In previous generations, when kids struggled in school, or acted out in class, they were often dismissed as "slow" or "problem children."
Now, decades of research on learning disabilities, and on how the brain itself functions, have made parents and educators far more aware of the myriad difficulties that can confront children in school and in life.
But there are downsides to these advances, according to Charna Ockman Axelrod, who since 1982 has served as the director of the Psychoeducational Division of the Center for Psychological Services in Ardmore, an organization of mental health professionals who work in a wide array of disciplines like substance abuse counseling and career guidance.
One drawback is that some parents may suspect a disability in a child where none exists.
"Sometimes children are working to capacity, but they are not working to the level that their parents feel they should be," explained Axelrod, 64, who holds a doctorate from Temple University in the psychology of reading. "I will only test a child if I see a reason" to do so.
Testing is a large part of what the Merion resident does in her office, a room that's painted bright yellow and is filled with child-friendly objects. The Temple Beth Hillel-Beth El member spends hours with a child, interviewing parents, teachers, even baby-sitters, to better understand the student and recommend everything from therapy to tutoring.
"I love to figure out the pieces. I see every person as a huge jigsaw puzzle," she said. "Our goal is to make every child a successful human being."
But aren't school districts and school psychologists supposed to do this kind of thing?
"A lot of schools are overburdened with people who are applying for testing," said Axelrod, who has two grown children. (Her daughter, when young, had some issues with word recognition, which helped lead the English major mom — her degree is from the University of Pennsylvania — to become a reading specialist.)
"Oftentimes, a school psychologist won't have the opportunity to do as in-depth testing as we can do," said Axelrod, who added that private testing, of course, can be expensive. "We devise a plan for helping the child meet with better success."
Axelrod said that sometimes learning disabilities and emotional issues go hand in hand.
Trouble reading can affect a child's self-esteem. On the flip side, "children who have emotional problems — often there is so much going on in their heads that they have difficulty paying attention in order to learn."
Axelrod said people shouldn't think "that everyone who has a learning problem has a psychological problem."
The educational psychologist recently received the Pennsylvania Branch of the International Dyslexia Association's Janet L. Hoopes award for her mentoring of psychologists throughout the Delaware Valley.
Along with her husband Bart Axelrod, she will also be receiving the Auerbach Central Agency for Jewish Education's Kesher L'atid Award. Charna Axelrod serves on the ACAJE board and sits on its special-needs committee. She remains involved with the Akiba Hebrew Academy, which her children attended.
Axelrod said that as testing techniques develop further, learning disabilities will be diagnosed at younger ages. This, in turn, should translate to better success in school, she said.
"Whoever does testing should have the luxury of really learning about the child, rather than making a decision based on limited information," she said. "I really believe that all children want to do well in school and want to be good — and if not, there has to be a reason. The reason can be uncovered if you do due diligence."