You are here

Complete Guide to Learning Disabilities

In the first grade, Kate Zeller* had trouble differentiating her p's and b's and couldn't read short, frequently used words like "both" and "some." Kate's teacher reassured her mother, Laura, that early-reading difficulties were common, so Zeller and her husband hoped their child's problem fell into the "she'll grow out of it" category.

When Kate failed to improve in second grade and her new teacher made her feel she wasn't trying hard enough, "Kate's self-esteem went through the floor," says Zeller. She began biting her nails and complaining of stomachaches. Frustrated with the private school's unresponsiveness to their concerns, the Wheeling, WV, parents paid $750 to have their daughter tested. Even though she had an above-average IQ of 120, she did indeed have a reading disability. "I was angry. I thought, Why does my child have this?" Zeller recalls. "I was afraid I'd done something wrong." Now 11, Kate is doing much better with her reading but still struggles mightily with spelling.

More parents than ever are dealing with a child who has a learning disability, defined by the educational system as a significant discrepancy between a youngster's ability (or IQ) and his school performance. (How large that gap must be for a child to be labeled learning disabled varies across America.) Six percent of public school students in kindergarten through 12th grade are currently diagnosed as having LD, an acronym that slips ever more frequently off educators' tongues. In the past 25 years, the number of kids diagnosed with learning disorders has tripled  -- an increase so rapid that it raises major concerns about whether the term is used too loosely or we'd simply been ignoring the issue in the past.

"Today, schools are better at recognizing these problems," notes Sheldon Horowitz, Ed.D., director of programs for the National Center for Learning Disabilities. "Plus, academic expectations are higher, and children are being scrutinized to a much greater extent." A generation ago, kids who had problems processing information may have been put on a nonacademic track, destined for blue-collar jobs. Nowadays, everyone is expected to excel.

Jeannie Ralston, a mom of two, is a freelance writer living in Texas.

* Name has been changed to protect privacy.

Anatomy of an LD

"Learning disabilities don't indicate a low IQ. They're not a death knell for learning," says Horowitz. "They slow a person down academically but needn't keep him from excelling. A colleague once called them 'islands of weakness in a sea of strengths.'"

The neurological glitches responsible for learning disabilities may cause up to 15 percent of the population to absorb or process information differently. Researchers believe that about half of all LDs are inherited. As for the other half, experts suspect them to be the result of brain disturbances caused by, among other factors, maternal smoking, drinking, or drug use, especially in the first months of pregnancy.

Typically, learning issues become most apparent during the third and fourth grades, when kids are hit with many new vocabulary words and scholastic demands increase. Because children with LD usually have a combination of disabilities whose severity can vary greatly, there is no cookie-cutter LD profile  -- and no standard prescription. Posing even more classroom challenges is the fact that about 20 percent of children with LD are also diagnosed with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder.

Here, the lowdown on the most common learning disabilities.

Language disabilities. When Tina Strong's* son Anthony was 6, he was constantly confused by similar-sounding words. "For instance, he couldn't recognize the difference between 'phone' and 'foam' when they were spoken," says Strong, a mother of two in New York City. "He had a hard time following instructions, too. He'd hear the first few words, then start losing some words and get totally confused." Today, Strong has him work on a computer-based training course in language and reading and asks that his teacher seat him in the front of the class so she can check to make sure he's grasping the lesson.

Reading difficulties, often referred to by the catchall term "dyslexia," are the most common learning disabilities. Approximately 80 percent of children with LD have them. "Most of these children have a deficit in phonological awareness," says Reid Lyon, Ph.D., chief of the child development branch at the National Institutes of Health. "This means they have a hard time understanding that words are made up of smaller sounds, which is the foundation of reading." Some also have trouble dis-cerning positions and shapes  -- a u might look like an n; an E might look like a W or a 3. Children with a sequencing disability will see the letters d, o, and g in that order but may read them as "god." This reading problem can show up in spelling (a child might use the right letters but in the wrong order) and math (the equation "2 + 3 = 5" may be copied down as "2 + 5 = 3"). A dyslexic may also skip words or lines or read the same line twice.

Writing disabilities. "In the third grade, my daughter hid many of her papers in her desk instead of turning them in, because she was ashamed that she couldn't finish the work legibly," recalls Ann Fay,* a mom of two in the Midwest. Her daughter has since been diagnosed with a writing disability. This stems from two main problems. First, a child may have trouble with the fine motor skills (like proper pencil grip) needed to write clearly.

The second element is a lack of the organizational skills required to transfer thoughts to paper; typically, the child seems to know more than she can put down in writing. These problems can have a profound impact on her academic performance, says Larry Silver, M.D., president of the Learning Disabilities Association of America and professor of psychiatry at Georgetown University School of Medicine. "Most schools do not grade you on what you know but on what you can express on paper."

Math disabilities. Marian Hawkins,* a mother in Buffalo, says that her daughter couldn't count change in the fifth grade. An alarm went off, and Hawkins hired a tutor to work with her child twice a week.

"To master arithmetic, children must understand the quantity that each number represents and the concepts involved in solving problems," explains David C. Geary, Ph.D., professor of psychology at the University of Missouri. "A math learning disability can result from difficulties in grasping any one, or any combination, of these basic skills."

Finding Support

If your kid seems to be struggling, meet with her teacher or principal to get his perspective and see if he recommends the next step: a thorough evaluation by a learning specialist. This test will measure your child's ability to read, write, do math, and process other forms of information. You'll gain a better understanding of your kid's learning issues, and she may receive an LD diagnosis.

Experts agree that the younger a child is when a learning disability is diagnosed, the better chance she has of escaping the problems attached to it. Unfortunately for the kid with LD, a vicious cycle kicks in, says Mary Cathryn Haller, author of Learning Disabilities 101: A Primer for Parents. The child is angry about his failings; this anger fuels more self-doubt, which causes more failure. Yet when caught and addressed early, a learning disability can be minimized. "Several studies have shown that approximately 90 percent of children identified as at risk in kindergarten and first grade increase their reading to at least average level by the end of second grade, after intensive and well-designed early intervention," says Lyon.

As painful as an LD diagnosis can be for both parent and child, there are many resources that offer help. Federal law requires schools to provide services such as special-education classes. For most kids who have LD, this means staying in a mainstream classroom but going for tutoring in a resource room, where they'll encounter special techniques and learning tools, from games to CD-ROMS. Children whose disabilities are particularly severe may attend schools dedicated to assisting kids with LD reach their potential.

Often, children who have reading disabilities need specific help with phonics, which special-ed classes or tutoring can offer. Teachers in regular classrooms can provide a child who has LD with certain accommodations, such as reading exams to her or letting her use a laptop. And at home, parents can lend a hand, from playing books on tape to getting copies of lessons beforehand to give their child extra coaching.

Lisa Marie Johnson of Kennebunk, ME, whose 7-year-old, Ben, has a reading disability, urges parents not to let their emotions and expectations get in the way of helping. "There's a lot of grieving over the loss of the perfect child," she says of an LD diagnosis. "But even without the learning disability, my son may never be the person I thought he was going to be when I gave birth and they called out, 'It's a boy.' But he's Ben, and he's a happy kid. Every parent wants a perfect, happy child. But perfect is not always happy, and happy is not always perfect."