Addressing the Link Between Learning Differences and Anxiety & Depression

Last month I took part in a panel discussion at the Innovative Learning Conference in San Mateo, California. This conference brought together top people in the fields of learning, neuroscience, and clinical practice, including Ned Hallowell, Thomas Brown, Akihiko Takahashi, and Adam Gazzaley. Following our panel discussion, we collaborated to answer some of the questions that we did not have time to address during our talk. I am sharing the questions and answers below, along with some additional helpful resources.

Addressing the Link Between Learning Differences and Anxiety & Depression

Parenting as a lifelong journey filled with incredible highs, daunting lows, and everything in between. As parents, we do anything necessary to be certain our kids are happy and healthy. Since there’s no universal parent handbook that contains “all the right answers,” sometimes we get stuck—sometimes we’re scared—we always worry. The sheer size of our responsibility can make us feel isolated and vulnerable. This panel discussion addressed the power of neurodiversity and how learning differences and anxiety & depression are linked.


What is the most effective assessment tool(s) for diagnosing LD and or ADHD? (Ned Hallowell just mentioned that psych testing is not great for ADHD)?
I believe that whenever there is sufficient concern on the part of the parent and or the educators, it is valuable to get a proper evaluation by a qualified professional. Also, keep in mind that regardless of intelligence level, 25-50% of children with ADHD have some learning disability, usually related to reading, written expression, and or math.

The evaluation should include a Functional Behavioral Instrument that examines abilities and performance on tasks related to home and school. Situational factors, history of the behavior, events precipitating the behavior and consequences of the behavior are examined to determine the function of the behavior.

It should also include direct observation of the child in multiple academic settings as well as input from parents and teachers. There also needs to be both a medical and social history of both the child and the family.

In addition, generally, the following are recommended—

  • Cognitive tests to measure the child’s ability to process different types of information (visual and auditory; learned and short term memory), resulting in a pattern of learning style.
  • Achievement tests to measure skill levels in Reading, Math, and Written Expression.
  • Perceptual skills tests to measure visual perception, auditory perception, and motor coordination skills necessary for school performance.
  • Rating Scales to measure various aspects of the child’s behaviors and perceptions. Scales are often completed by the child, the parents, and various teachers. Results may indicate behavior patterns that may differ based on time of day, teacher, subject matter, or location.

What would you consider to be the most reliable and earliest screener to give for dyslexia?
It seems like this should have a simple answer, but there is no single or best test. The reason why there is no one great measure is that you have to assess several areas: oral language, phonological skills, decoding, reading fluency, reading comprehension, and spelling. To do so the best practice would be to use several measures. Additionally, it is wise to include cognitive tests like an IQ test to rule out intellectual disability, oral language measures to rule out language impairment, as well as vision and hearing tests. A comprehensive assessment would also include language background, environmental measures, and family history questions.

Some educational therapists use a tool called the ‘Slingerland Screening’ that can indicate dyslexia. Wilson Reading advocates use a ‘Word Identification and Spelling Test’ (WIST), which measures word attack and spelling skills. The WIST is used in conjunction with the ‘Comprehensive Test of Phonological Processing’ (CTOPP) to help see which kids are at risk for dyslexia.

Can any of the panelists speak to the role of SEL skills for teachers in helping kids?
We know that the development of SEL skills and strategies—specifically self-awareness, self-control, and interpersonal skills—are vital for school, work, and life success.

To be effective SEL educators, teachers must first develop their skills in self-awareness, self-management, social awareness, relationships, and responsible decision-making. Classrooms today can be extremely stressful. Teacher stress can interfere with the effective teaching of SEL to students. Stresses of teaching can lead to a cycle of diminished well-being, for educators that negatively correlates to student learning. When a teacher has increased physical and emotional well-being it leads to effective pedagogy and an enhanced learning environment. Many school districts now prioritize self-care for educators. By embodying their own well-being first, teachers can model the social-emotional skills and facilitate the human connections that are often lost in our technology-driven world.

Suggestions for families with children that can benefit from “mentor program,” therapy, parent coaching, etc. but cannot afford it? It is overwhelming to decide where to start and what to do to help your child…
Eye to Eye is a free mentoring program for families. This link is the best place to get started:

More Information

A mentor is an older child or adult who can be a role model for your child. Mentors spend quality time with a child and offer support, encouragement, and fun. Kids who have a mentor tend to do better in school and have higher self-esteem.

The Benefits of Mentorship
A mentor can talk to your child about problems that crop up and help set future career goals. Or a mentor and your child might just spend time having fun together. Having a mentor can raise a child’s self-esteem and lead to better performance at school. It can also make your child less likely to drink alcohol or use illegal drugs.

For kids who learn and think differently, it can be especially helpful to have a mentor who knows what it feels like to grow up with these challenges. Some kids are reluctant to reach out for help when they need it. They might be embarrassed about their struggles in school. Having a mentor who’s been there can remove that barrier.

A mentor is a positive role model for your child. If you’re a single mom, a male mentor can provide a role model of the opposite sex (and vice versa for single dads). It’s one more person who offers support and encouragement for your child. This can help your child do better in school and even raise your child’s self-esteem.

Types of Mentors
There are many types of people who could be good mentors. Finding the right mentor might take some time. It’s important to find a mentor who’s a good fit for your child. Here are some people you might want to consider:

  • A sports coach, art teacher, or music teacher
  • A school teacher
  • College students or young adults who learn and think differently (who you may find through an organization like Eye to Eye)
  • A neighbor or family friend
  • One of your coworkers
  • A mentor found through a mentoring organization

How to Find a Mentor
Start by considering the people you already know. Think about your child’s interests. Is your child a budding painter? Maybe you know an art teacher or an artist who might make time to go to an art museum or talk about art with your child.

Try talking one-on-one with a potential mentor first. This way, you won’t put the person on the spot in front of your child. Some people may want to be mentors but, don’t have the time to dedicate.

Mentoring programs can match your child with a volunteer mentor. Check with your child’s school for recommended mentoring programs in your area. Eye to Eye mentors have challenges like ADHD and dyslexia. There are also programs that aren’t specific to learning and thinking differences, like Big Brothers Big Sisters. (They do not specialize in LD, but they have spent the last few years developing programs to support LD students.)

Key Takeaways

  • Any child can benefit from having a mentor.
  • For kids who learn and think differently, it can be especially helpful to have a mentor who knows what it feels like to grow up with these challenges.
  • You may find a mentor for your child through people you already know, or through a mentoring organization.
  • is a great resource for finding mentoring programs. Some are free, and some are online.
  • Contact Cindy for more information about her Calm and Connected Parent Coaching workshop (which includes information about mentoring):

Speaking of judgment, at what point do you decide school may be harming a child emotionally, especially with highly impulse tendencies in ADHD. Do some of you home school?
There is no “one size fits all” answer. The school-parent relationship is key in any decision like this. If your child is refusing to go to school or incredible sad and closed down, you should be talking with the school guidance counselors, teachers, and administration. Often at this point, a therapist has been involved, and they can become part of decision-making. While it is never the right decision to leave a student in a school where s/he is miserable, depressed, and showing severe signs of mental health–the move will not be easy on the student or the family. It must be carefully and thoughtfully considered over a period of time. One word of caution is that under no circumstances should a child be pulled from school without a plan for their next placement. Changing schools does not always change the outcome.

Although some of our panelists considered homeschooling, none of us have actually done that. We definitely believe homeschooling is a viable option in some cases.

Anxiety is a natural emotion that all people experience.
Two questions: (1) What level of anxiety is unhealthy? (2) Can a parent overcompensate to eliminate anxious situation for their kids and make them less able to learn to cope with challenging situations?
The simple answer is when it becomes impairing (e.g., when it gets in the way of what you want to do). Anxiety can be healthy and normal, and protect us and help maximize our performance. Anxiety disorders arise when our anxiety responses take over and are activated during everyday events or tasks, thus impairing our ability to function.

Yes, as parents we can get in the way of our children developing appropriate coping skills. The phenomena of helicopter parenting and snowplow parenting are good examples of how w can contribute to raising less adaptive youth. It always comes from a good place and happens to the best of us – we want to protect our kids. However, if our method of protecting them removes opportunities for them to struggle and engage in key life skills (such as managing frustration and conflict resolution) they will be ill-equipped to manage everyday stressors that they encounter in school, in the workplace, and in relationships in general. Some stress is good for us all.

How to Avoid Being Overprotective of Your Child

Could you please also comment about how to help a gifted kid with ADD or LD that fails tests to gifted or advanced programs because of anxiety? (This is about a 6-year-old.)
Children with learning and attention issues are as smart as their peers, but they are significantly underrepresented in gifted programs and AP courses.

Twice-exceptional students are gifted and have disabilities. They may struggle in different ways to achieve their full potential:

  • Their strengths may mask their weaknesses and keep them from getting identified as having a disability
  • Their weaknesses may overshadow their strengths and keep them from getting identified as gifted
  • Their strengths and weaknesses may cancel each other out and keep them from getting identified either as gifted or as having a disability
  • The federal government has made it clear to states that students cannot be denied the opportunity to participate in an accelerated program because they have a disability. In fact, with the right supports and services, many students with disabilities can succeed in rigorous, accelerated courses. Yet students in special education remain significantly underrepresented in Advanced Placement (AP) courses and gifted and talented education programs (GATE). Children who are gifted and have disabilities are often referred to as “twice-exceptional.”

States need to take more steps to ensure equity in accelerated programs for students with disabilities and other historically underserved groups.

For example, only seven states (AL, AR, CO, KY, PA, SC, WI) included “gifted with a disability” in their state definition about kinds of giftedness.

More research is needed to determine how many twice-exceptional students are being denied access to rigorous content or accommodations that would allow them to thrive in an accelerated curriculum. Some parents are seeking alternatives to traditional public schools—and their choices may affect their children’s rights and access to services.

This is a huge question that does not have a simple answer…

There needs to be a discussion regarding what factors are creating anxiety. Is the tradeoff at this age worth the potential outcome? What are other ways to help this child learn and reach that would not involve the stress at this point?

Gifted Children’s Challenges with Learning and Thinking Differences

7 Myths About Twice Exceptional 2e Students

Are there some LDs that kids can outgrow? Or are there learning strategies to help them manage their LDs that they will always have to deal with?
Learning disabilities do not go away. Your brain will still work differently as an adult, but you will have learned many new skills and ways of getting around your difficulties. Adults with LD who find a career where they can use their strengths and get around their difficulties can be very successful.

If kids have the right support—in terms of interventions and strategies they adapt—they will thrive and become successful. The first step is to get the right characterization by an expert (e.g., pediatric neuropsychologists at places like CHC) to figure out their strengths and weaknesses.

LD and ADHD are lifelong journeys. Children, teens, and young adults can always learn skills and strategies, especially executive functioning strategies, which will help them overcome challenges that once seemed impossible to “outgrow.”

The emergence of research and development on neuroplasticity is very encouraging and offers opportunities for growth. In our opinion, LD will always be LD in a certain way. The brain is plastic but always remembers the past. Someone with LD, even with intervention, cannot completely reverse the brain. You break a bone, and you can fix it, but you will see traces of where it was broken in the bone. Lizards tails grow back, but not exactly the same structure, etc. So the brain will remember that it had LD and can change to adapt after the intervention, but it will not totally eliminate the past.

What advice would any of you give to public school teachers who want to support students with learning differences in meaningful and sustainable ways?
I teach high school English and support 165 students and sometimes feel like personalized support expectations are out of reach…

1. Become completely familiar with It’s the most significant resource for parents and teachers for LD and ADHD kids.

2. Reach out to your local International Dyslexia Association chapter

3. Contact the Director of Special Education in your district and ask for resources

A couple of other really great resources

Teacher training in school districts:
Cindy’s new book: ADHD, Executive Function, & Behavioral Challenges in the Classroom: Managing the Impact on Learning, Motivation, and Stress

I was told that there is no true test for dyslexia. Is this true? [SEE ANSWER TO QUESTION #1]

Has anyone done any research on the over excitabilities commonly found in kids (and adults) who are profoundly gifted, which can present as ADHD and lead to the same issues of anxiety & depression? What sort of support can be found for these kids?
Individuals with high intelligence are not notably more excitable than those with normal intelligence. Anxious individuals often can be prone to become “excitable” regarding impending events, either positively—“I can’t wait for this to happen!—or negatively, “I can’t stand waiting for this to happen.” In either instance, the connection with an event or series of events is fairly clear. Although, in the moment, excitability might have features in common with symptoms of ADHD such as high activity levels, impulsive behaviors, and poor attention and focus, the big difference is that they a situation-dependent. Individuals with ADHD also may be prone to being excitable; but, even when they are not in that state, the issues of high activity, impulsivity, and poor focus cause problems for them and those around them.

Panelist Resources

From Marcus Soutra, CEO of Eye to Eye

· Bring Eye to Eye to your school

· Download the app Eye to Eye Empower and start developing you’re My Advocacy Plan

From Cindy Goldrich, ADHD Expert

Providing Coaching, Education, and Support to Parents, Students, and Professionals
Website: | Loaded with tips, tools, strategies, and resources for parents, students, and educators.
Email: [email protected]
Publications and Workshops:
8 Keys to Parenting Children with ADHD
ADHD, Executive Function, & Behavioral Challenges in the Classroom: Managing the Impact on Learning, Motivation, and Stress
Calm and Connected: Parenting Kids with ADHD/Executive Function Challenges (workshop series available as a live webinar and on-demand eCourse)

From Fumiko Hoeft, Psychiatrist and Neuropsychiatrist

Lab Site:
Twitter: @fumikoHoeft
UCSF Dyslexia Center:

From Rosalie Whitlock

Children’s Health Council
Resource Library
Understood is a free online resource for parents of kids with learning & attention issues. It provides clear answers, simple tools, & ongoing support for the millions of parents whose children, ages 3–20, are struggling with learning and attention issues. We want to empower them to understand their children’s issues and relate to their experiences. With this knowledge, parents can make effective choices that propel their children from simply coping to truly thriving. 5 Ways Parents Can Use the New State of ID Report Learning Disabilities and Disorders

Please reach out to me if I can support you further.


Cindy Goldrich
[email protected]
516-398-9934 (NY roots but living in Colorado?)

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