Learning Disabilities in Children: An Overview

An expert explains what a learning disability is and isn't -- and describes the signs to watch for in kids of different ages.

By Jan Baumel, M.S.

You wonder why different professionals come to different conclusions about whether or not your child has a learning disability (LD). Why did the private assessment results say that your child has LD, but the public school disagreed?

What is a Learning Disability?

A learning disability affects the way children of average to above average intelligence receive, process, or express information and lasts throughout life. It impacts the ability to learn the basic skills of reading, writing, or math.

The Coordinated Campaign for Learning Disabilities (CCLD), a coalition of national organizations within the learning disabilities community, defines LD as "a neurobiological disorder in which a person's brain works or is structured differently."

Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders - Fourth Edition (DSM-IV), used by psychologists and medical doctors, doesn't list "learning disability," but describes disorders in reading, mathematics, and written expression. Academic achievement, as measured by standardized tests, must be substantially below expectations for the child's chronological age, intelligence, and age-appropriate education.

Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), the federal law that provides for special education, defines "specific learning disability" as a disorder in one or more of the basic psychological processes involved in understanding or using spoken or written language. Skills of listening, speaking, reading, writing, and/or mathematics may be negatively affected.

What a Learning Disability is Not

Facts about LD:

What Should You Look For?

Most kids have some problems in school at one time or another. Some struggle with a specific subject while others have trouble relating to a certain style of teaching. Sometimes learning disabilities are blamed on lack of motivation, immaturity, or behavior problems. But if your child has significant ongoing problems with the "3 R's" - basic skills of reading, writing, and arithmetic - then he may have a learning disability.

Because each child has a unique set of strengths and challenges, you'll want to talk with the teacher, other school staff, family members, and your child to get their input. As you think about the following factors, ask yourself if your child has shown these characteristics to a greater degree than normal for her age, over a period of time, and in different environments, e.g., school, home, child care settings, community.


Grades K-4

Grades 5-8

Assessment for LD

If you suspect that your child may have LD, consult with her teacher and other school staff to decide next steps. A pre-referral support team may be one option.

Remember that the public school is obligated to assess children to see if they have disabilities and need special education services to benefit from their general education program. This is true whether they attend a public or private school. The public school is not legally required to provide a diagnosis, give parents more information for tutors, or qualify children for extra time on college entrance exams.

Under law, LD must be identified by a group of professionals from different fields, a multidisciplinary team, who has assessed your child. While public schools must consider reports you obtained privately, they have the right to assess your child before making any decisions.

Following assessment, the public school team will meet with you to discuss the results and decide if your child is eligible for special education services at the public school. Whether or not she's eligible, evaluation results can be used to plan her educational program, help her understand her learning disabilities, and find ways to be successful.

What Can You Do?

With the right support and interventions, your child can succeed in school and become a successful adult. You can help her in the following ways:

Jan Baumel, M.S., Licensed Educational Psychologist, spent 35 years in education as a teacher, school psychologist, and special education administrator before joining Schwab Learning. Today she is a consultant to local school districts and university field supervisor for student teachers.