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Does Your Child Need Help to Learn? Part 1, Lifestyle Factors

A mother called me yesterday to talk about having her homeschooled son assessed for learning disabilities. We discussed his strengths and weaknesses in memory, sequencing information, reading speed, and transitioning between tasks. She described him as “stocky”, slow to transition, with poor recall for math facts and latin vocabulary, and good reading comprehension though a slow reading pace.

He’s struggling to complete high school and it appears it may take him until age 19 or 20, and naturally she’s wondering if he’ll be able or willing to continue to college. I thought that an academic evaluation would be a good idea. Even if he doesn’t qualify for any accommodations, the family will have more information and a reference point for comparing future evaluations.

I also encouraged her to have a thorough metabolic panel done, specifically to check thyroid, iron, blood sugar, and general inflammation markers. The fact that he’s “always been stocky” doesn’t prove it’s ideal for him. If his bloodwork comes back looking normal (debatable reference ranges aside), then she can still move forward with obvious lifestyle interventions like more exercise and protein to shift his metabolism and improve his alertness and focus.

Here are the general lifestyle interventions I would recommend, in order of priority. Since this is a homeschooling family, they have more flexibility in some areas:

1. Get up and moving every morning. Even if a teen clearly needs to sleep in til 8 or even later through a growth spurt, when they do get up, they should get outside to walk the dog, take out trash, do some gardening, or somehow get outside for the sunlight and the fresh air. If a teen were willing to do actual cardio, so much the better. Even a dozen pushups or lunges would make a difference.

2. Drink more water, and consider tea and coffee as a wake up ritual. I’m not encouraging dependency, but many adults find that caffeine helps them focus. Before trying anything stronger, like Adderall, it seems worth considering a substance with a long history of consumption and possible side benefits.

3. Eat more protein. For adults maintaining muscle mass, half a gram per pound of body weight is often considered the baseline. For a growing teen, it would be more. This not only supports muscle growth and metabolism; the amino acids that protein breaks into are the ingredients for neurotransmitters like serotonin and dopamine which affect mood and focus.

4. Check Sleep. Is he falling asleep and staying asleep? Does he snore? Does he breathe through his nose rather than his mouth? Can he remember dreams? All of these give information about his sleep quality and brain chemistry. Getting out in the morning sun helps entrain a circadian rhythm (see #1). Settling down the house at night, staying off screens after dinner, taking a shower, or other ways to unwind and encourage sleepiness, can all contribute to sleep and improved metabolism.

5. Evaluate social life and vision for the future. Teens need a good friend, and several friendly people, to know that someone “gets” them. It’s not enough that their loving parents were once teens and remember the awkwardness and searching. They also need a vision for how they will fit into the world (or change their part of it), contribute to their family and community, and support themselves. Adults know that having a goal can give you the focus and energy to move forward when the day-to-day seems tedious. Kids have the same challenge on a smaller scale - humdrum work now, payoff later - and they can be happier in the present if they see how it all fits together.

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