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Understanding Complex Learners

What To Look For In Complex Learners

As parents and educators, we understand that one size does not fit all. Your child approaches social situations slowly while someone else’s child jumps right in. One student learns best with verbal prompts while another does better with visual cues. Our brains are all “wired” differently but what for Complex Learners these differences interfere with a child’s ability to learn.

Here are 5 areas where children’s behaviors may demonstrate underlying learning or sensory differences that create barriers to social and academic progress. Children who demonstrate difficulty in several of these areas may be Complex Learners. Complex Learners require strategic, individualized programs to support their engagement with learning.


Getting up and out of bed and ready to face the day is very challenging. A bedtime routine that allows for consistent sleep may be equally difficult. While, interruption of daily routine creates discomfort, anxiety and behavior issues. Transitions between one activity and the next, introducing new people and changing plans can all spark resistance and may lead to “meltdowns.”


Children may not get invited to play dates and may be frequently teased, even bullied. Not understanding the rules of games, talking too loudly or too quietly, misunderstanding social cues and showing poor conflict resolution and coping strategies make it hard to start and maintain friendships. Children may interrupt, display frustration, and generally “wear people down,” or they may retreat and become extremely shy and unresponsive.


Bathing, combing hair, brushing teeth and getting dressed create conflict and resistance. Children may be particularly bothered by the texture of a sweater, how certain socks feel, or a tag at the back of a shirt. They may be very sensitive to temperature, often feeling too hot or too cold. Children may also have an intense aversion to certain foods based on smell or texture, and be picky eaters.


Starting and finishing tasks seems overwhelming, so there are a lot of struggles with homework and household chores. Children may have very messy bedrooms, closets, and lockers. Following directions is difficult, and children have trouble remembering more than one direction at a time or the order of sequence of tasks. They may have trouble with focus and get distracted by noise and visual information.


Reading, math, and writing can all present serious challenges for Complex Learners. They may have trouble with specific concepts such as sounding out words, sequencing numbers, or understanding spelling rules. In addition, there may be more general problems with retrieval and articulation of information. As a result, children may perform below grade level, or have gaps in their understanding and knowledge base.

Complex Learners may be anxious, distractible, rigid, loud or shy, but they are also creative, clever, funny, passionate and persistent. Our work as parents and educators is to understand more about how they are “wired” and what supports will help them achieve their educational potential.

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