Learning Disorder FAQs

What are learning disorders?

Learning disorders, which may be characterized as specific learning disorders (ICD/DSM), learning disabilities (US), or learning difficulties (UK), are brain-based differences that result in difficulty in the development of academic and functional skills, including reading, written expression, mathematics, reasoning, listening, and speaking. Learning disorders are considered specific developmental disabilities affecting a narrow range of skills, rather than global disabilities affecting cognition and functional skills more generally.


Aren't children with learning disorders just slow or unmotivated?

No, not at all. Children with LDs are not slow, unmotivated, or generally poor learners. In fact, most children with learning disorders work much harder than their typically developing peers. A defining feature of an LD is that it affects a relatively narrow range of skills (however, other disorders tend to co-occur with LDs), and the difficulties produced by the LD cannot be better explained by other factors, such as behavioral disorders, intellectual disability, or lack of educational opportunities -- that is to say that learning disorders produce underachievement that is unexpected given a child's behavior, educational background, and intellectual and functional abilities. The brains of children with LDs simply process some information differently than the brains of typically developing children. That doesn't mean they are more or less intelligent or motivated than their typically developing peers. It simply means they require additional support to achieve their full academic potential. 


Can my child with LD enjoy improved achievement?

The answer to this question is an emphatic yes! Research has demonstrated again and again that intensive, systematic instruction that is carefully tailored to the needs of the child can affect extraordinary improvements in achievement, especially when provided early in a child's education. Furthermore, brain imaging research has revealed that following intensive, systematic intervention, the brains of children with LDs can begin to process information in a way that is more consistent with typical development -- that is to say that the quality of instruction not only affects achievement but also the brain itself. Please view the Exceptional Education LD Resources page for more information concerning the characteristics of effective instruction for students with LDs.


Signs of Potential LDs

Among young children (pre-school and kindergarten):

  • Delayed speech or articulation relative to peers
  • Difficulty acquiring or recalling vocabulary or difficulty expressing ideas
  • Difficulty with rhyming or difficulty discriminating words with similar sounds
  • Difficulty learning songs or nursery rhymes
  • Difficulty learning the alphabet or numerals
  • Difficulty acquiring simple numeric concepts, such as quantity or one-to-one correspondence
  • Poor fine or gross motor development relative to peers
  • Difficulty regulating behavior or maintaining attention compared to peers
  • Lack of interest in others or poor play behavior

Among primary school children (grades 1 through 5):

  • Any of the above
  • Delays in acquiring correspondences between letters and sounds
  • Difficulty identifying, distinguishing, or manipulating the sounds within words
  • Difficulty in acquiring common spelling patterns or reading common irregularly-spelled words (e.g., said, been)
  • Slow and laborious reading
  • Poor reading comprehension
  • An unwillingness to read aloud
  • Difficulty expressing ideas in writing
  • Frequent inversals, reversals, or transpositions of letters, letter sequences, numbers, or number sequences 
  • Poor handwriting
  • Failure to follow typical conventions for sentence structure or organization
  • Heavy reliance on memory or difficulty generalizing information
  • Poor memory, especially for directions or facts
  • Frequently confuses numeric signs or operations
  • Difficulty in acquiring or retrieving arithmetic facts
  • Difficulty with arithmetic reasoning and multi-step problems
  • Poor grip, clumsiness, or poor coordination
  • Poor behavior, inattention, or impulsivity
  • Poor social skills

Among middle and secondary school children (grades 6 through 12)

  • Any of the above
  • Poor reading speed, accuracy, or comprehension
  • Poor written expression or difficulty writing coherent texts
  • Failure to acquire complex spelling patterns or ongoing spelling difficulties
  • Failure to acquire algebraic reasoning or difficulty solving complex problems
  • Difficulty with analysis, synthesis, or generalization of information
  • Failure to understand abstract concepts
  • Disorganization, inattention, or an inability to follow complex directions
  • Lack of motivation to engage in academic activities 

When to Seek Help 

Learning, like any developmental process, rarely follows a completely smooth trajectory. There are often brief plateaus and even short-lived regressions along the way. That said, the general direction of your child's development should be onward and upward. Look at the warning signs and consider the totality of your child's development. If you notice your child consistently struggling with academic or functional skills that come easily to her or his peers, please consider speaking to your child's teacher and then to an educational psychologist or other clinician if your concerns aren't adequately addressed. 

Dyslexia

Dyslexia, or specific learning disorder in reading, is a learning disorder that produces unexpected underachievement in reading. Children with dyslexia may struggle with visual, auditory, and phonological processing, resulting in difficulty with reading and written expression. Dyslexia often manifests early in a child's development, as the child may acquire spoken language late and struggle with many of the language games her or his peers enjoy (rhyming, counting syllables, etc.).


Dysgraphia

Dysgraphia, or specific learning disorder in written expression, is a learning disorder that produces unexpected underachievement in handwriting and written expression. Children with dysgraphia have difficulty encoding the sounds of language in print and may struggle with penmanship and also with the ability to write coherently. Dysgraphia often occurs along with other learning disorders, such as dyslexia, and children with dysgraphia frequently exhibit early delays in the acquisition of language and fine motor skills.


Dyscalculia

Dycalculia, or specific learning disorder in mathematics, is a learning disorder that produces unexpected underachievement in mathematics and mathematical reasoning. Children with dyscalculia may struggle to acquire numeric concepts and manipulate numbers arithmetically. They often have poor memory and retrieval of mathematical facts, and they may struggle to perform everyday tasks involving numbers (e.g., reading clocks, following a recipe). Dyscalculia may manifest early on in a failure to identify simple qualities at a glance (one, two, or three objects) or a delay in the acquisition of one-to-one correspondence. 


Early Intervention is Key

Schools sometimes use a "wait to fail" approach before assessing a child for a learning disorder, allowing the child to fall far behind before her or his problem can be identified and addressed. Other times, parents or teachers are afraid of seeking a diagnosis that might "label" a child. While these concerns are understandable, time is of the essence when it comes to LDs. Early identification is key to effectively remediating learning disorders and maximizing academic achievement.