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Motivation Problem or Hidden Disability?

Meredith G. Warshaw, M.S.S., M.A.
Special Needs Educational Advisor

So often we are told "your child's so smart - she could do that if only she'd try" or "he has a motivation problem"..  The children in question may get sullen or angry or depressed; they may cry or insist that "I can't" or "it's too boring".  As parents, it hurts us to hear these things about our children, to question our parenting skills, and wonder why our children are not cooperating in school.  But there's often more here than meets the eyes.

In my experience, a large proportion children who look like they have "motivational problems" have undiagnosed special needs.  A few of the hidden disabilities that can make children seem like they "would rather stare at the ceiling than do serious work" are auditory processing problems, ADHD/inattentive type, executive function problems, and dysgraphia.

1.  Auditory processing problems

Auditory processing problems won't show up on the standard hearing tests, since the problem is not the ability to hear sounds, but the ability to process verbal information.  People with auditory processing problems may understand spoken information easily in a one-to-one situation with no background noise and a clear view of the speaker's lips, but have trouble in a crowded classroom or playground.  They often seem like they aren't paying attention because they misunderstand questions and have trouble following multi-step instructions.  Imagine how difficult it would be to have all your lessons in a crowded bar with a rock band playing in the background - that's what school is like for these kids.  Children with auditory processing problems need to receive instructions in writing, not just auditorily.

2.  ADHD/inattentive type

ADHD/inattentive type often goes undiagnosed because the symptoms are subtle.  As with the child with auditory processing problems, the child with ADHD often misunderstands questions and has trouble following multi-stop instructions, only in this case it is because it is impossible for the child to sustain attention.  It is very important to understand that the lack of attention is not due to lack of willpower, rudeness, boring teaching, or willful disobedience.  Like children with auditory processing problems, children with ADHD need to have instructions presented in writing.

3.  Executive function problems

Children with ADHD, non-verbal learning disability, and some other special needs, have problems with "executive function" - the ability to plan and organize.  These are the children who are always losing their homework, whose desks are disaster areas, and who may not be able to write a coherent, well-planned paragraph.  They need help learning to be more organized.  Too often, they are expected to take responsibility for being organized before they are able; these children need explicit instruction in organizational methods, help checking each day if they have their assignments, and hand-holding in getting started on writing assignments.  Again, this is not a matter of "not caring" or "willfulness" (although it can look that way if a child has gotten too discouraged over the years).

4. Dysgraphia

Kids with dysgraphia (written language disabilities) may have trouble with the mechanics of writing.  They are often able to write letters when copying slowly, but lack the automaticity necessary to write fluently while thinking about content; they may be able to draw even though they have problems with writing - the problem is that they are "drawing" their letters.  These kids may seem like they are stubbornly refusing to write when it is truly too difficult for them.  For kids with dysgraphia, it is important to disentangle the mechanics from generation of content.  Let them use dictation at first, then progress eventually to keyboarding.  This allows them to learn how to share their ideas without their physical limitations getting in the way.

These are only a few of the more common causes of apparent motivation problems.  The older the child, the more likely he or she is to look surly, angry, or uncooperative, rather than LD.  Gifted kids are especially likely to have developed negative emotional reactions to school work, because they are told "you are too smart not to be able to do this" or "I know you can do it, because I've seen you".  The problem is that there is no such thing as being too smart to have a learning difference, and a gifted child with LDs may be able to compensate well enough to manage the work sometimes, under optimal circumstances, but not when tired, ill, or preoccupied.  For this reason, it is important to rule out learning differences before concluding that a child's school problems are due to a lack of motivation.

Originally published in the newsletter of the Association for the Education of Gifted Underachieving Students

Copyright Meredith G. Warshaw, 2002

"Children require guidance and sympathy far more than instruction."
       ~ Anne Sullivan (Helen Keller's Teacher)

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