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Learning Disabilities

The terminology used to describe learning disabilities varies depending on the context in which it is diagnosed. Learning Disabilities are described in special education law and in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-V). The most widely used terminology comes from the Individual with Disabilities Act (IDEA), which was reauthorized in 2004. IDEA defines a Specific Learning Disability (SLD) as:

“a disorder in one or more of the basic psychological processes involved in understanding or in using language, spoken or written, which disorder may manifest itself in the imperfect ability to listen, think, speak, read, write, spell or do mathematical equations. Such term includes such conditions as perceptual disabilities, brain injury, minimal brain dysfunction, dyslexia, and developmental aphasia. Such term does not include a learning problem that is primarily the result of visual, hearing, motor disabilities, intellectual disability, emotional disturbance, or due to environmental, cultural or economic disadvantage.”

If your child attends public school and has been diagnosed with a Specific Learning Disability, they meet criteria under the special education law described above. Approximately 5% of students enrolled in public schools are identified with a specific learning disability under IDEA. The National Institutes of Health estimates that between 8 and 10 percent of American children under age 18 have some type of learning disability. The following are some of the characteristics of a specific learning disability as outlined by the National Association of School Psychologists (NASP):

  • Specific learning disabilities are neurologically based deficits in cognitive processes.

  • These deficits impact specific cognitive processes that interfere with academic learning.

  • There is a range of learning disabilities; there is no single defining characteristic.

  • Learning disabilities may occur along with other disabling conditions, but are not primarily due to those conditions.

  • Over 80% of students with specific learning disabilities have difficulty in reading.

  • Early intervention can reduce the impact of many specific learning disabilities.

Specific Learning Disorder, from the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorder – Fifth Edition (DSM-V), is the diagnostic manual used within mental health settings. The following definition comes from the America Psychological Association Fact Sheet on Learning Disorders:

The diagnosis requires persistent difficulties in reading, writing, arithmetic, or mathematical reasoning skills during formal years of schooling. Symptoms may include inaccurate or slow and effortful reading, poor written expression that lacks clarity, difficulties remembering number facts, or inaccurate mathematical reasoning. 
Current academic skills must be well below the average range of scores in culturally and linguistically appropriate tests of reading, writing or mathematics. The individual’s difficulties must not be better explained by developmental, neurological, sensory (vision or hearing), or motor disorders and must significantly interfere with academic achievement, occupational performance, or activities of daily living.

The following are warning signs for learning disabilities according to developmental level:


  • Your child begins speaking at a later age than most of the other children

  • Your child has difficulty with word retrieval

  • Learning to rhyme is a difficult task

  • Difficulty remembering letters, numbers, or colors

  • Extremely overactive and/or distracted

  • Has difficulty following simple directions or following through with routines

  • Pronunciation problems

  • Trouble learning numbers, alphabet, days of the week, colors, shapes

  • Fine motor skills slow to develop

Early Grades (K-5):

  • Has difficulty learning to blend letter sounds in order to form words

  • Slow to learn the connection between letters and sounds

  • Confuses basic words (run, eat, want)

  • Makes consistent reading and spelling errors including letter reversals (b/d), inversions (m/w), transpositions (felt/left), and substitutions (house/home)

  • Makes frequent reading and spelling errors

  • Often spells the same word differently several times in the same assignment

  • Shows signs of frustration when learning to tell time

  • Has difficulty remembering basic math facts such as simple addition or the times tables

  • Has an easier time with verbal expression than written expression (speaks in lengthy sentences but writes short ones)

  • Struggles with basic writing mechanics such as capitalization and punctuation

  • Impulsive, difficulty planning

  • Unstable pencil grip

  • Poor coordination, unaware of physical surroundings, prone to accidents

Grades 6 through 12:

  • Reverses letter sequences (soiled/solid, left/felt)

  • Works very slowly

  • Avoids reading aloud or avoids reading

  • Difficulty with word problems

  • Frequently misreads directions

  • Difficulty with handwriting

  • Awkward, fist-like, or tight pencil grip

  • Avoids writing assignments

  • Slow or poor recall of facts

  • Seems to forget with he/she has just learned

  • Difficulty making generalizations

Fortunately, with support and intervention, learning disabilities can be treated. The first step is to have your child diagnosed by a trained professional. Following a comprehensive assessment, recommendations can be made that are specific to your child’s learning needs. Early identification of students with learning disabilities facilitates appropriate and targeted interventions to remediate skills and prevent or reduce the impact of disabilities on achievement of academic and career goals.

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