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UnderstandingUnderstanding

Cognitive Problems in Children

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Anna Kroncke
Anna Kroncke
Ph.D., NCSP
Last modified 25 Oct 2022
Published 18 Apr 2022

What are Understanding & Cognition Skills in Childhood?

Understanding or cognition are other names for intelligence, often called thinking skills or abilities. 

Understanding includes our ability to use abstract thinking, apply logic and reasoning, and learn new things. The science of educational psychology studies our ability to learn and understand. 

Within this section, articles include topics like verbal reasoning, non-verbal problem solving, fluid reasoning, spatial awareness, auditory processing, sequential reasoning, and processing speed. These topics are all aspects of the way we understand and learn.

Intelligence in this context refers to our innate abilities to process, understand, and work with information in our minds. Although the nature-nurture debate continues, some aspects of intelligence are there from birth. Certain aspects of intelligence are innate, while others are learned in the environment. 

However, science continues to show that our brains are highly ‘plastic’ and can grow and learn in response to enriched environmental experiences or deliberately applied effort. Recent studies have shown that even for skills that people believe are ‘natural,’ such as artistic and athletic abilities, consistent and deliberate practice can result in much higher performance [1-5]. 

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Symptoms of Cognitive Problems in Children

Children struggling with cognition will have some trouble in school and other intellectually demanding endeavors. The good news is that a high degree of patience and focused effort will often lead to an improved outcome for most people. 

At Cadey, we believe that all good intervention starts with an assessment to pinpoint and prioritize the areas for growth. Listed below are some cognitive areas where your child may need support.

  • General intelligence: this form of intelligence is generally measured on an IQ test and is sometimes referred to as General Intellectual Ability. This information is a snapshot of your child’s overall cognitive abilities compared to peers
  • Verbal comprehension: this form of intelligence captures your child’s ability to reason with words, sort words into categories, and define vocabulary words
  • Non-verbal reasoning: this form of intelligence considers your child’s ability to assess relationships visually. Essentially, non-verbal intelligence means ‘thinking without words’
  • Fluid reasoning: this form of intelligence includes your child’s ability to solve new problems, similar to those found in science and mathematics
  • Processing speed: this form of intelligence is a measure of mental quickness
  • Sequential reasoning: this form of intelligence encompasses your child’s ability to perform tasks and solve problems in a logical order
  • Spatial reasoning: this form of intelligence is concerned with understanding how items fit together, such as in putting together a jigsaw puzzle; uses visual processing
  • Auditory processing: this form of intelligence looks at your child’s ability to hear and process information coming in through the ears accurately

Why Identifying Cognition Problems Is So Important

  1. Knowing your strengths – No matter how smart a person is, we all have areas of strengths and weaknesses. It can be helpful to normalize this experience, get help for our challenges, and treasure our strengths
  2. Understanding your struggles – Academic achievement is an important component of a child’s life. While you go to work each day, your child goes to school. When there are cognitive issues, school can be much harder, and your child may need support
  3. Speed isn’t everything – Often, speed is erroneously equated with smarts. Kids sit in awe of the child who finishes the test first. However, in many cases, the ability to persevere is more important to successful problem solving than working quickly
  4. Know your learning style – Sometimes, a weakness in one area can be compensated for or supported by strengths in another. For example, a highly verbal child might be able to describe the steps of a problem rather than looking at a checklist on paper. There are many successful paths when children learn to work with their preferred style of processing information
  5. Teach to your strengths – Fortunately, educators have been developing methods to address learning problems of every kind for decades. Once parents and professionals are aware of a child’s unique cognitive profile, educational approaches can be adapted to be more effective for each child

Causes of Cognitive Problems In Children

When we think about cognitive development, there’s a lot of good news. First, just about every person on earth has cognitive strengths and weaknesses. Generally, there are many ways people can learn to build on certain strength areas and work around areas of difficulty. 

As your child grows, certain subjects may be harder or easier. This unique proclivity is okay. Most endeavors do not require that people have exceptional cognitive skills in all areas.

The other piece of good news is that brain science continues to show that our brains are constantly learning, changing, and picking up new skills. Recent research demonstrates the importance of mindset and grit in determining a person’s achievement in various areas [1-5].

If your child is struggling, here are some of the potential issues that may be causing challenges with cognition or understanding information. 

Innate cognitive ability (genetic cause)

From early childhood, humans tend to have some natural proclivities. For example, some children love to socialize, are chatty from a young age, and take right to reading and writing. Alternatively, some children with lower verbal intelligence tend to struggle with language arts. 

Children with lower scores on non-verbal or spatial intelligence tend to struggle in math, science, or engineering subjects. 

Finally, children with lower scores on processing speed or working memory tend to struggle in multiple academic areas and may have learning disabilities. 

Although there is clear evidence that some aspects of intelligence are inherited, there is plenty of scientific evidence that our brains continue to change and expand throughout life. The most dramatic gains are made by people who really use their brains, by way of getting advanced degrees, reading frequently, solving puzzles, or working in cognitively demanding environments. 

Processing speed

Children who tend to work very hard and still ‘finish last’ likely have a slower processing speed. Although there are some recent, more promising techniques for improving processing efficiency, it is safe to assume that some processing speed challenges will remain. 

The primary remedy for a slower processing speed is generally to give yourself more time. If your child is slow in getting ready in the morning, wake up earlier. If your child takes a long time to finish homework, do not expect them to do it all in one sitting. For longer-term projects, a child with a slower processing speed needs to start earlier and persevere longer than peers.

“The good news is that speed isn’t the most important factor in our success, just like the moral from the tortoise and the hare story.”

Many parents have had the following experience. They have one child who thinks quickly but does not work as hard and another who takes a lot longer to complete tasks but works much harder. 

In this author’s anecdotal experience, almost every one of those parents will tell you that the slower, hard worker has better grades and a higher level of scholastic achievement. It is important to know that attitude and effort win the race when it comes to learning.

Learning disabilities 

Even very intelligent children can have extreme difficulties learning new information. This challenge is especially true when the child has a learning disability. There are many types of learning disabilities.

Most common learning disabilities 

Dyslexia is a learning disability in reading. 

Children with dyslexia may have trouble with reading fluency, reading accuracy, or reading comprehension. 

Dysgraphia is a learning disability in writing. 

Children with dysgraphia may have trouble with spelling, organization, or getting ideas onto the paper.

Dyscalculia is a learning disability in math. 

Children with dyscalculia may have trouble with recognizing numbers, calculations, or conceptual understanding in math.

Learning disabilities almost always require remediation and intervention. If you suspect your child has a learning disability, it is wise to consult with the school and request an evaluation. 

Environmental factors

Children who come from environments where they do not feel safe often experience various cognitive issues. In terms of cognitive development, it is more important that the child perceives they are safe. Even if a threatening situation ended a while ago, children who feel a sense of insecurity or impending doom could have difficulty processing information, learning, and remembering academic procedures. 

If the child has experienced a recent traumatic event, separation from caregivers, or a bullying situation, processing speed will slow, and there can be memory lapses. Further, if the child faces neglect, hunger, or sleep problems, cognitive problems are likely.

Parents and educators are wise to consider the child’s environmental conditions when there are issues with problem-solving or learning. 

Developmental disabilities 

Children with developmental disabilities (DD) may also have intellectual disabilities (ID). Genetic factors and chromosomal abnormalities generally cause these disabilities. Children with Autism Spectrum Disorder may have lower IQ scores as well. 

When thinking about the learning needs of children with intellectual disabilities, it is important to set appropriate goals. Adults need to be careful and deliberate when choosing the right level of challenge and support needed for children with significant cognitive challenges.

Self-esteem

Some children will show a much lower level of performance than would be expected based on their intellectual ability. It can be the case that the child’s negative beliefs cause such challenges. Most educators have met a student they believe has a sense of learned helplessness and could perform much better when held to a higher standard.

In that case, caring adults will want to provide a great deal of emotional support while still keeping expectations appropriate for the child’s ability. When the child performs well, adults will want to point it out immediately. Teachers and parents can say, “See, you did that! You did all that work yourself! I’m so proud of you.” This clear evidence of a child’s success can dramatically improve their self-esteem. As one might expect, when children believe they are more capable, they tend to perform better, and this cycle becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. 

What to Do About Cognitive Problems in Childhood

As a parent, discovering that your child may have cognitive limitations is a very painful experience. It takes a great deal of courage to start asking questions about why your child is struggling. 

This author has met many brave parents questioning if their child may have autism, a developmental disability, or a learning concern. As parents, you know you will love your child either way. That is not the hard part. The hard part is wondering if your expectations for your child are appropriate. 

You may come to find that your child, who everyone thought would be a baseball star like his grandpa, has a physical disability that will disallow that career path. It could be that you are an academic type, and your own child has no interest in doing well in school. 

When this happens, take heart. Remember that your children are on their own path. They will stumble and fall, just like you did. They have strengths and weaknesses, hopes and dreams. Your job is to stand by their side, even when you want to walk ahead of them. 

No matter what challenges your child may encounter, your delight in being around them is their best asset in life. Remember to have fun and enjoy the journey. 

When to Seek Help for Cognitive Challenges

As described above, it takes bravery and courage to find out if your child’s challenges could be related to a developmental or intellectual disability.

If you are wondering why your child is struggling, start by reaching out to your child’s school.

Get the numbers: Ask your child’s school for standardized academic scores. Find out if your child is two or more grade levels behind in reading, writing, or math skills. If so, your school can evaluate these areas to determine if your child has a learning disability or cognitive issue. It may be that resources are available through a 504 Plan or Individualized Education Program (IEP). 

Keep asking questions: If you don’t get the support you want from your child’s school, consider seeking a private evaluation to see how your child is doing cognitively, academically, and in terms of social-emotional development.

Be patient yet persistent: As described previously, although this journey is an extremely hard one for a parent, it is an important and brave one as well. If you don’t get the answers you need from your school, children’s hospital, or pediatrician, keep looking. There could be a local tutor or academic interventionist who can do an evaluation to see what your child’s academic profile looks like in terms of skills and intervention needs. Keep going, and do not give up until you have some answers.

Similar Conditions To Cognitive Problems in Childhood

  • Learning disabilities: problems and learning difficulties in reading, writing, or math that are inconsistent with cognitive ability
  • Executive functions: related to brain function in the prefrontal cortex; problems getting started, planning out assignments, and keeping track of progress
  • Behavior problems: problems with compliance, not listening, or following directions will impact learning
  • Emotions & mood: problems with emotional regulation can have a huge impact on academic performance
  • Attention: problems shifting, sustaining, or dividing attention (paying attention to more than one thing at a time) have an impact on learning and remembering information

Therapeutic Resources on Cognitive Issues in Childhood

  • Psychologist or neuropsychologist: to conduct a comprehensive evaluation to determine your child’s profile of cognitive, attention, and emotional symptoms
  • School psychologist: to consider cognitive symptoms in a learning context or evaluate for school services
  • Occupational therapist: to assess motor skills and look at fine motor needs if there are any issues with handwriting or visual tracking that are impacting your child’s learning or reasoning abilities
  • Speech-language pathologist: to look at language skills, identifying issues with receptive or expressive language that may impact your child’s learning or reasoning abilities

Book Resources for Cognitive Problems in Childhood

Mindset and grit books for adults and kids

[1] Dweck, Carol S. Mindset: The New Psychology of Success (2007) 

[2] Clear, James (2018). Atomic Habits: An Easy & Proven Way to Build Good Habits and Break Bad Ones

[3] Duckworth, Angela (2018). Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance

[4] Ricci, Mary Cay (2021) Mindsets for Parents: Strategies to Encourage Growth Mindsets in Kids

[5] Spires, Ashley (2013) The Most Magnificent Thing

[6] Tough, Paul (2012) How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity, and the Hidden Power of Character.

[7] Daniels, Lee David & Buwalda, Bill & Grinberg, Lee (2017) Grit for Kids: 16 top for developing Grit, Passion, Willpower, and Perseverance in kids for self-confidence and a successful life.

[8] Smith, Bryan & Griffin, Lisa (2017) Mindset Matters (Without Limits)

[9] Alber, Diane (2020) A little SPOT of Optimism: A Story about Mangaing Thoughts and Growth Mindset (Inspire to Create A Better You!) 

[10] Clinton, Chelsea & Alexandra Boiger (2017) She Persisted: 13 American Women Who Changed the World.

[11] Cook, Julia (2017) Bubble Gum Brain.

[12] Santat, Dan (2017) After the Fall (How Humpty Dumpty Got Back Up Again)

[13] Reiley, Carol (2015) Making A Splash- Growth Mindset for Kids.

[14]Siegel, Daniel & Bryson, Tina (2018) The Yes Brain: How to Cultivate Courage, Curiosity, and Resilience in Your Child. 

Resources on motivation and learning

Anderman, Eric M. & Anderman, Lynley Hicks (2009). Classroom motivation.

Eide, Brock & Eide, Fernette (2006). The mislabeled child: How understanding your child’s unique learning style can open the door to success.

Kroncke, Willard, & Huckabee (2016). Assessment of autism spectrum disorder: Critical issues in clinical forensic and school settings. Springer, San Francisco.

Reid, Robert, & Leinemann, Torri Ortiz & Hagaman, Jessica L. (2006). Strategy instruction for students with learning disabilities, second edition.

Perseverance & motivation books for kids

McGill, Danny (2018) I Won’t Quit (Teaching Perseverance) 

Esham, Barbara (2014) Keep Your Eye on the Prize (Adventures of Everyday Geniuses).

Gordon, Jon (2012). The energy bus for kids: A story about staying positive and overcoming challenges.

Kobi, Yamada & Besom, Mae (2013). What do you do with an idea?                   

Zentic, Tamara (2015). Grit & bear it activity guide: Activities to engage, encourage, and inspire perseverance.

Deak, JoAnn & Ackerley, Sarah (2010). Your fantastic elastic brain stretch it, shape it.

Hamm, Mia (2006). Winners never quit!

McCumbee, S. (2014) The garden in my mind: Growing through positive choices.

McCumbee, S. (2014). The garden in my mind activity book.

Cook, Julia (2013). Thanks for the feedback, I think (Best me I can be!)

Jones, Charlotte Foltz (1994) Mistakes That Worked: 40 Familiar Inventions & How They Came to Be.

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