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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.

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"