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HomeLearning DifficultiesLearning Disabilities & ADHDIdentifying a Learning Disability

Learning disabilities: An overview

Learning disabilities: What are they and what should you watch for?

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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 kids 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

  • Attention disorders, such as attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and learning disabilities often occur at the same time, but they're not the same.
  • Learning disabilities are not the same as mental retardation, autism, hearing or visual impairment, physical disabilities, emotional disorders, or the normal process of learning a second language.
  • Learning disabilities aren't caused by lack of educational opportunities, such as frequent changes of schools, poor school attendance, or lack of instruction in basic skills.

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 she 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.

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.

Comments from GreatSchools.org readers

11/14/2011:
"It is interesting in the lack of discussion of eye movement to read across the page of a book or fine motor movement necessary for hand writing, and not addressing Dyslexia in it's other forms. We never were able to get assistance with a child that in the 2nd grade that read at 8th reading level and good comprehension but has difficulty with hand writing, he wrote very slowly. It was so bad that we held the child back a year because of this difficulty. The child was humiliated by a teacher and transferred out of her class, without informing the parents until after the fact. The child did not write fast enough to complete the busy work needs of the teacher, yet this child had the highest test grades in the class. Worked with a number of children having difficulty with reading, one child could not track across the page to read. Eye development was not where it needed to be at his age. These are disabilities that teachers are not trained to recognize much less willing to addres! s. There are also different types of Dyslexia beyond letter recognition. "
03/31/2011:
"I too have always had LD and my 10yr old daughter does too. It's awful! I can't keep a job. I can only imagine with her. We are moving to Sarasota, Fla. and I'm looking for the best school with a good special ed programs for her. She's coming from an excellent school that has worked with her for 3 yrs but I just lost my job and need to live w/ my Mother. Does anybody out there know the area and can help me?"
10/19/2009:
"I have a son, he is eight years old and one of the sweetest children you will ever meet. I first started noticing little odd thing he would do like when he was about eight-teen months old he would point to everything that he wanted and i would give it to him and tell what it was but he would never say it I thought he was speech delayed and took him to the doctor he said he was normal and was just moving a little slower than his sister i said okay after all he was the doctor. In the mist of all of this he started banding his head very hard on very hard surfaces I thought to myself that is not right so i went back to the doctor and he told me that it was frustration and when he learned to communicate better it would stop. The next year he started kindergarden he was not very social at the begining of the school year but by the end of the school year he was a social butterfly but the teacher pulled me to the side and said to me that their was no need for concern but there was a! few things she wanted me to be aware of she told me that my son could not identify all of the alphabet, he was in the lowest resding group, and did not do well in large groups. I assumed that because I did not see or hear any head banging that it was just a faze as the doctor told me little did I know it had just turned into somthing else. The next school year off to the first grade he was so excited he still enjoyed going to school I start getting all of these calls and notes from school saying that my son is doing no work in school so I go to the school to find out what is going on i get his work I say to my son what is going on he told me he did not know what he was supposed to do I then told the teacher that my son could not read they switch my sons class and I am determined to play an actice roll in his school life i talk to his teacher atleast once a week so i figured any school issuses would be relayed since i see and talk to her so often then I see report cards and! progress report that sats the opposite of what she is telling! me face to face I talk to the princepal and she put my son in reading recovery program and still he could not read he was memorizing the books I stated noticing cuts, and scratches and he no longer wanted to go to school finally he told me about a bully picking on him at recess I went to the school to discuss it and I was told that my son is a solitarie child making him easy for a bully to pick on so I said you have recess monitors if you know he is a solitary then you should be keeping an eye on him anyway I caught him cutting himslf with the razor I shave my legs with. I moved to a new neighborhood going to a new school my son is fighting alot after school and not learning anything in school the teacher tells me he is so quiet she can forget he is even in her class. He is still reading on kinder garden level he almost severed his thumb over the summer he has enough problems without adding ro it all it just had to be the one he wrote with now my son is in the third grade ! can barely read sever comprehension problems and things are not getting better for him they are getting worst and everyone keeps saying he is normal but i know something is wrong with my son i need help "
08/20/2009:
"At the beginning of this article it spoke about Independant evaluations and the school's not matching one another. Why is this and what to do when this happens and the school doesn't agree with the Independant testing? If early intervention is the key than why wouldn't the school want to do this?"
07/22/2009:
"Want some additional information, answers to questions, or support? Please consider joining and posting them at the 'Learning and Attention Difficulties' group found here at GS to receive to receive practical suggestions from parents who have faced similar challenges: http://community.greatschools.org/groups/11554"
07/7/2009:
"my son is 7th grade and he was diagnosed with Ld, we noticed that he has aproblem when he was in 3rd grade, we tried to get help for him when he was in the lower classes but we failed. We moved to another area and we put him in a Private school, there we got an help and finally got our son tested.Now ,we are stuck in making adiscission,considering in that private school he is they dont have special help for children with LD,now we are thinking if we put him in the public school is it not going to affect him phsychologically and make his situation worse than helping him? what do you think we can do? He is going in 8th grade and he turned 13 years in April."
05/12/2009:
"Can this organization refer me to where I can get my daughter, age 7, tested for learning disabilities outside of the public school system. I understand that this is generally not covered by health insurance, can be expensive, and we would be responsible to pay for it. We have been going thru the school system for the past 2 years and I would like an outside opinion. Any information would be greatly appreciated. Thanks "
06/16/2008:
"Thank you this is an insightful artical for parents that have children with ADHD. My son is at the highest range of ADHD. He does take medication for school. We had him tested physically for any possibility of something other than ADHD. He just passed to the 3rd grade. At the start of the school year in second grade he really couldn't read anything, he had problems with the 3 letter words. The school enrolled him in LD language arts classes in first grade. The start of 2nd grade he was rated as the lowest in his class in reading. Just before school was out he received a certificate for being the best reader in class. He can read better than his brother in 5th grade. I struggled with trying everything to get him interested in reading. Then one day I made an off the wall comment I said 'well if you won't read to me, then read to your dog, she really wants to learn to read'. He did just that, he read to her every evening, and thankfully she would sit there and act interested until he finished. He told me last week he didn't want the family to hear him read until he was sure he could do it and make everyone proud. Kids love us so much and only want us to be proud of them, and I think it is even more important to them when they have a LD. Hopefully other children have a pet that needs to learn to read and do the same."
06/16/2008:
"What Is the best way to find the best school in texas for my son with a LD. "
06/12/2008:
"THANK YOU FOR THIS MY SON HAS A LEARNING DISABILITY HE IS 5 YRS OLD.THANK YOU FOR THIS WRITE UP! I KNOW HE IS GOING TO NEED TUTORING, HE IS GETTING SPEECH, OT RIGHT NOW IN HIS SCHOOL THANKS ALOT FOR THIS!"
06/10/2008:
"I have a child with special needs and he is needing a life skills class to transfer to in leonard texas. How do I know if this school will be able to provide the scooling and education he has been getting?"
06/2/2008:
"What are your thoughts on retention of a child w/ (neurologist told us) dyslexia, probable ADD who had emergency surgery and missed time at school. Child has had private tutoring 2x weekly x4 mos. Additional SPED services were declined by SPED teacher, who suggested we go to Sylvan Learning Center. Complete Neuropsych being done in June.Child has suffered depression and anxiety over medical experience and being embarrassed in front of peers due to inability to recognize letters, write, etc. "
06/2/2008:
"MY SON HAS AUTISM. HE IS OFTEN FOUND UNFRIENDLY BY THE OTHER 1ST GRADERS IN HIS CLASS. THEY TEND TO SAY BAD STUFF ABOUT HIM SUCH AS HE DOESN'T TALK TO THEM AND HE SCREAMS............. HE WAS IN A SCHOOL FOR AUTISTIC CHILDREN BEFORE BUT KNOW I WANT HIM TO GET ADAPTED TO A NORMAL LIFE WITH NORMAL KIDS IN A NORMAL SCHOOL."
05/7/2008:
"Great Info on LD. Q-My daughter is 8yrs, 2nd grade, they want to hold her back due to test score on comprehension reading. I read with her every night but I do see that she is struggling. They had her in special reading classes, I have seen improvement, but they feel that she is not quite there and she would be struggling in the 3rd grade and get futher behind. My husband blames the special class. He says they should have let us know sooner so we could set up outside classes or tutors. We are moving to a new home and school, can you advise what our next step should be, not sure how to handle this. I am expecting her to start in the new school in the fall, I'm thinking she needs some kind of tutoring during the summer."
04/28/2008:
"MY SON HAS ADHD. HE IS IN THE MIDDLE OF THE FIRST IEP. MY SON'S SCORES FROM A PRIVATE DR. WAS ONLY 14 POINTS OFF EXCEPT FOR SPEECH. HE NEEDED TO BE 15 POINTS TO QUALIFY PER THE STATE. DUE TO THE FACT OF HIS AUDITORY AND COMPREHENSIVE SPEACH BEING MORE THAN 15 POINTS HE DID QUALIFY FOR THAT SERVICE. THEN I BROUGHT UP THAT BECAUSE OF THE SPEECH DO YOU THINK WE COULD TEST TO FIND THE ACTUAL DISABILITY POINT IN THAT AREA TO HELP MY CHILD. COULD IT HAVE A DOMINO EFFECT ON OTHER AREAS OF DEVELOPMENT PLUS I HAD HIS PEDIATRICIAN WRITE A SCRIPT FOR AT LEAST A 504 PLAN TO GET THEIR ATTENTION. IT DID, IF IT DR. DOCUMENTED THEY HAVE TO PROVIDE SERVICES... BUT IT IS UP TO YOU TO FIND OUT THE RIGHT THINGS TO SAY OR DO TO GET SERVICES. TRY TO FIND SOMEONE THAT IS IN YOUR SHOES, BRIAN WOULD HAVE BEEN OVER LOOKED IF I DID NOT SHOW THEM I WAS TRUELY CONCERNED TO HOW MUCH HE HAD BEEN TAUGHT ALL HIS LIFE AND HOW MUCH HE CAN DO ON HIS OWN. HE IS REGRESSING IN HIS HANDWRITING DUE TO NO ONE WATCHI! NG HIS PERSONAL PRODUCTION AS A STUDENT COMING FROM TWO YEARS AT PRIVATE SCHOOL THAT WAS ATTIMATE ABOUT HANDWRITING AND NOW HE CANT WRITE A STRAIGHT LINE OR PRINT THE LETTER 'W'. IT SOUNDS AWEFUL AND IT IS TO SEE A CHILD DO THINGS WELL THEN THEY BEING CONSCIOUSLY AWARE THAT IT IS A WRONG STROKE OR LETTER. AS SIMPLE AS WE THINK TO BE RE-TAUGHT THE INFORMATION AND IN A WAY HE KNOWS IT BUT BECAUSE WE DO NOT KNOW HOW MUCH HE KNOWS HE IS BEING RE-TAUGHT THE INFORMATION LIKE KNOWING HOW TO READ AND YET DISCOURAGED BECAUSE THERE ARE SOOME THINGS HE CAN'T DO LIKE THE TOTAL RETENTION OF INFORMATION IS NOT THERE. HE HAS PROCESSING DIFFICULTIES. WELL TEST AND FIND OUT WHICH ONES. HOW CAN WE HELP HIM IF WE DO NOT TEST? HOW CAN WE HELP ANOTHER PARENT IF WE DO NOT FIND OUT. THERE ARE TIMES I WANT TO CRY AND THERE ARE TIMES I WANT TO SCREAM THEN I REMEMBER HOW HE MUST FEEL. ADHD? NO NOT MY KID BUT BECAUSE OF THE FRUSTRATION THAT HE IS GOING THROUGH AND NOT BEING ABLE TO COMMUNICATE WHAT T! HE EXACT THING HE CAN AND CAN'T DO CAN MAKE ANYONE REACT THIS ! WAY AND SHOW SIGNS OF IT. GIVE HIM LEGOS OR BLOCKS AND CLAY AND HE CAN DO INTRICATE DESIGNS AND AWESOME BUILDINGS WITH EXTREME CONCENTRATION FOR HOURS. MOVIES AND SPENDING TIME WITH HIM ONE ON ONE IS THE SAME WAY. HE JUST HAS ISSUES AT SCHOOL WITH HIS SCHOOL WORK. I HOPE THIS HELPS PEOPLE. KEEP UP LOOKING FOR INFORMATION AND IF ANYONE WANTS TO CONTACT ME E-MAIL- BINKBABY2001@MSN.COM. THANKS."
04/23/2008:
"It is very sad that there are very few TEACHERS in the public school system.The gift to teach a child that struggles. . .That is teaching. Teachers nowadays give handout sheets, reading assignments & basicly tell the class to go home & learn. . .this is not TEACHING! My child came home with a paper explaining how each child learns differently. . .This is so true. . .The public school system should try & apply their own advice in teaching. To teach & reach a child, to nourish the desire to learn. . .the excitement of knowledge. . .to navigate a child to something new. . . If the child can't teach themselves. . .they are labeled & left behind. . ."
12/26/2007:
"thank you for this information. I have 2 children with learning disabilities and have been diagnosed adhd.. I think more parents need to get involved with their childrens teachers when their child is diagnosed with a Learning disability. They also need to know their rights when it comes to IEP that can be set up for their children in school.. These are not crutches but very helpful to help a child reach his or her potential. My oldest child is 15 an he has been on an IEP since grade 2 and is currently in 9th grade. If it wasnt for working with the teachers and establishing an IEP program my son would be failing classes. My youngest who is 6 is on an IEP as well and gets speach tutoring. Both are good students however both have focusing issues and both are on medication. If not for putting them on an IEP they would not get the allowances required to truly measure their intellegence. My oldest is ADHD and his highschool works with him and gives him extra time on tests! and and quizes and becasue of that he is a straight A student. Before when he had such short time they could not measure his full potential with regards to his understanding the material. Some children work at different paces. I had my 15 year old evaluated by an Nueropsychologist.. The bes thing I could ever of done and most are covered by insurance. His testing showed us exactly what Alex needed to be successful and changed how we and he approached studying.. also we incorporated his recommendations into the IEP so now Alex is succesful. He still struggles however his teachers better understand his needs when before they didnt and figured he was just a student not studying. With Alex it takes much longer to comprehend a subject and it takes him many times to go over a subject to understand its relavance. He also has to associate that subject with practical application for it to stick with him. My oldes is on stratera a medication to help him focus. He is not typic! al ADHD. He is not hyper he just has issues keeping his atten! tion and focusing but when he does he does extremely well. My youngest is the oposite. He is on an IEP but is very hyper active. He was failing because teachers could not get him to sit down long enough to answer questions. He is very intellegent. When he is on his medication he can focus much better and truly be tested accurately on his knowledge accomulated. I request that in your news letters that you give more informaiton on agencies and dr.s that are available to help others pin point their childs type of disabilities. More information should be given from each district regarding how IEP's work and how they can benefit their child. This will lesson the amount of tension and turmoil both parents and children feel when their grades are not good. Had they investigated a bit more or helped thier children establish a IEP program this would allow both the child and teachers to work together and teachers would approach learning with these individuals much differently. As would the child and then once thier potential is shown the parent and child can be proud of the results. I would love to make myself available for you if you owuld like to do an article on my kids. I have gone through the School systems for over 10 years working and learning all about IEP's and their benefits. Although these programs are great we do have to k! eep in mind that with an IEP they are getting graded against their accomplishments of set goals for them not against the norm or other students in their class. Teachers still need to keep parents informed as to their over all ranking so parent are better prepared."
10/19/2007:
"My son is now in 6th grade. His academic level is not 6th grade level. He has shown many of the signs you described above. Throughout his process in school he has become discouraged a lot. He wants to be a chemist and win a Nobel Peace Prize. But his writing and reading and understanding is very slow. He gets behind in his homework and gets incompletes on his schoolwork. He saw his grades and they were F's and D's. Now he is unmotivated to try. I am having trouble knowing what to do with him. He has been getting into the homework habit at home and giving it 100% but on paper it doesn't show up as good enough. Giving 100% keeps him at the table working on homework from the time he walks into the house, until 10:00pm and then for another hour in the morning before school. That just barely gets it done in time. I can't motivate him by taking away free time because he doesn't have any. I have been pushing him to accomplish his homework to the point of not listentin! g to him at all, just telling him get back to work. We have taken any excuse to slow down away from him including after school snack. Dinner gets delayed for him, breakfast is rushed through, and lunch at school is reduced to a bite or two due to disciplinary detentions and trash clean up. So I am concerned about how much is too much and what do we do. He is in a special ed class at school. He is very aware of the fact that he is disappointing his teachers, aides, and his parents. I think that is why he wants to reach so high in life. He wants us to be proud of him. To make it even more complicated he has three younger siblings, 2 of which are doing above average in school and the other is doing fine. I don't expect him to get A's & B's but I expect him to work at his work and not give up. I have told him that his best is good enough and that to acccomplish his dreams he will simply have to work harder than others do, to accomplish theirs because it is more diffic! ult for him, but that he can do it. It just breaks my heart t! o see hi m so discouraged and not even trying right now. Every year I see his teachers get discouraged with him and I don't know what to tell them anymore. There were many days in 5th grade where he sat at his desk and literally all he wrote for the day was one sentence. He skipped recess in this process. The teacher agreed that he was trying. The teacher said it looked like he was struggling in his mind to focus or get the ideas into words and onto paper. I know that he has a desire to learn. I take my kids to the library and give them the choice of what to pick out. While my other three picked age appropriate materials, Barnes would ask the librarian if she had any books on a certain subject he had been thinking about like sphinxes, crystals, or the South Pole. He would check out everything on it and read through pieces of the books and come and talk to me about it. He retains the information and I hear him talking to others about what he has learned as well, as if he is ! forming theories in his head like a college student would do. But if he has to study something that he is not interested in, it is like pulling teeth to get his concentration where it needs to be and writing about it just doesn't get done without threats. I'm open to your opinion about what you think this could be. "
08/1/2007:
"My daughter has epilepsy with other health impairment per her IEp. With medication there are a number of side effects, and teachers aide on bus and during the school hours. Why is the board placing her in 'Home School' instead of an special education school?"
06/22/2007:
"I think the most important note in this article is that schools will not diagnose the disability. Schools assess only to qualify a student for services in special education or disqualify them. The reason I believe is, if a school identifies the problem, they are responsible to address it. The more general the finding the more off-the-hook schools are. Parents need to know specifically what causes the learning difference in their child. A clear explanation of why your child is struggling and how it can be addressed is the most efficient and time-sensitive way of remediating the learning difference. Because schools refuse to do this, it can only be obtained through a private assessment. Until the disability is named,(diagnosed), a prescription(IEP) to address your child's specific learning difference can not be written. This is important for parents to understand. Qualifying a child for services without diagnosing the problem is like saying Arizona is that way, while giving t! he child a shove in the general direction. The learning disability must be clearly identified for effective, time efficient services and goals to be clearly written. If you have a general finding, you receive a general IEP that addresses a general learning difference. Your child is an individual, with an individual learning style. The assessment and IEP should be a clear reflection of that."
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