HomeLearning DifficultiesLearning Disabilities & ADHDIdentifying a Learning Disability

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

  • 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.

Facts about LD:

  • Difficulty with basic reading and language skills are the most common LD.
  • LD may be inherited.
  • LD affect girls as frequently as they do boys.
  • Kids don't outgrow or get cured of LD.
  • With support and intervention, kids with LD can be successful in learning and life.

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.


  • Is unable to find the right word when carrying on a conversation
  • Can't rapidly name words in a specific category
  • Has difficulty rhyming
  • Has trouble learning alphabet, days of the week, colors, shapes, numbers
  • Is extremely restless and easily distracted
  • Can't follow directions or routines

Grades K-4

  • Is slow to learn the connections between letters and sounds
  • Can't blend sounds to make words
  • Makes consistent reading and spelling errors
  • Has problems remembering sequences and telling time
  • Is slow to learn new skills
  • Has difficulty planning

Grades 5-8

  • Is slow to learn prefixes, suffixes, root words, and other reading strategies
  • Avoids reading aloud
  • Has difficulty with word problems in math
  • Spells the same word differently in a single piece of writing
  • Avoids reading and writing tasks
  • Has difficulty remembering or understanding what she had read
  • Works slowly
  • Has difficulty understanding and/or generalizing concepts
  • Misreads directions and information

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:

  • Speak with her openly and acknowledge her learning difficulties.
  • Remind her that she is intelligent but has a different way of learning.
  • Identify her strengths and talents, and encourage her to develop them.
  • Coach her on strategies that will help her through her learning challenges.
  • Support her efforts to succeed.
  • Be available to help her with homework.
  • Be a role model - read a book or newspaper or write a letter while she studies.
  • Set realistic goals and expectations.
  • Work collaboratively with school staff.
  • Understand the educational system.
  • Listen to your child when she wants to talk.
  • Teach her to understand her own needs and advocate for them.
  • Appreciate her for her uniqueness, special qualities, and contributions.

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 readers

"I have several students in my Science class that struggle all the time with their grades. These pay attention to class, most of them study hard, but when it comes to quizzes or tests, they start by saying, "I not going to make it". When I review for the evaluation, they will answer and participate wonderfully proving that they paid attention and studied, but when they receive their grades, these are not what they, their parents or me expected. My evaluations have different levels of complexity and I construct them so that 100% past the test. Of course, not every student can have 100% in the test, but my expectations are that all pass the test. This is not happening with these few students. When most of them infer the grade they expect, these kids just feel so frustrated that some even start crying. I feel awful, I have tried everything in my hands to help them, but it's not working. I have met with the parents and most tell me this is happening only in my class. I have a! sk for them to evaluate their child so I can receive alternatives to help them, but many refuse to do so. The situation gets worse, when they know I will be their Science teacher for three years. Any suggestions? "
"How do I get my college student tested for LD? Do College's give help to these needs? "
"Anyone can get through life with a learning disibility.It is ruff stuff at times but with alot of hard work you can do it.I thought i was stupid when they use to pull me and a few more out of class in elementary and in middle school for math and reading but then i came to realize it was a disability i could not control.Just getting to learn the computer now is fun but i still have to focus alot and then i found this site.So check it out with me.It looks like alot of info here to take in.Thanks for making a site for us with learning disibilities. "
"i need help....advise something,my husband and i dont agree on our firsst son LD. he feels we should treat like nothings wrong woth him and make him try harder. i feel differently. my son is on third grade and is been held back this year.he was diagnosed with LD in 1st grade.please help.what can i do to help my son? should i get a tutor?"
"I am currently a student at an ivy league university getting my masters in clinical psychology. I was diagnosed with a learning disability in the 1st grade. School was close to impossible for me, but I never gave up. What got me through school and all the challenges that were ahead of me, were supportive parents and teachers. My parents always taught me I could accomplish anything, and never give up. The word “disability� really hurt me when I was younger, because I felt that I wasnt “disabled�. My parents soon taught me, honey you just learn “differently�. Which was true, I did all the same work and assignments, I just sometimes need more time, or the tests read to me or a quite room with no distractions. I learned “differently� which to me does not = a disability� I want to help other children, teens and students who have learning disabilities to know that it is possible to succeed at your dreams and accomplish anything."
"my son has LD and we are working with his school he has been to 4 different schools since he has started in preschool now he is in 1st grade and i have seen him improve so much I'm glade that he got the help when he need it that way he will succeed in school and in life. you may ask why 4 schools it is because some schools have the program for all his different grades and one just didn't want to help him. Well the others have been great now he is going to his 5 school because were he is at is not for him. you have to fine what is best for your child not what works for you or the school. "
"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:"
"This information has been of great help to our family"