Schoolgirl Many people ask me to help them understand why their child is having trouble learning in school. This is a very complicated question! Many things have to happen before learning can occur.

The first step in the learning process is to take something in through our senses of sight, hearing, touch, taste, or smell. Much has been written about the importance of using more than one sense to take information in if we need to remember it later. (See Multisensory Instruction—It's Not Just for School.) However, there is more to learning than multisensory instruction! Just because something enters our brain does not mean it will be learned.

In fact, we don't need to learn most of what gets in! We need to select from the information that got into the brain what is important and what we need to keep for later. We must give attention to it. Not everything that enters in is important enough to pay attention to. In fact, most of what goes in is not worthy. Right this moment, I can hear the microwave beeping, a fan running, voices in the distance, a television and more. We tend to give attention to something that has some emotional appeal to us and ignore all the rest. (The microwave beep means my snack is ready!).

The things we decide to pay attention to move into short term memory. At this stage, we decide whether we need to remember it for a long time (like we do in school) or just for a few seconds (like the food in the microwave is ready). If we need it for a long time, we will need to take an action to move it into long term memory. This takes place by either repeating something over and over again or by creating meaning that is easier to store in memory than random information.

Even at this point, we are not sure learning has occurred because we need to be able to pull the information back out of long term memory (retrieval). And, it is of no use to us if we can't use the information to do something (to apply the learning in a new situation). For help understanding memory see How to Help Your Child Improve His or Her Memory.

Learning problems can occur anywhere in this process. Everything can be going perfectly except for one little thing where a breakdown occurs. It can break down during intake through the senses, giving attention to it, manipulating it in short term memory, putting it into long term memory, retrieving it back out of memory, or when applying the learning.

This is why I cannot answer the question parents ask, "Why is my child having trouble learning in school?" Learning is a complicated process! Many times it takes experimentation and trial-and-error to figure out where the process is breaking down.

Don't give up too quickly. You have to keep trying to figure out the problem. Sometimes it is a simple thing that keeps a student from learning.