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What are learning disabilities?

Learning disability is a general term that describes specific kinds of learning problems. A learning disability can cause a person to have trouble learning and using certain skills. The skills most often affected are:

  • reading,
  • writing,
  • listening,
  • speaking,
  • reasoning, and
  • doing math.

Learning disabilities (LD) vary from person to person. One person with learning disabilities may not have the same kind of learning problems as another person with learning disabilities. One person may have trouble with reading and writing. Another person with learning disabilities may have problems with understanding math. Still another person may have trouble in each of these areas, as well as with understanding what people are saying.

Researchers think that learning disabilities are caused by differences in how a person's brain works and how it processes information. Children with learning disabilities are not "dumb" or "lazy." In fact, they usually have average or above average intelligence. Their brains just process information differently.

The definition of "learning disability" just below comes from the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). The IDEA is the federal law that guides how schools provide special education and related services to children with disabilities.

There is no "cure" for learning disabilities. They are life-long. However, children with learning disabilities can be high achievers and can be taught ways to get around the learning disability. With the right help, children with learning disabilities can and do learn successfully.

IDEA's Definition of "Learning Disability"

Our nation's special education law, the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, defines a specific learning disability as . . .

". . . a disorder in one or more of the basic psychological processes involved in understanding or in using language, spoken or written, that may manifest itself in an imperfect ability to listen, think, speak, read, write, spell, or do mathematical calculations, including conditions such as perceptual disabilities, brain injury, minimal brain dysfunction, dyslexia, and developmental aphasia."

However, learning disabilities do not include, "...learning problems that are primarily the result of visual, hearing, or motor disabilities, of mental retardation, of emotional disturbance, or of environmental, cultural, or economic disadvantage." 34 Code of Federal Regulations §300.7(c)(10)

Quick GuideADHD in Children: Better Parenting

ADHD in Children: Better Parenting

How common are learning disabilities?

Very common! As many as 1 out of every 5 people in the United States has a learning disability. Almost 3 million children (ages 6 through 21) have some form of a learning disability and receive special education in school. In fact, over half of all children who receive special education have a learning disability (Twenty-fourth Annual Report to Congress, U.S. Department of Education, 2002).

What are the signs of a learning disability?

There is no one sign that shows a person has a learning disability. Experts look for a noticeable difference between how well a child does in school and how well he or she could do, given his or her intelligence or ability. There are also certain clues that may mean a child has a learning disability. We've listed a few below. Most relate to elementary school tasks, because learning disabilities tend to be identified in elementary school. A child probably won't show all of these signs, or even most of them. However, if a child shows a number of these problems, then parents and the teacher should consider the possibility that the child has a learning disability.

When a child has a learning disability, he or she:

  • may have trouble learning the alphabet, rhyming words, or connecting letters to their sounds;
  • may make many mistakes when reading aloud, and repeat and pause often;
  • may not understand what he or she reads;
  • may have real trouble with spelling;
  • may have very messy handwriting or hold a pencil awkwardly;
  • may struggle to express ideas in writing;
  • may learn language late and have a limited vocabulary;
  • may have trouble remembering the sounds that letters make or hearing slight differences between words;
  • may have trouble understanding jokes, comic strips, and sarcasm;
  • may have trouble following directions;
  • may mispronounce words or use a wrong word that sounds similar;
  • may have trouble organizing what he or she wants to say or not be able to think of the word he or she needs for writing or conversation;
  • may not follow the social rules of conversation, such as taking turns, and may stand too close to the listener;
  • may confuse math symbols and misread numbers;
  • may not be able to retell a story in order (what happened first, second, third); or
  • may not know where to begin a task or how to go on from there.

If a child has unexpected problems learning to read, write, listen, speak, or do math, then teachers and parents may want to investigate more. The same is true if the child is struggling to do any one of these skills. The child may need to be evaluated to see if he or she has a learning disability.

What about school and learning disabilities?

Learning disabilities tend to be diagnosed when children reach school age. This is because school focuses on the very things that may be difficult for the child - reading, writing, math, listening, speaking, and reasoning. Teachers and parents notice that the child is not learning as expected. The school may ask to evaluate the child to see what is causing the problem. Parents can also ask for their child to be evaluated.

With hard work and the proper help, children with learning disabilities can learn more easily and successfully. For school-aged children (including preschoolers), special education and related services are important sources of help. School staff work with the child's parents to develop an Individualized Education Program, or IEP. This document describes the child's unique needs. It also describes the special education services that will be provided to meet those needs. These services are provided at no cost to the child or family.

Supports or changes in the classroom (sometimes called accommodations) help most students with learning disabilities. Some common accommodations are listed below in "Tips for Teachers". Assistive technology can also help many students work around their learning disabilities. Assistive technology can range from "low-tech" equipment such as tape recorders to "high-tech" tools such as reading machines (which read books aloud) and voice recognition systems (which allow the student to "write" by talking to the computer).

It's important to remember that a childs learning disabilities may need help at home as well as in school. The resources listed below will help families and teachers learn more about the many ways to help children with learning disabilities.

Quick GuideADHD in Children: Better Parenting

ADHD in Children: Better Parenting

Tips for parents of children with learning disabilities

Learn about learning disabilities. The more you know, the more you can help yourself and your child. See the list of resources and organizations at the end of this article.

  • Praise your child when he or she does well. Children with learning disabilities are often very good at a variety of things. Find out what your child really enjoys doing, such as dancing, playing soccer, or working with computers. Give your child plenty of opportunities to pursue his or her strengths and talents.
  • Find out the ways your child learns best. Does he or she learn by hands-on practice, looking, or listening? Help your child learn through his or her areas of strength.
  • Let your child help with household chores. These can build self-confidence and concrete skills. Keep instructions simple, break down tasks into smaller steps, and reward your child's efforts with praise.
  • Make homework a priority. Read more about how to help your child be a success at homework. (See resource list at the end.)
  • Pay attention to your child's mental health (and your own!). Be open to counseling, which can help your child deal with frustration, feel better about himself or herself, and learn more about social skills.
  • Talk to other parents whose children have learning disabilities. Parents can share practical advice and emotional support. Call NICHCY (1.800.695.0285) and ask how to find parent groups near you. Also let us put you in touch with the parent training and information (PTI) center in your state.
  • Meet with school personnel and help develop an educational plan to address your child's needs. Plan what accommodations your child needs, and don't forget to talk about assistive technology!
  • Establish a positive working relationship with your child's teacher. Through regular communication, exchange information about your child's progress at home and at school.

Tips for teachers of children with learning disabilities

Learn as much as you can about the different types of learning disabilities. The resources and organizations at the end of this document can help you identify specific techniques and strategies to support the student educationally.

Seize the opportunity to make an enormous difference in this student's life! Find out and emphasize what the student's strengths and interests are. Give the student positive feedback and lots of opportunities for practice.

Review the student's evaluation records to identify where specifically the student has trouble. Talk to specialists in your school (e.g., special education teacher) about methods for teaching this student. Provide instruction and accommodations to address the student's special needs. Examples include:

  • breaking tasks into smaller steps, and giving directions verbally and in writing;
  • giving the student more time to finish schoolwork or take tests;
  • letting the student with reading problems use textbooks-on-tape (available through Recording for the Blind and Dyslexic, listed under "For more information");
  • letting the student with listening difficulties borrow notes from a classmate or use a tape recorder; and
  • letting the student with writing difficulties use a computer with specialized software that spell checks, grammar checks, or recognizes speech.

Learn about the different testing modifications that can really help a student with learning disabilities show what he or she has learned.

Teach organizational skills, study skills, and learning strategies. These help all students but are particularly helpful to those with learning disabilities.

Work with the student's parents to create an educational plan tailored to meet the student's needs.

Establish a positive working relationship with the student's parents. Through regular communication, exchange information about the student's progress at school.

Quick GuideADHD in Children: Better Parenting

ADHD in Children: Better Parenting

Is there any treatment for learning disabilities?

The most common treatment for learning disabilities is special education. Specially trained educators may perform a diagnostic educational evaluation assessing the child's academic and intellectual potential and level of academic performance. Once the evaluation is complete, the basic approach is to teach learning skills by building on the child's abilities and strengths while correcting and compensating for disabilities and weaknesses. Other professionals such as speech and language therapists also may be involved. Some medications may be effective in helping the child learn by enhancing attention and concentration. Psychological therapies may also be used.

What is the prognosis for learning disabilities?

Learning disabilities can be lifelong conditions. In some people, several overlapping learning disabilities may be apparent. Other people may have a single, isolated learning problem that has little impact on their lives.

What research is being done for learning disabilities?

The NINDS and other institutes of the National Institutes of Health including the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, the National Institute of Deafness and Other Communication Disorders, and the National Institute of Mental Health support research on learning disabilities. Current research avenues focus on developing techniques to diagnose and treat learning disabilities and increase understanding of the biological basis of learning disabilities.

For more information

CHADD - Children and Adults with Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder
8181 Professional Place Suite 150
Landover, MD 20785
http://www.chadd.org
Tel: 301-306-7070 800-233-4050
Fax: 301-306-7090

International Dyslexia Association
8600 LaSalle Road Chester Building, Ste. 382
Baltimore, MD 21286-2044
info@interdys.org
http://www.interdys.org
Tel: 410-296-0232 800-ABCD123
Fax: 410-321-5069

Learning Disabilities Association of America
4156 Library Road Suite 1
Pittsburgh, PA 15234-1349
info@ldaamerica.org
http://www.ldaamerica.org
Tel: 412-341-1515
Fax: 412-344-0224

National Center for Learning Disabilities
381 Park Avenue South Suite 1401
New York, NY 10016
http://www.ld.org
Tel: 212-545-7510
888-575-7373
Fax: 212-545-9665

National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (NICHD)
National Institutes of Health, DHHS
31 Center Drive, Rm. 2A32 MSC 2425
Bethesda, MD 20892-2425
http://www.nichd.nih.gov
Tel: 301-496-5133
Fax: 301-496-7101

National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH)
National Institutes of Health, DHHS
6001 Executive Blvd. Rm. 8184, MSC 9663
Bethesda, MD 20892-9663
nimhinfo@nih.gov
http://www.nimh.nih.gov
Tel: 301-443-4513/866-615-NIMH (-6464)
301-443-8431 (TTY)

Medically reviewed by Margaret Walsh, MD; American Board of Pediatrics

Last updated: 1/28/2008

SOURCES: National Dissemination Center for Children with Disabilities and the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke, National Institutes of Health

Last Editorial Review: 4/2/2014

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Reviewed on 4/2/2014
References
Medically reviewed by Margaret Walsh, MD; American Board of Pediatrics

Last updated: 1/28/2008

SOURCES: National Dissemination Center for Children with Disabilities and the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke, National Institutes of Health

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