How Do You Know If Your Child Might Have a Learning Disability?
Many of the questions I receive from parents describe their child's learning problems and then ask if he or she might have a Learning Disability (LD). I receive similar questions about Attention-deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD). These are two separate and very different problems. Students with ADHD might show hyperactive/fidgety behaviors, inattention/distractibility problems, and/or impulsivity. These behaviors, present for years, can be seen at school, at home, and with peers. Students with LD have a neurologically-based processing problem that interferes with the ability to master specific learning skills. Between 30 and 50 percent of children with LD will also have ADHD. The reverse is also true, between 30 and 50 percent of children with ADHD will also have LD. So, it is wise to look for both possibilities.
So, how would you know to suspect that your child or adolescent has a learning disability?
Students with LD have difficulty processing information in one or more of several areas of learning. They may have problems getting information into the brain (called an input problem). They may have difficulty with sound input (called an auditory perception or auditory processing disorder) or with visual input (called a visual perception disorder). This student may have difficulty integrating information once it is received in the brain. These problems may include the ability to sequence information, to infer meaning (abstract), or to organize information. Some may have problems with the storage and retrieval of information or memory. The memory problem might involve information still in the process of being learned (often called working memory or short-term memory) or material that has been learned but not retained (long-term memory).
Finally, students may have difficulty getting information out of the brain (called an output problem). This problem may impact the ability to send information to their muscles. For example, a student with this problem may have difficulty coordinating the muscles of the hand and have slow, tedious and awkward handwriting (called a grapho-motor problem). Additionally, this student may have difficulty getting thoughts onto paper (reflected by problems with spelling, grammar, punctuation, capitalization, or organization of the thoughts). Students also may have difficulty with language output, including problems organizing their thoughts, finding the right words, and expressing themselves.
There is no one definitive characteristic found in a child or adolescent with learning disabilities. The student may show characteristics of one or more of the areas described. In fact, it is very uncommon to have only one area of difficulty. Also, how a learning disability manifests in school is based on the student's grade level and the demands for that grade level.
What are the clues of a learning disability?
In preschoolers, look for:
- Communication delays, such as slow language development or difficulty with speech. Problems understanding what is being said or problems communicating thoughts.
- Poor coordination and uneven motor development, such as delays in learning to sit, walk, color, and using scissors. Later watch for problems forming letters and numbers.
- Problems with memory and routine; for example, not remembering specifics of daily activities and not understanding instructions. Possibly, problems remembering multiple instructions.
- Delays in socialization including playing and relating interactively with other children.
In elementary school, look for:
- Problems learning phonemes (individual units of sound) and graphemes (letters, numbers). Problems learning how to blend sounds and letters to sound out words. Problems remembering familiar words by sight. Later, difficulty with reading comprehension.
- Problems forming letters and numbers. Later, problems with basic spelling and grammar.
- Difficulties learning math skills and doing math calculations.
- Difficulty with remembering facts.
- Difficulty organizing materials (notebook, binder, papers), information, and/or concepts.
- Not understanding oral instructions and an inability to express oneself verbally. Some types of LD are not apparent until middle school or high school. With increased responsibilities and more complex work, new areas of weakness may become apparent.
- Losing or forgetting materials, or doing work and forgetting to turn it into the teacher.
- An inability to plan out the steps and time lines for completing projects, especially long-term projects.
- Difficulty organizing thoughts for written reports or public speaking.
If you see these clues and believe your pre-school or elementary-school aged son or daughter might have LD, contact the principal of your child's public school and request a meeting to discuss having your child evaluated for learning disabilities. If your child is in a private school, you are entitled to an evaluation at the public school your child would have attended.
The diagnostic process is called a "psycho-educational" evaluation. Today, schools use a "response to intervention" model in which students are exposed to scientific, research-based instruction and their responses are monitored. If they do not respond, they are considered for special education. More information on response to intervention is available in the article Response to Intervention (RTI): A Primer for Parents.
- An assessment of potential, usually done through an IQ test.
- A battery of achievement tests to assess skills in reading, writing, and math.
- A battery of tests to assess processing skills. These tests examine possible problems with input, integration, and output of information.
The results of these tests should clarify if the student has a learning disability. Identifying processing problems may not qualify the student for services. Most school systems use what is called a "discrepancy formula" to decide if an individual is eligible for services. That is, there must be a specific degree of difference between the student potential (IQ) and performance. Your son or daughter might have significant processing problems but not be far enough behind to qualify for services. This is the reason that many schools will not identify a child with LD until third grade or later. For more information on obtaining an evaluation for learning disabilities, please read What Do You Do If You Suspect Your Child Has a Learning Disability.
For more information, contact the Learning Disabilities Association of America.
The author Dr. Larry Silver answers questions from readers in Ask Dr. Silver