’s estimated that at least 1.4 million children, ages 18 or younger, have hearing problems. If your child demonstrates any problems in school, make sure that they have been tested for both.

Speech and Language

From 5 to 10% of children have trouble understanding language or expressing themselves. If your child isn’t expressing himself or responding well, it’s a good idea to test speech and language abilities. A speech-language pathologist can test and help with speech, language, communication, and swallowing disorders.

Trouble hearing or understanding speech

Auditory processing disorder is a problem with processing hearing input that affects about 5% of school-aged children. APD can affect a child’s communication, academics, and social skills. If you suspect APD, you should first give your child a hearing exam. If your child has problems with receptive language or listening comprehension (often detected by a speech-language pathologist or a school psychologist), an audiologist should screen for APD.

Movement and Brain Maturity

When diagnosing your child for a learning difference, it turns out that movement examinations are as valuable, perhaps more so, than the traditional block tests and matching games given by neuropsychologists and educational testers.

If your child starts school without mature foundational skills, brain immaturity can make it hard for them to learn. Learning readiness can be measured by looking at movement.

You can ask any type of doctor who diagnoses learning differences about a movement test, which is typically performed by an occupational therapist (OT).  You can also request a movement exam from your school, as part of a full educational evaluation. This can be either a full OT test, or a handwriting test. For examples of what OTs look for, see the Sensory Processing checklists in our learning disability checklist collection.

Executive Function Problems

Specialists are starting to point to executive function (EF) issues as a core problem for many children with LD and ADHD. Executive Function is the ability to create goals, and then sustain actions and problem solving to achieve those goals. A neuropsychologist can test for EF.  There are EF quizzes in the Checklist Collections post.

Allergies and Digestive Problems

These are common tests when you’re concerned about focus or behavior issues. Does your child have food sensitivities and is he getting proper nutrients? An allergist is a medical doctor who can test for allergies, and you can talk with your child’s pediatrician about digestive worries. A registered dietician nutritionist (RDN) is a credentialed professional who is also able to test for allergies. Appendix D contains a link for finding a RDN.If your child has chronic diarrhea or problems with vomiting, it might be a good idea to talk with a pediatric gastroenterologist. Studies are just starting to tell us that there are connections between symptoms of LD and ADHD and gut health.

Visual Fine Motor Skills

If your child has trouble reading, a developmental optometrist (different from a standard optometrist) checks eye function and eye movement problems, like eye tracking. Like an OT, they will sometimes prescribe movement or vision therapies to help train the brain. Move your finger in front of your child’s eyes, from one side to the other. Can your child track the finger smoothly? If his eyes track jerkily (for example) you may want to get him evaluated.

Social Skills

Many children with ADHD, sensory processing problems, or other learning differences need help with social skills. Although many people are born gifted with social abilities, social skills can be taught.  If your child has problems with social skills, a speech-language pathologist can help identify communication disorders.  SLP’s often host social skills classes.

Behavioral Issues

A psychologist can be used to test for behavioral issues and anxiety. Psychologists sometimes host social skills groups (see also Speech-Language-Pathologists above and in Appendix D.) Psychologists provide therapies. Psychiatrists prescribe medication.

There are often multiple causes for behavior, including parenting styles, maturity, anxiety, environment, and learning difference. Jumping to conclusions about a diagnosis without looking at the whole child can miss things.

Parenting Advisor or Parenting Counselor

You can drastically change your child’s behavior or mental state by changing your parenting. Some parents who are worried about their child’s behavior meet with a parenting advisor. The advisor can come to the school and to your home, observes your child in several situations, and then giving suggestions to parents, sometimes including parenting classes.

About Doctors

Very few doctors look at everything in this list, but an Integrative Pediatrician looks at many different factors when she examines your child.