The Focused Student: Keep an eye out for possible physical barriers to learning

Last month we spoke about “scholastic preventive maintenance.” But what are the red flares that signal trouble, and what is the nature of the problem? In this column, I’ll focus on physical problems that can create barriers to learning. In a later column, I’ll talk about emotional/behavioral issues.

To learn, information has to get into the brain and be processed. This requires adequate vision, hearing and memory.

Vision. As children begin to read and write, vision becomes increasingly crucial to learning success. Warning signs of poor vision include headaches, poor balance and/or hand-eye coordination, squinting, sitting abnormally close to the TV, rubbing the eyes, or avoiding activities that require detailed visual effort. If any of these occur, have your child’s eyes examined by your pediatrician and/or knowledgeable eye care professional.

Hearing. This is a second input channel, and it too must be clear in order for a student to learn well. While deafness is generally detected in infancy, hearing that is impaired to varying degrees is often not noticed until much later. Signs of hearing impairment may appear as failing to meet normal speech milestones, turning the TV or music device volume uncomfortably (for others) high, failing to respond when you speak in a normal voice from behind the child, or reluctance to engage with others in games or other activities where speaking is required.

There is a second part to hearing, and that is auditory processing — what the brain does with sound after it is mechanically “heard.” Errors of auditory processing are subtle yet a frequent cause of learning difficulties. Warning signs include difficulty learning to spell, difficulty working in groups or other situations with multiple speakers, problems following multistep instructions, irritation if there is speech or other background noise while watching TV, avoidance of reading in front of peers, or difficulty remembering the names of people or places. What is tagged as a “memory problem” could be an auditory processing problem.

Memory. Once information is delivered to the brain, it has to be cached either temporarily or permanently, so it can be acted on. “Working memory” is the first stop for information; children with attention deficit disorder and auditory processing difficulties often have trouble with working memory, though whether that is cause or effect remains a point of contention.

Working memory is essential for proper executive function, which is the ability to plan, organize, prioritize, manage time and do what is required to create and complete a task.

Signs of a faulty memory could be trouble remembering information the next day or week after weeks of practice. Highly distractible children struggle with memory because they have it for the moment but are unable to file the information into the long-term part of the brain for future use. Other signs can include wanting to organize a party or get-together with peers but never quite getting it done, difficulty getting started on major assignments (chores or homework) and total surprise when they receive a bad grade.

These are complex and often interlinked challenges that may keep a child from learning well. Sorting out the cause (or causes) and addressing it is not a do-it-yourself project. If you see any of the warning signs or just feel your child is somehow “off,” I would encourage you to seek assistance first from the teacher. An educational therapist or learning specialist can also guide you on diagnosis and treatment.

Watch for physical barriers to learning, and help your child meet any challenges that exist so he or she can enjoy the thrill of being able to learn.

ROBERT FRANK is the executive director of the Hillside School and Learning Center in La Cañada. He holds a master’s of science degree in special education and has more than 40 years of teaching experience. His column appears on the last Thursday of each month. He can be reached at

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