letters flying out of open book laying on table

Most people with epilepsy learn the same as people without epilepsy. However, students with epilepsy are more likely to have learning problems than their peers. There are lots of possible causes and we don’t understand them all yet.

  • Learning problems have been seen in youth before seizures are diagnosed.
  • They are also seen in students with well controlled seizures – who are seizure free.
  • They are more frequent in students whose seizures are hard to control.
Knowing when you are having problems and getting help at school can make learning easier.

I am having some difficulties in school. Could this be related to my epilepsy?

Yes, problems in school can be related to your epilepsy. However, such difficulties may not directly correlate with how often your seizures are happening and can persist in many people even with complete seizure control. Students with epilepsy are more likely to have attention problems or learning disabilities in math or reading. Some students may have other problems with thinking and learning.

If I am concerned about my learning, what should I do?

Don't be afraid to ask for help! You are not alone. Many teenagers may feel ashamed, angry, and frustrated with their performance in school. This may be related to your epilepsy and getting the help you need to succeed is important.

  • First talk to your parents and epilepsy doctor. It’s important to find out what may be causing school problems. Tests for your epilepsy or medicine may be needed.
  • Testing may be scheduled to see if learning disabilities and epilepsy are related and how. A neuropsychologist can provide expert advice on the types of difficulties you have and what can help you learn better.
  • Some students may need a medication or behavioral therapy. In some cases, teachers or professors can adjust the way information is taught or given to you, or they can change the time allowed for assignments or tests.
  • Your school guidance counselor or advisor can be a great partner to help you build the right supports at school. Meet with your guidance counselor regularly to stay on track with your studies and to get support.

What are common problems I should know about?

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Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder

Attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) occurs more often in people with epilepsy than in those without epilepsy. If you have both ADHD and epilepsy, work with your doctor to make sure you are getting treatment for both your seizures and ADHD.

Treatments are available that are safe and will not worsen your seizures.

You may have difficulties with

  • Paying attention
  • Being easily distracted
  • Being disorganized
  • Staying focused on work
  • Paying attention to something you don't find interesting
  • Paying too much attention to things that you do find interesting
  • Setting priorities
  • Forgetting important assignments
  • Losing track of items
  • Reacting very strongly to things
  • Saying or doing things without thinking about them first

While some of these symptoms can be common in all teenagers, for those with ADHD they get in the way of their ability to function in day-to-day life.

Learning Disabilities

Often learning problems don’t fit neatly into one category. Epilepsy may cause very specific learning difficulties depending on what areas of the brain are involved. That’s why it’s very important to get help if you are struggling in school. You may notice…

  • Difficulty reading and/or writing
  • Changes in behavior (not wanting to participate or being aggressive)
  • Feeling frustrated with school
  • No interest in learning new things
  • A hard time organizing homework
  • Trouble paying attention or following directions
  • Having a hard time saying what you are feeling
  • Poor memory
  • Difficulty with math
  • Problems keeping track of time
  • Doing poorly on standardized or timed tests
  • Poor social skills

Mild Intellectual Disability (ID)

I have been diagnosed with an intellectual disability, what does that mean?

An ID means that you have more difficulties with intellectual functioning and life skills (such as being able to keep track of money or stay organized) than your peers. This diagnosis would have been made by a professional.

What does this mean for school?

This means that you may need more help in school than others. Your schoolwork should include learning life skills so you can be as independent as possible as you get older.

Are there other epilepsy related factors that can make learning difficult?

Side Effects from Seizure Medication

Some seizure medicines can also affect learning. Sometimes side effects can make you feel tired, have trouble thinking or paying attention, or cause an upset stomach. Any of these things can affect your learning and schoolwork.

If it’s harder to learn after you have had medicine changes, talk to your doctor or nurse. Changing the dose of medicine or times you take it may help. Make sure you don’t make these changes on your own. Work with your health care team to find a solution – just ask!

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Seizures in School

When seizures happen in class, you may miss some parts of the class. You may be confused about what to do or miss homework assignments. If seizures are brief, they may not be recognized by you or your teacher. But they can still be causing problems for learning.

Postictal is a word that means the period of time after a seizure. After a seizure, your brain needs to recover from a seizure. This can last seconds, minutes, or hours, depending on the type of seizure. During this time, you may have problems with memory, sleepiness, and confusion, making it more difficult to learn.

Abnormal electrical discharges between seizures can cause temporary changes in how your brain works. Your level of alertness and how you process information may be affected too.

Depression and anxiety are more common in people with epilepsy. These mood problems can affect your ability to concentrate and learn.

Poor sleep can be related to epilepsy and its treatment for some people. Not getting enough good sleep can make it hard to pay attention, process information, and learn.

Feeling Overwhelmed

What help is available at school?

Some students with epilepsy may need extra services or special instruction at school. Every student with epilepsy has a right, by law, to get extra help if it is needed.

  • Share your goals and expectations with your parents and teachers.
  • Make sure that any help you need is in a written plan called an Individualized Education Program.
  • Work with your parents and your school team to find the best way to enhance your learning. Also ask for help dealing with any challenges related to epilepsy at school.

What should I do if I am having a difficult time managing my epilepsy?

Whether or not you have a new diagnosis of epilepsy or have had it for years, dealing with epilepsy as a teen can be challenging. Here are some tips that can be helpful:

  1. Take good care of yourself
    Dealing with epilepsy can be hard. It’s important to make time to take care of yourself as much as possible.
    • If you are taking a daily seizure medicine, don’t miss any doses. This can help keep control of your seizures.
    • Eat a healthy diet, exercise regularly, get enough sleep and avoid risky behaviors, such as too much alcohol and illicit drug use. This is very important for seizure control and your health in general.
  2. Take the lead on your epilepsy care
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    • As you get older, it may feel hard to talk to your doctor directly. You may be used to having your parents speak for you.
    • You may have different questions than your parents have as you become independent.
    • Take time to write down your questions before your appointments with your doctor or nurse. Keep a list on your phone or use forms like the ones in our toolbox. Share all medical concerns and how things are going at school, with your friends and at home.
    • Talk to your doctor about ways you can become more independent in managing your epilepsy. Your doctor may recommend things like a pill box to keep track of medicines, a seizure diary or an app for your phone to help you keep track of your medication and your seizures.
  3. Tell someone if you are having a hard time dealing with your epilepsy.
    • It's okay to feel upset or anxious about your seizures. However, it is important to get help and talk about any fears and concerns with people you trust (family, friends, a counselor).
    • Being open about your concerns can go a long way in helping you to become comfortable with your epilepsy.
    • Support groups can give you a place to talk with other teens. You can learn from people who have gone through similar issues. Your local Epilepsy Foundation is a great place to connect to learn about support groups and other teen programs.
    • Sometimes you may feel so overwhelmed that you may benefit from seeking care from a professional. Signs that you may be too overwhelmed can include frequent crying, changes in appetite or weight, either not sleeping enough or sleeping too much, losing interest in things you did before, or an increase in unsafe behavior.
  4. Dealing with parents and caregivers
    • As you become more independent from your parents, it is normal to have differences about what you want and what your parents think is best for you.
    • Have an open conversation with your parents about your thoughts and desires for the future, including your education. This will help you come to an understanding with them and get the support you need.
    • Remember, your family and your caregivers are all rooting for your happiness and success! Sharing your wishes with them will allow them to give you the right level of both support and independence for school and for life.
We're all rooting for your success!
Authored By: 
Elaine Kiriakopoulos MD, MSc
Karen Spencer MD, MS, MPH
Authored Date: 
Reviewed By: 
Elaine Wirrell MD
Tuesday, February 18, 2020