By Clarice J. Kestenbaum, M.D.
Q: My daughter is failing all her classes, shows a big lack of willingness to learn this year, and is always calling herself stupid, no matter how much she's told she's not. She spends a lot of time doing homework that should only take a short time to do, and leaves it incomplete, or never turns it in. Her father tells her things are unacceptable, and she won't get to college. I tell her to do the best she can as long as she's really trying that's what matters, but that doesn't mean giving up. Her whole outlook has really changed this year on everything, from school, to hygiene, and constant lying.
A: I read your letter with mixed emotions: sadness about the feelings your daughter must be experiencing frustration and a sense of failure about her academic achievement but happiness that we are living in an era that offers hope to children like your daughter. Subtle forms of a learning disability are now detected with a careful and complete evaluation. Some forms of learning disability are manifested early. The hyperactive, easily distracted first-grader may be dyslexic (she has difficulty learning to read). Such children are recognized early and receive remediation by the second grade. Others, and I believe your daughter could be one of them, begin to demonstrate difficulty in learning in the fourth or fifth grades. These children have trouble receiving, processing, or communicating information. They have difficulty organizing their thoughts. They may read a passage correctly but cannot recognize the salient features necessary to construct a logical essay.
Your daughter may be depressed about her inability to do what is expected of her. It will make a tremendous difference to her and to your family if you discern the true cause of her distress. I recommend a visit to a child and adolescent psychiatrist or psychologist, followed by a neuropsychological evaluation. Remedial tutoring (not just doing homework together) may be of enormous help.