Is your child struggling to understand?

Is your child

  • Lost in school?
  • Not as quick as classmates on schoolwork?
  • Thinking of great ideas but falling behind in school?
  • Seeming lost when introduced to new concepts?
  • Getting frustrated with homework?
  • Struggling more than classmates?
  • Not on grade-level in spite of support and intervention?
  • Having a hard time in several subjects?


Some brains function differently. Your child may work very hard but still fall behind in school. Some children who tested gifted as a young child may find themselves struggling at a gifted school. Your child may have seemed fine in preschool but is now having a hard time keeping the pace in elementary school. Or, perhaps your child has older siblings that always did well in school, but your youngest child is not finding that same success.

Sometimes our abilities change in response to an event. For example, birth trauma, metabolic conditions, or head injuries may affect the working of the brain. Our brains also change in response to exposure. Children from educationally enriching homes tend to score higher on IQ tests [1].

These differences may also be genetic. Some children’s minds are endowed with more skills and abilities simply as a result of DNA.

Problems with overall cognitive ability tend to impact how children understand concepts and ideas. They may have difficulties solving problems or thinking logically. Often, academic problems are involved, such as difficulty learning new letters or words, understanding math concepts, or following along with a class discussion.


Clinically, these problems are referred to as deficits in cognitive ability. This phrase is a clinical word for ‘smarts.’

Intelligence is somewhat innate; to a degree, we are born with it. However, science shows that about half of our intelligence is in our genes, and about half comes from environment, education and experience [2].

In psychology, intelligence is measured with an IQ test. IQ, or ‘intelligence quotient’, refers to the summary of all of our intellectual skills put together [2]. The concept of measuring a person’s intelligence has oft been criticized; however, IQ tests are the most reliable of all psychological assessments.

IQ scores provide a valid measure of an individual’s strengths and weaknesses in terms of intellectual functioning. Recognized expert in intelligence, John B. Carroll, defines IQ thusly,

“…IQ represents the degree to which, and the rate at which, people are able to learn, and retain in the long-term memory, the knowledge and skills that can be learned from the environment…” (Carroll, 1997) [1]

When we think of intelligence, there are multiple types of abilities to consider. Intelligence is not just one kind of knowledge, and it is not just one kind of ability. To account for various types of intellectual skills, IQ tests are broken out into the component scales. Each ‘scale’ represents a different set of cognitive skills.

All IQ tests have different scales, but each test generally measures verbal ability, non-verbal ability, spatial skills, memory, and processing speed. Additional areas that might be assessed include sequential reasoning, fluid reasoning, and auditory processing. All of these areas are described in the Understanding area on this site.

The overall score, represented by the Full Scale IQ score (FSIQ), combines all the intellectual abilities together. This composite score describes an individual’s general intelligence compared to peers of the same age.


If you are wondering about your child’s intelligence or if your child has unexplained learning challenges, an IQ test may be warranted. This test can tell you what your child’s overall skills look like and provide a profile of strengths and weaknesses.

It is important to note that IQ scores do not tend to stabilize, or stay the same, until around third grade. Therefore, if your child is tested in pre-school or early elementary school, the score may not hold up through grade school.

Here is what to do, depending on how your child scores on an IQ test.

Very high (125-130+): If your child’s scores are at or above the 95th percentile, he or she may be identified as Gifted and Talented (GT). Children with scores over 130 are in the Very Superior range of intelligence and generally qualify as Gifted. Scores over 140 are considered Highly Gifted [8] and scores over 160 are considered Profoundly Gifted [8].

What to do: Gifted students generally require more enrichment in the areas where they are gifted, such as: gifted programs at school, after school clubs, and summer camps [3, 4]. Interested readers are invited to learn more in the Gifted article. An ‘Advanced Learning Plan’ should be developed for the school to address how your child’s gifted needs will be met.

High-average (111-124):  If your child scores in the high average range, he or she is likely to have strong academic skills. These students are often the highest achieving of all. Children of high average intelligence have the advantage that most topics come fairly easy to them. They also may not share some of the challenges that gifted kids do.

What to do: Children with high average performance on a Full Scale IQ score sometimes qualify for gifted programs. The logic there is that often children will be gifted in some areas, even if the overall IQ score is below a certain ‘cut-off.’ Children with high average scores can generally handle rigorous programs and advanced curricula.

Average (90-110): If your child’s scores are in the average range, in most ways, this information is good news. Generally, instruction in school is geared toward individuals with your child’s abilities. Also, with adequate effort, school and career endeavors will generally not be too difficult to grasp or master.

What to do: In a very educationally driven family, a child with an average IQ may stand out. Children with average intelligence tend to struggle in gifted schools and advanced programs. School may be challenging when the child has high skills in one area (Verbal IQ, for example) and low skills in another (Non-Verbal IQ, for example). If your child has average intelligence and is struggling in school, tutoring or a homework club at school may be helpful.

Low average (80-89): Children with low average scores tend to struggle in at least one subject academically. It may be that the child scores in the average range on the Nonverbal Index but quite a bit lower on the Verbal Comprehension Index. In this case, the child may do okay in math but is likely to fall behind in reading and writing.

What to do: As the subjects get harder in upper elementary school, your child may require lots of support at home for homework. Tutoring may be needed to help your child keep up with the pace of instruction. Although an Individualized Education Program (IEP) may not be necessary, it is likely that your child will need support at school in the areas that are more challenging.

Very low (79 or lower): If your child’s overall FSIQ score is in the Borderline, Very Low, or Extremely Low range, there are concerns with how your child’s brain processes and understands information, which may limit certain opportunities.

What to do: Allow your child to pursue exploration and enrichment at his or her own pace. Your child’s brain is still learning and developing all the time. However, pushing too hard in areas that are extremely challenging can be detrimental to your child’s self-esteem and happiness.

An Individualized Education Program (IEP) with associated academic services is very likely required to meet your child’s educational needs. Further, your child will need accommodations at school. For example, abstract concepts should be paired with clear and concrete explanations. Tasks should be broken down step-by-step. Direct academic support should be provided in the areas where your child is struggling.


If your child is struggling with a similar symptom not directly addressed in this section, see the list below for links to information about other related symptom areas.

  • Verbal comprehension: children who struggle with understanding in school may have challenges with their verbal comprehension
  • Non-verbal reasoning: children who struggle with understanding may have trouble with logical reasoning and problem solving
  • Spatial reasoning: children who struggle with understanding may also have difficulty seeing how to put things together, solve puzzles, or read a map
  • Fluid reasoning: children who struggle with understanding may have trouble with new concepts or new learning


Children who have significant problems in this area may have any of the following potential disabilities. *Note, this information does not serve as a diagnosis in any way. See the Where to Go for Help section for professionals who can diagnose or provide a referral.

  • Developmental Delay: lower IQ combined with motor, learning, and/or speech delay
  • Autism Spectrum Disorder: deficits in social communication and restricted interests or behaviors. Some children with ASD also have intellectual disabilities
  • Gifted and Talented (GT): full Scale IQ or Index scores at or above 95th Giftedness is not a disability; however, a gifted child is likely to require additional supports and enrichment opportunities
  • Intellectual Disability (ID): full Scale IQ score below 70 and Vineland Adaptive (Daily Living) Scores below 70. Both IQ and Adaptive skills must be low to qualify as having an intellectual disability
  • Learning Disability: learning problems in reading, writing, or math
  • Depression:  depressed individuals score lower on IQ tests, particularly in the area of processing speed. Motoric slowing is a common symptom of depression


If your child is struggling with a symptom to the point that it is getting in the way of his or her learning, relationships, or happiness, the following professionals could help; they may offer diagnosis, treatment, or both.

These professionals may recommend or administer the following tests for this symptom:

  • DAS-II: individually administered cognitive abilities test for preschool or older children
  • KABC-II: individually administered IQ test for children
  • WAIS-IV: individually administered IQ test for older children and adults
  • WISC-V: individually administered IQ test for children
  • WPPSI-III: individually administered IQ test for pre-school children


[1] Kroncke, Willard, & Huckabee (2016). Assessment of autism spectrum disorder: Critical issues in clinical forensic and school settings. Springer, San Francisco.

[2] Sattler (2014). Foundations of behavioral, social, and clinical assessment of children. Jerome M. Sattler, Publisher, Inc, La Mesa, CA.

[3] Trail (2011). Twice exceptional gifted children: Understanding, teaching, and counseling gifted students. Prufrock, Waco, TX.

[4] Eide & Eide (2006). The mislabeled child: Looking beyond behavior to find the true sources—and solutions—for children’s learning challenges. Hyperion, NY.

[5] Carroll, J.B. (1997). Psychometrics, intelligence, and public perception. Intelligence, 24, 25-52; p. 44.

Image Credit:
Description: Frustrated with school or child with learning difficulties
Stock Photo ID#: 17697 (Big Stock)
By: lovleah
Previously Licensed: Sep 22, 2016
Stylized by Katie Harwood exclusively for CLEAR Child Psychology

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