What is a Learning Disability?
A learning disability interferes with one’s ability to receive, process, recall, or communicate information. Learning disabilities can primarily affect an individual in the areas of reading, writing, math, speaking, and listening. Focus, reasoning, memory, coordination, social skills, and behavior may also be impacted as a result of a learning disability. Research shows that students who display signs of learning disabilities benefit from extra instruction and support. To read more about this research see Intensive Interventions for Student Struggling in Reading and Mathematics.
What Can You Do?
If you have concerns about your child’s learning, speak to your child’s school and his doctor. (For public schools) Your child’s school can put interventions into place to work with your child in their area(s) of need (some private school may do this as well – talk to the school to find out what support they offer).
Schools also have school psychologists that can evaluate your child for a learning disability. After the evaluation is complete, review it thoroughly with the school team, and ask questions about anything you don’t understand or want to know more about.
Side Note: Many times, schools like to try academic interventions to see if they can help your child make significant progress before referring them to a school psychologist for an evaluation. If you want your child to be evaluated by a school psychologist immediately, without having the school try interventions first, let your child’s school know that. Work with the team to determine the best course of action. The school can still put interventions into place while you wait for the results of the school psychologist’s evaluation. You can ask about the type of intervention they are using and whether or not the intervention is backed by research. You can also ask the school to keep you posted on your child’s progress periodically throughout the intervention period. Keep in mind that it in some cases it may be difficult to determine the presence of a learning disability without prior interventions.
If you have learning concerns for a preschool age child, contact your state’s early intervention department, which you can find through a Google search. They will provide you with a free evaluation. They will not evaluate for a learning disability, but they can provide support if your child shows significant learning delays.
What Happens if My Child is Found to Have a Learning Disability?
If your child is found to have a learning disability after an evaluation by a school psychologist, and that disability is found to have a negative impact on their progress in school, your child will be entitled to an Individualized Education Plan (IEP) which is a written document that will provide him/her with specialized educational services, including accommodations and academic goals, that public schools in the United States are legally required to put into place (again, if your child attends private school or school outside the United States, you may need to ask which supports they provide).
Related Article: How Do You Know if Your Child Needs an IEP at School?
Your child’s IEP will also entitle your child to receive intensive instruction by a special education teacher in his area(s) of need. Special education does not always require a student to go into a special class or smaller classroom. Depending on your child’s needs, he may be able to stay in the general education classroom, while receiving small group instruction from a special education teacher, either within the classroom, or in a small group outside of the classroom (during certain times of the day).
You are part of the IEP team and have input into your child’s accommodations, goals, and placement. You and the rest of the IEP team will meet when the IEP is first implemented and once a year there after. If you have questions about anything regarding the IEP ask and if you have concerns make them known. If you think changes need to be made to the IEP or if you have concerns, you can call for an IEP meeting prior to the annual meeting.
Some Possible Accommodations for Students with Learning Disabilities Include:
- extra time to complete assignments, projects, quizzes, and tests
- allowed to revise writing assignments before final grading
- provided with audio books to supplement reading material
- having test questions read aloud by a teacher
- having math word problems read aloud by a math teacher
- modification or clarification of directions as often as needed
- use of graphic organizers for writing assignments
- having multiple choice tests include three choices per question instead of four
- use of a calculator
For more information on this topic see 21 Accommodations available to Your Child with Special Needs
If you want support from a knowledgeable professional at your IEP meeting or other related meeting, you can bring an educational advocate. Search for an advocate in your area through Google or the Yellow Pages. For more tips on finding an advocate check out How Can I Find an Advocate?
As a parent having a child evaluated for a disability in school, you are entitled to certain rights, such as the right to dispute the findings of the evaluation and your child’s accommodations and/or placement as described in the IEP. Your child’s school should give you a copy of these rights when you sign the permission form for the evaluation.
As stated previously, also tell your child’s doctor if you are concerned that your child may have a learning disability. He can refer you to a specialist to evaluate your child, such as a child psychologist, to determine the presence of a learning disability or other possible reasons for any difficulty your child is experiencing. You can also find your own child psychologist by doing a Google search for child psychologists in your area or by contacting your child’s insurance provider. If a child psychologist or other related professional determines that your child has a learning disability, share the results with your child’s school and ask for recommendations to support your child at home. The school will likely conduct their own evaluation, with your permission, to determine how to meet your child’s needs in the school setting.
Related Article: What Can You Do if Your Child is Having Persistent Problems in School? (Tips for Parents)
Professionals utilize a number of measures to determine whether or not a child meets criteria for a learning disability. To read more about what measures are utilized see Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA): Identification of Specific Learning Disabilities.
If you are an educator and have concerns about one of your student’s learning, speak to your school team and your student’s parents to see what steps need to be taken to get your student help. Keep in mind that young children, such as those in preschool and kindergarten, develop at different rates. For example, some children may struggle with learning to add numbers in kindergarten, but catch up in first grade. If you have concerns of a learning disability for a child in kindergarten, your child’s school psychologist or a private evaluator (e.g., child psychologist) may not have enough evidence to support a learning disability, and may recommend more academic instruction and possibly that academic interventions take place in school for a certain amount of time (e.g., until the middle or end of kindergarten or first grade). If the child is still struggling with learning at that time, the psychologist may re-evaluate for a learning disability.
Below you will find a checklist for warning signs that may indicate a learning disability. You can print out the form, complete it, and take it to your child’s school, doctor, or early intervention team to discuss your concerns. (side note: It is very common to see one or more of these signs in a child and it does not necessarily indicate a disability. You should look into getting support for your child if you see several of these signs over a long period of time (e.g., six months or more) despite continuous instruction at school or home).
Instructions for Use
For older children, you can check any difficulties you currently observe or have previously observed, that are listed in the younger grade categories. After completing this form you can print it out to take along with you to your child’s school, doctor, or early intervention team.
Learning Disability Interactive Checklist
Child’s name :
speech came later than most children
difficulty with vocabulary (e.g., often has trouble finding the right word)
difficulty learning the alphabet, days of the week, numbers, shapes, and colors
difficulty understanding the concept of rhyming words
difficulty understanding directions, questions, or information given by others
trouble using language to express wants and needs or to share information
trouble with fine motor skills (e.g., difficulty using playdough to make balls, difficulty cutting across a
piece of paper, difficulty feeding self with spoon and fork, etc.)
Grades K – 4
trouble learning the connection between letters and sounds
consistently makes reading and spelling errors such as letter reversals (b/d), inversions (m/w),
transpositions (leave/laeve), and substitutions (house/home)
trouble understanding what he/she reads
transposes number sequences (e.g., 17 for 71)
confuses arithmetic signs (+, -, x, /, =)
trouble remembering math facts (e.g.,trouble remembering the sum of simple addition problems, such
as 2 + 1 or 5 + 5, without having to count on fingers, draw lines, or use objects to represent the
problem). Consider age and grade level. Younger students (e.g., grades k and 1) are learning basic
math facts and need time before they have them memorized.
trouble learning about telling time
difficulty planning the steps to complete an assignment or project
Grades 5 – 8
frequently reverses letters sequences when spelling (e.g., reverse/reserve, special/specail)
trouble learning prefixes, suffixes, root words, and other spelling strategies
trouble understanding what he/she reads
avoids reading out loud
avoids assignments that require writing
trouble recalling math facts (e.g., trouble remembering times table)
trouble understanding math word problems
High School Students and Adults
frequently reads words incorrectly
trouble understanding what he/she reads
spells the same word more than one way in the same piece of writing
frequently spells words incorrectly
trouble using writing to summarize information
dislikes or avoids writing
trouble answering open-ended questions in a writing assignment (e.g., “what did you think of….?”
“what happened in the story?” “what is your opinion on…?)
trouble remembering previously learned information or concepts
Type Additional Concerns Here:
Click here to print checklist
Ask for help from your child’s doctor, school, or state early intervention department as soon as you feel concerned. While it is difficult to accept that your child is having trouble learning and very common to fear that your child will be labeled, it is also important to know that you are not alone. At least 2.7 million children in the United States receive support in school for a learning disability and the National Institutes of Health reports that approximately one in seven Americans (15 percent) has a learning disability to some degree. The most common types of learning disabilities affect reading and language. As mentioned previously, research shows the benefits of extra support and instruction for students with learning disabilities. Delaying help makes it more difficult for child to make sufficient progress. It is also critical to seek help early to spare children from feeling frustrated and disappointed when they struggle in school and don’t know why.
Many children with learning disabilities are often very intelligent, possessing extraordinary skills in areas such as music, art, sports, leadership, and more! Focus on and acknowledge your children’s strengths and encourage them in their area’s of interest. Talk to professionals who work with your child, such as school staff, to understand your child’s academic strengths and needs, and work habits. Ask school professionals if they are using any strategies that have been successful with your child that you may be able to implement at home. Also share any strategies you have tried with your child that you have found to be effective.
If your child is found to have a learning disability, talk to him/her about it. Let your child know that people with learning disabilities are intelligent people, who have trouble learning in certain areas because their minds process things differently. Be honest and encouraging. Let your child know that although they may have trouble with learning in certain areas, they can learn and be successful.
Keep an eye on your child’s progress towards his IEP goals. Keep in contact with your child’s school team to ensure he/she is receiving the accommodations on his IEP and to determine if accommodations or goals need to be changed or modified. Keep a copy of your child’s most recent IEP and bring it to each IEP meeting. To effectively monitor your child’s progress over the years, organize information about your child’s education and learning disability. Keep all important papers in a folder so you will have them to review with professionals if necessary. Papers can include:
- samples of work to show strengths and area of need
- documentation of contact between you and professionals related to your child’s education
- standardized tests and results
- medical exams
- report cards
- discipline reports
- evaluation reports
- your own observations
- IEP’s and any interventions or accommodations your child’s school has implemented to help your child outside of the formal IEP
Talk with other parents and professionals who are familiar with learning disabilities so you do not feel alone. Talking to others also helps keep you informed about learning disabilities. See our Resources Section for ideas on how to connect with other parents and professionals on a national and state level.
Here is a quote from one of our parent readers who has a child with a learning disability: “Buy a notebook and write everything down (conversations with school, concerns expressed, significant incidents and outcomes, how long it takes to do homework and the types of challenges encountered, etc. and keep it with the samples of work you collect).
Work with your child at home. Ask your child’s school how you can help at home or visit educationandbehavior.com, for ideas. If you can’t find what you are looking for, contact us! Also contact us if you have questions pertaining to this article about a child who is homeschooled or attends a cyber or charter school,
For more information on learning disabilities, I recommend the following books:
- Learning Disabilities: A to Z: A Complete Guide to Learning Disabilities from Preschool to Adulthood
- Writing Assessment and Instruction for Students with Learning Disabilities
- Visualizing and Verbalizing: For Language Comprehension and Thinking (Great for Reading Comprehension)
- Math Instruction for Students with Learning Problems
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- Effective Strategies to Teach Academic Concepts to Students on the Autism Spectrum
- A Definition of Autism and Related Diagnoses (Asperger’s Change in DSM Discussed)
- Research-Based Math Problem Solving Strategies for Parent and Teachers
- How to Teach Children to Write Letters & Numbers with Correct Form and Positioning
- 7 Research-Based Strategies to Help Children with Reading Fluency
Rachel Wise is a certified school psychologist and licensed behavior specialist with a Master’s Degree in Education. She is also the head author and CEO at educationandbehavior.com, a site for parents, educators, and counselors to find effective, research-based strategies that work for children. Rachel has been working with individuals with academic and behavioral needs for over 20 years and has a passion for making a positive difference in the lives of children and the adults who support them.