The Frustrated Learner

The Frustration Profile article on my blog, which is about students with high verbal skills and weak motor skills, has gotten more hits and comments than any other blog article I have written.  What I’m realizing is that all students who have learning issues or have any significant discrepancies in their learning profile, tend to become frustrated with academic tasks.

When I explain learning differences to parents I often talk about the feeling a smart student has when there are holes in his learning profile. It is like sending a child out on a field that has bear traps; you know the kind, where the hole is covered with grass so you can’t see it but when you step on it you fall in. These students can do some things really well but other tasks are hard. This type of student is constantly surprised by what he can and can’t do. This uneven cognitive foundation and constant disappointment causes children to become insecure about their abilities. So, basically all children with learning disabilities are set up to become frustrated.

The question is: how do you help these students? This is where testing and evaluations become critical.  Students who have significant strengths along with significant weaknesses are always going to have areas that trip them up. In order for these students to feel secure they need a stable cognitive baseline that they understand. This is what Mel Levine describes as “the demystification process”. The demystification process means taking the mystery out of how the brain works. The process requires you to shine a light on the child’s strengths and weaknesses. It would no longer be a mystery, for example, why math homework is difficult for a student with visual processing difficulties. You explain to him, “ You are very smart, you can do all this math in your head because of your strong working memory ability.  However, because you have difficulty with visual motor tasks, it is hard for you to write the work down. This does not mean you are dumb. It means you have an area that we need to develop”.  Then you create a plan to develop that area of weakness. This is important information for the child to understand. He needs to know that you can be smart and still struggle in school. Let me say that another way, you can struggle in school, and still be smart! How many ways can I say this so that parents, students and teachers understand? Struggling in school does not equal low intelligence.

The important factor in all of this is developing a plan that doesn’t act as a Band-Aid for areas of weakness.  The solution requires developing a plan that remediates, or builds the areas of weakness so there is no longer a significant difference between the strengths and weaknesses. If there is an area that is still weak, once remediation has been done, that is when you start with accommodations.  In other words, for the student with visual processing issues:

First: Build his visual skills.

Second: Build his fine motor skills (writing).

Last: If after you’ve done the remediation of those two areas and there are still weaknesses, and the child is now in fourth-grade, build typing skills. Then once typing skills are learned, teach them dictation skills with a voice-to-text program.

Are you noticing that this is a process?

The process requires:

  1. Identification of strengths and weaknesses.
  2. Demystification of the learning profile for parents, students and teachers.
  3. Remediation of the areas of weakness.
  4. Accommodations for any weaknesses that cannot be remediated.

When a student is frustrated it’s time to take a closer look at his or her learning profile. Frustration is the symptom; you need to find the cause. Then, you identify the best intervention possible that targets the individual student’s areas of need.

I believe every student with an average or above IQ can learn to read, write and do math. It is all about finding the right program that matches the child’s need.

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Thank you, Dr. Mullin, for your informative and compassionate blog! Your profile of the “Frustrated Learner” describes my 9-year-old son to a T: WCI of 130, Perceptual Reasoning 100, Processing Speed 91 (Symbol Search 8, Coding 9)… No wonder he hates school! What I find frustrating is the attitude of the school psych–that there’s absolutely nothing wrong. But DS9’s scores are so very similar to those of his older brother (diagnosed at 9 with ADHD and visual-motor processing issues; now a college freshman)–the only difference is that DS9’s teachers aren’t complaining loudly. I plan on reading your recommendations very thoroughly and implementing them. Not sure how to make the school sit up and take notice though.


Hello Dr. Mullin. We have a 14 year old son who at age 8 was noted to be “gifted” having scored a 147 on the school’s otis lennon test in the 99% for all areas. He scored equally high on other tests as well. At age 9 he was diagnosed with PDD NOS on the Autism spectrum. He excels at computer games like Minecraft and other such fast processing, can ready a 400pg small font book in a weekend, does math in his head……….but absolutely refuses to write since the third grade. With great struggle he will dictate to me to type and use dragon speak but he becomes so upset with the idea of writing that he is reduced to tears and verbalizes that he “can’t write” or is a “bad writer”. It doesn’t seem to be physical pain, but rather the inability to have ideas and thus express them. Can you give me any suggestions to help him?
Thank you.
Tricia in Minnesota


Hello Dr Mullin,
As always thank you so much for all the valuable information you provide for all of us parents who have childern who struggle in the area of acedemics. So what if you have a frustrated student who has no significant areas of weakness or strength but is still struggling? I was pretty much told in my review that bc my daughter has a low average IQ that pretty much this is on par for her learning ablilites and that oh well she will just get F’s in math and D’s reading sorry nothing we can do for her.. I would love for you to email me so that I can have your interupation of these tests results so I can be better informed when I speak to the school pshy. I was only giving her eval results at the meeting so I had no way to form questions for the meeting since we were in the meeting when I got them. when you get a moment please email me:
thank you so much

Melissa Mullin, Ph.D.

Hi Kelly,
I’m sorry to hear about your daughter. I am available for private consultations. You can contact Jessica at and she can set up a phone consultation.