Does your child struggle with school? Does he or she fear reading out loud, writing an essay, or tackling a math problem? While every child has trouble with homework from time to time, if a certain area of learning is consistently problematic, it might indicate a learning disorder. By understanding all you can about learning disabilities, you can ensure your child gets the right help to overcome classroom challenges and succeed in life.

WHAT IS LEARNING DISABILITY? Learning disabilities refer to a variety of disorders that affect the way someone learns. Learning disabilities range in severity and invariably interfere with the acquisition and use of one or more of the following important skills:

  • Oral language (e.g., listening, speaking, understanding)
  • Reading (e.g., decoding, comprehension)
  • written language (e.g., spelling, written expression)
  • Mathematics (e.g., computation, problem solving)

Learning disabilities may also cause difficulties with organizational skills, social perception and social interaction. The impairments are generally life-long. However, their effects may be expressed differently overtime, depending on the match between the demands of the environment and the individual’s characteristics. Some impairment may be noted during the pre-school years, while others may not become evident until much later. During the school years, learning disabilities are suggested by unexpectedly low academic achievement or achievement that is sustainable only by extremely high levels of effort and support.


Characteristics of children with learning disabilities

Children with learning disabilities are a diverse group of individuals, exhibiting potential difficulties in many different areas. For example, one child with a learning disability may experience significant reading problems, while another may experience no reading problems whatsoever, but has significant difficulties with written expression.

Learning disabilities may also be mild, moderate, or severe. According to Bowe (2005), “some learn to adjust to learning disabilities so well that they ‘pass’ as not having a disability, while others struggle throughout their lives to even do ‘simple’ things. Despite these differences, Learning disabilities always begin in childhood and always is a life-long condition”.

Understanding the characteristics of children with learning disabilities is absolutely essential as a future educator in developing pre-referral interventions, in making appropriate referrals, and in identifying effective adaptations and intervention strategies (Smith et al., 2004).

Problems with reading, writing, and mathematics

Learning disabilities are often grouped by school-area skill set. If your child is in school, the types of learning disorders that are most conspicuous usually revolve around reading, writing, or mathematics.

Learning disabilities in reading (dyslexia)

Reading abilitiesThere are two types of learning disabilities in reading. Basic reading problems occur when there is difficulty understanding the relationship between sounds, letters and words.

Reading comprehension problems occur when there is an inability to grasp the meaning of words, phrases, and paragraphs.

Signs of reading difficulty include problems with:

  • letter and word recognition
  • understanding words and ideas
  • reading speed and fluency
  • general vocabulary skills

Learning disabilities in mathematics (dyscalculia)

Dyscalculia is the term associated with specific learning disabilities in math. Although features of Learning Disabilities in math vary from person to person, common characteristics include:

  • difficulty with counting, learning number facts (like 5+5=10 or 5×5=25) and doing math calculations
  • difficulty with measurement, telling time, counting principles (such as counting by twos or counting by fives) and estimating number quantities
  • trouble with mental math and problem-solving strategies


Learning disabilities in writing (dysgraphia)

Writing abilitiesDysgraphia is the term associated with specific learning disabilities in writing. It is used to capture both the physical act of writing and the quality of written expression. Features of learning disabilities in writing are often seen in individuals who struggle with dyslexia and dyscalculia, and will vary from person to person and at different ages and stages of development. Common characteristics include:

  • tight, awkward pencil grip and body position
  • tiring quickly while writing, and avoiding writing or drawing tasks
  • trouble forming letter shapes as well as inconsistent spacing between letters or words
  • difficulty writing or drawing on a line or within margins
  • trouble organizing thoughts on paper
  • trouble keeping track of thoughts already written down
  • difficulty with syntax structure and grammar
  • large gap between written ideas and understanding demonstrated through speech


Other types of learning disabilities and disorders

Knowing about learning disabilitiesReading, writing, and math aren’t the only skills impacted by learning disorders. Other types of learning disabilities involve difficulties with motor skills (movement and coordination), understanding spoken language, distinguishing between sounds, and interpreting visual information.

Causes of learning disability

Environmental factors which contribute to learning disabilities are also broad. These can roughly be divided into factors that influence the development and integrity of the brain during pregnancy, during the birth process, and after birth.

During pregnancy, it is well established that both prescription and non-prescription drugs (especially alcohol and nicotine) can contribute to disorders which may include learning disabilities.

Infections of the mother during pregnancy (such as rubella or measles) can also negatively affect the foetal brain, leading to different types of learning difficulties, depending on the nature of the infection and the gestational period during which it occurs.

Traumatic conditions during the birth process, particularly those resulting in lack of oxygen during birth (e.g., cerebral palsy resulting from anoxia), can cause brain damage and result in learning disabilities.

At birth, both low birth weight (which is significantly more common for women who smoke during pregnancy) and prematurity (especially in combination with Respiratory Distress Syndrome) are associated with a variety of negative outcomes, including learning disabilities.

Following birth, any source of acquired brain injury may result in a learning disability, these include traumatic events (“shaken baby syndrome”, falls, accidents), exposure to toxic chemicals (e.g., to heavy metals such as mercury or lead from contaminated soil or through solvent inhalation or “gas sniffing”), hypoxia (loss of oxygen to the brain as a result of suffocation or choking), infections (especially meningitis and encephalitis) and inflammation of the brain (e.g., Reyes Syndrome).

As reported in the McCain & Mustard Early Years Study, 1999, both physical and emotional abuse and neglect during the early years of development have also been found to be associated with later learning problems and learning disabilities. Etc.


Helping people with learning disabilities become successful in school and life.

When it comes to learning disabilities, it’s not always easy to know what to do and where to find help. Turning to specialists who can pinpoint and diagnose the problem is, of course, important. You will also want to work with your child’s school to make accommodations for your child and get specialized academic help. But don’t overlook your own role. You know your child better than anyone else, so take the lead in looking into your options, learning about new treatments and services, and overseeing your child’s education.

Research indicates that all of the following components and more need to be an integral part of the services and supports that are available to people with learning disabilities, in order to help them achieve their goals and overcome any barriers resulting from the condition.

“Specific skill instruction describes appropriate teaching and training that is built on an individual’s identified strengths. It focuses on the development of compensatory strategies in those weaker skill areas where the learning disability interferes with the learning process.

Specific skill instruction must be individualized. The teaching/ training process must be adjusted to match the individual’s learning style, rather than assuming that the individual will eventually learn, no matter what the teaching process is, provided that “he/she tries harder”.

Traditional remedial techniques of teaching, testing and teaching repeatedly in essentially the same way frequently do not work for students with learning disabilities. Examples of specific skill instruction include differentiated teaching strategies, for example, reducing the number of tasks without reducing the standard or expected quality; allowing for an extended learning period to achieve mastery; teaching repeatedly a particular skill in a substantially different way than that used to instruct the rest of the class; and emphasizing the importance of acquiring learning and compensatory strategies.

Compensatory strategies are ways in which individuals who have learning disabilities can apply coping skills to help themselves overcome the impacts of their learning disabilities, without necessarily having to rely on the assistance of other people or draw particular attention to their needs. Examples of successful compensatory strategies include using colour-coding, applying visual cues such as highlighting, drawing arrows, using a notepad or a handheld tape recorder to ensure that directions are not forgotten, learning a format for approaching certain complex tasks, etc.

Self-advocacy training is an essential part of enabling and empowering people with learning disabilities to identify and ask for the accommodations that they need in order to achieve their potential. Successful self-advocacy relies on self-awareness and a thorough understanding of personal strengths and difficulties.

Accommodations are defined as alterations and changes in the way individuals with disabilities are enabled to function to demonstrate and apply their skills and knowledge. Accommodations are aimed at eliminating or ameliorating a disadvantage without altering the validity of the work in doing so. Examples of successful accommodations may include using adaptive technology, getting assistance from another person such as a note taker or scribe or having extra time to carry out certain tasks. It is particularly important that any identified and recommended accommodations are directly linked to the strengths and needs of the person with a learning disability.

Students with specific learning disabilities are able to learn, provided that they are taught the way in which they learn best. They can usually demonstrate their skills and knowledge provided that they have access to accommodations appropriate for their needs. While access to specific skill instruction is an essential component of the teaching and learning process, most students with learning disabilities are able to work within the parameters of the provincial curriculum, without having to rely on significant modifications.


Belinda Rhema


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