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Getting the Right Help

This is often the time of year when parents seek help for a struggling child because by this time, teachers and parents are becoming aware of a child's academic, social and emotional struggles. It is important to seek help promptly in order to avoid a child falling even further behind in the challenging area.

It can be confusing to try to figure out the exact problem(s) affecting your child's success because in some situations, different underlying concerns can produce similar academic or emotional responses. It is important to find the true underlying cause of your child's struggles as soon as possible so you can provide the best intervention as soon as possible. Therefore, I offer you a roadmap so that you will know which steps to take based upon the observed difficulties.

The concern: Your child has more trouble than others in at least some of the following areas, affecting them at school, socially and at home: Difficulty paying attention, concentrating, focusing or controlling their impulses; they make careless mistakes, seem not to listen, has trouble following through, fidgets/squirms, can't wait their turn and interrupts others. They are likely also struggling academically.

The next step: Your child may have Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD). ADHD is often over and misdiagnosed, because there are other types of diagnoses that can look like ADHD on the surface (for example, an anxious or depressed child may have trouble concentrating, a child with a learning disability will struggle academically). Therefore, a thorough evaluation by both a child psychologist and a child psychiatrist is important, in order to determine your child's true diagnosis. The evaluation should include an interview with you, your child and your child's teacher, and a diagnosis should not be based solely on an observation of your child in the doctor's office. You may get several recommendations to support your child and you should be sure to understand all of them thoroughly before proceeding.

The concern: Your child has more trouble than others in a specific academic area (reading, math, writing, understanding), and they are falling behind academically, even showing signs of school avoidance.

The next step: Your child may have a learning disability (LD), which means they struggle in a specific academic area. Some kids may have more than one LD, or may have an LD along with ADHD or another diagnosis. To determine whether your child has an LD, they will needa formal academic and psychological evaluation - sometimes called a neuropsychological evaluation. Your school district performs these types of evaluations or it can be conducted privately. You should do research in order to determine the best route for your family (considerations include cost and the quality of the evaluation). The evaluator will then make recommendations as to the right support for your child.

The concern: Your child frequently exhibits one or more of the following behaviors: Anxiety, worrying, sadness/crying, anger/temper tantrums, fears, difficulty separating/transitioning, or trouble making friends.

The next step: Some troubling childhood behaviors will diminish naturally with time. However, more often without intervention, they don’t resolve or become worse. In addition, waiting may make it more difficult to intervene effectively, so it is best to seek guidance from a child psychologist, or other mental health professional. You can ask your child’s physician or school for a good recommendation and then make sure you feel comfortable with the person. A well-qualified professional will work with both you and your child - not just your child. You should expect to be an integral part of the evaluation and treatment process every step of the way. It is impossible to help a young child without involving the parents, so don’t accept this as an option.

Dr. Susan Bartell is America’s #1 Family Psychologist. Her latest book is The Top 50 Questions Kids Ask. You can learn more about her at

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