Epilepsy and Learning Challenges

Most children with epilepsy have similar intellectual abilities to children without epilepsy. However, children with epilepsy have a greater chance of experiencing learning challenges than their peers.

Common Learning Challenges for Children with Epilepsy
  • Paying attention and concentrating
  • Understanding instructions
  • Using information
  • Describing things to other people
  • Remembering things
  • Working out how to do something new
  • Organizing thoughts or tasks
  • Feeling you have no energy to do things
  • Feeling muddled or confused
  • Feeling sad or tearful
  • Feeling short tempered or grumpy
  • Working out sums
  • Writing or copying figures
  • Developmental delays

Frequency of seizures

  • A child who is experiencing frequent seizures, may not fully recover between seizures

Location of seizure activity in the brain

  • When seizures are focused in a particular area of the brain, they may also affect functions controlled in that part of the brain.

Type of seizures

  • When a child loses consciousness during a seizure, their mental functioning can be disrupted for up to several days.
  • Absence seizures appear to disrupt short-term memory for information presented immediately before the seizure.
  • Tonic-clonic seizures are followed by a period of drowsiness or inattentiveness.
  • Research has shown a correlation between cognitive/behavioural difficulties and complex partial seizures.

Medication side effects

  • Some anti-seizure medications may make some children tired, less alert, or hyperactive.
  • Someone taking more than one anti-seizure medication is more likely to experience negative side effects than someone taking a single antiseizure medication.
  • Herbal remedies can interact with prescribed medications in ways that will disrupt learning.

Age of onset

  • Some anti-seizure medications may make some children tired, less alert, or hyperactive.

Type of epilepsy syndrome

  • Some epilepsy syndromes (e.g. Lennox-Gastaut Syndrome) involve learning and thinking difficulties.

Epileptic (interictal) discharges

  • Some children appear to be seizure-free but may be experiencing epileptic discharges in the brain, called interictal discharges or sub-clinical seizures
  • Interictal discharges may produce restlessness, distractibility, inability to focus, decreased capacity for taking in new information, and behavioural disturbances.
  • The underlying neurological problem causing the seizures can also impact learning and behaviour.

Other related conditions

  • There are a number of other conditions that are more likely to occur in people with epilepsy than the general population, including Attention-Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), Learning Disabilities, and Autism Spectrum Disorders.

* For strategies to help a child with attention deficits, please see our strategy sheets entitled: Epilepsy and ADHD and Organization and Planning. 

Adapted from Children and Learning (Epilepsy Toronto) and Cognitive, Behavioural and Social Co-Morbidities in Children with Medically Refractory Epilepsy (Mary Lou Smith).

Additional Sources: Canadian Epilepsy Alliance. Learning through Storms: Epilepsy and Learning. I Elliott, L Lach, M Smith. (2004). Epilepsy Impact on the Life of a Child. Lumina, Fall, 4-5.


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