How Epilepsy Affects Learning

School may be difficult for your child if she has learning problems along with her epilepsy. For example, if learning problems emerge because of seizures or medications, tasks that were previously routine may become more difficult and your child may see her classmates moving ahead at a faster pace, one that she cannot maintain.

Some specific learning problems that children with epilepsy can experience are:

  • academic problems: difficulties with reading, writing, and math
  • language problems: difficulties with comprehension, speech, and communication
  • attention and concentration problems: a child may be inattentive, hyperactive, or both. She may only be able to concentrate for short periods of time
  • slowness: it may take a child longer to process new information or to complete tasks compared to other children
  • memory: a child may study a topic many times, but not remember it the next day

In addition to ongoing learning disabilities, children with epilepsy may have intermittent disruptions in their learning that specifically relate to their seizures, sleep patterns, and medications. These disruptions in their ability to attend and learn can change from day to day, or even hour to hour.

  • Night-time seizures or poor sleep patterns caused by abnormal brain activity can increase fatigue during the school day. As a result the child is less attentive and less available to learn.
  • Frequent "invisible" seizure activity in the brain during the school day can result in slower processing, consolidation, and retrieval of information recently learned.
  • Children who have seizures, sometimes even a single seizure, during the school day can experience disruptions in their memory that cause them to forget what they have just learned. In some cases they cannot remember much about what happened just before or for some time after the seizure.
  • Some anti-epileptic medications​ (for example, topiramate) can slow down processing of information in some children, while other anti-epileptic medications can induce fatigue that decreases the child’s availability to learn.

What can be done in general terms to help my child learn?

Early intervention is important. In some cases, a psychoeducational assessment (usually completed through your school board) or neuropsychological testing (usually paid for privately) can be helpful in identifying problem areas and areas of strength and provide you with information.

Children who have seizures and learning difficulties often require a highly structured environment. Experience has shown that the best way to teach children with attention or memory difficulties is using direct, one-on-one instruction.

More information about this method of teaching children with epilepsy is available; please see the "Resources and Support" page in this section.

In some instances, special education programs may be required. Older children with significant learning difficulties may do well in a special vocational or life-skills program at the high school level.

Talk to your child about his experiences at school and the difficulties he is having learning. This will help you understand the situation, how he feels, and ultimately how you can help deal with any issues. Solicit support from your epilepsy care team, school staff, epilepsy organizations, and other advocacy groups.

Creating a supportive environment in school with his teacher and classmates will make it easier for your child and enhance his potential to learn.

If your child is not provided with extra resources, find out what he is entitled to and advocate for these additional supports.

It may be appropriate to discuss some or all of the following suggestions with your child’s teachers:

  • Set clear rules and expectations in the classroom.
  • Seat your child near the front of the classroom to help focus and avoid distraction.
  • Provide less written work.
  • Post a schedule for the day that your child can follow visually.
  • Use visual tools, such as charts and illustrations, if your child has visual memory or visual-spatial problems.
  • Use physical prompts such as pointing to the appropriate part of the page or covering up sections of a page.
  • Use "stop and think" techniques, which help teach children to monitor their behaviour and think before they act.
  • Use a consistent format to deliver instruction.
  • Use tape-recorded textbooks.
  • Allow extra time for tests and assignments and give the child extra time to respond in class.
  • Provide extra help with problem areas.
  • Ask the child to repeat back instructions to be sure that she understands them.
  • Develop a modified learning regimen.
  • Develop a system in which other students in the class can act as peer tutors.
  • Provide special education.
  • "Check in" with your child each day to see how she is doing and feeling.
  • Use key words or phrases to help shift your child’s attention.

At home, children may benefit from an environment rich in language and numbers. Reading stories, doing number rhymes and counting together, and working on math and reading exercise books may support learning. School-aged siblings may be able to help as well. Teachers or a school liaison person may be able to recommend resources to use at home.

Finally, you can help your child by finding a skill or area of interest that he is good at. Focus on your child’s successes. Consider providing opportunities for him to demonstrate his skills.

Irene Elliott, RN, MHSc, ACNP

Janice Mulligan, MSW, RSW