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Learning Disabilities

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KEY POINTS

  • A learning disability (LD) is a disorder that affects the way that the brain receives, processes, stores, and responds to information. There are many kinds of learning disabilities.
  • Children with learning disabilities tend to have challenges in school even though they have normal or above-normal intelligence. A team of people will test your child to find out exactly what the problems are and how to help your child. The evaluation includes testing and talking with teachers and parents.
  • Once you understand the problem you can work with school staff to develop an Individualized Educational Plan (IEP) and learn ways to help your child at home.

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What are learning disabilities?

A learning disability (LD) is a disorder that affects the way that the brain receives, processes, stores, and responds to information. There are many kinds of learning disabilities. Your child may have problems with listening, speaking, reading, spelling, writing, reasoning, remembering, or solving math problems. Learning disabilities can range from mild to severe. LDs can make it hard for your child to learn new things in different areas of life, not just in school.

What causes an LD?

The causes for most LDs are not known. They tend to run in families. Learning disabilities may be caused by changes in brain chemicals or damage in certain parts of the brain.

A child is more likely to have a learning disability if the mother used drugs or alcohol during pregnancy. A problem such as an infection or malnutrition while you are pregnant may also increase the risk. LDs are also more common in children who:

  • Were premature, had low birth weight, or had an injury or lack of oxygen during birth
  • Had certain conditions after birth such as imbalances of certain hormones or chemicals, or an infection
  • Are exposed to lead
  • Have a chronic illness such as asthma or diabetes
  • Have a head injury
  • Do not get the right amount of the vitamins, minerals, and other nutrients needed in the first 2 years of life

A child who has a learning disability may also have hearing or vision problems, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), or emotional problems. However, LDs are not caused by these conditions. They are also not caused by cultural differences or poor parenting.

What are signs?

There are many types of learning disabilities and the signs can be very different. If a child has average or above-average intelligence and is doing poorly in school, your child may have a learning disability. Your child may have mild or severe problems. Your child may also have more than one LD. Children with learning disabilities tend to have challenges in school even though they have normal or above-normal intelligence. A child with an LD may have problems in one or many of the following areas:

Attention: Your child may have trouble paying attention, be impulsive, or get tired easily when trying to concentrate.

Language: Your child may have trouble following directions and need to have things repeated. Your child may use the wrong words or mix up words. Telling a story may be hard because the events get mixed up.

Time-Space orientation: Your child may have trouble understanding time such as the difference between tomorrow and next week. Your child may have trouble with directions and often get lost.

Visual processing: Your child may see letters or words backwards as with confusing b's and d's or reading "was" as "saw." Your child may write very slowly or have poor handwriting.

Auditory processing: Your child may have trouble focusing on important sounds instead of background noise. Your child may seem inattentive and have trouble following spoken instructions.

Memory: Your child may not remember basic information such as an address and phone number. It may be hard to remember multiplication tables or days of the week. Short-term memory may be a problem. Your child may forget instructions or lose track while telling a story or having a conversation. Your child may lose homework, schoolbooks, or other items.

Math skills: Your child may have trouble with math concepts such as counting, adding, subtracting, multiplying, fractions, and measurements.

Motor control: Your child may have trouble with fine motor control and have a hard time doing buttons and zippers, or have trouble holding a pencil. If your child seems clumsy or awkward, your child may have problems with gross motor control.

How do I find out if my child has an LD?

Your child’s healthcare provider will ask about your child's development at each well child visit. Tell your provider about any concerns you have and anything that seems unusual. Do not ignore problems, thinking that your child is just a little slow and will "catch up." Your child’s provider will check to make sure there is no medical problem that could cause the symptoms.

Ask your school to evaluate your child. All public school districts in the US are required to offer special services for children with these conditions, free of charge. Services for preschool children usually begin around 3 years of age. For school-age children, public school districts provide services through 21 years of age, or until they graduate from high school, whichever comes first.

The school's testing may be needed for your child to qualify for extra help at school. A team of people will test your child to find out exactly what the problems are and how to help your child. The evaluation includes testing and talking with teachers and parents.

The team of people that will evaluate your child may include a psychologist, a child psychiatrist, special education teacher, speech/language therapist, occupational therapist, physical therapist, social worker, or other healthcare providers.

Sometimes you are given one specific diagnosis. Other times you may be told that your child has more than one LD. Some of the common disorders are:

  • Reading disorder, which means your child has trouble with reading
  • Written expression disorder, which means that your child has trouble with handwriting and organizing writing
  • Mathematics disorder, which means that your child has trouble with numbers and math skills
  • Nonverbal learning disorder, which means that your child has problems with things such as understanding gestures and facial expressions
  • Auditory processing disorder, which means that your child has trouble remembering what was said
  • Visual perception disorder, which means that your child has trouble with copying words and may reverse letters
  • Language disorder, which means that your child has trouble understanding spoken language and may also have trouble with reading or writing

How does my child get extra help at school?

The results of the testing will determine whether your child can have special education services provided at school.

Many states offer Early Intervention Programs for children under 5 years of age who have an LD. Some states offer special developmental preschool classes. Early treatment increases your child's ability to succeed and learn new skills.

Some services are given only if your child has a certain diagnosis. Ask your school for which disorders they provide special services. Once you understand the problem you can work with school staff to develop an Individualized Educational Plan (IEP). Parents must help write and agree with the IEP. The IEP must outline:

  • Your child's current performance
  • Specific special education services and who will provide them
  • Short-term and yearly goals
  • Ways to test and measure your child's progress toward these goals each year.

To get the best help for your child, you must work closely with the other team members. If you do not agree with the test results, services, or therapies, voice your concerns at the IEP meeting. Signing the IEP means that you agree to the services, goals, and other matters listed in it.

If the school cannot offer special services, you can look for help from private tutors, learning centers, psychologists, and others to help your child. Check with your state’s disabilities resource center to find out if there are state programs that can help. Even if your child is not on an IEP or in special education classes, your child's teacher can still modify assignments and help your child. Make sure you talk to your child's teacher.

What can I do to help?

Depending on the disability, there are many ways to help your child at home. It is very important to do the following:

  • Build your child's self esteem. Children who are not doing well in school may not feel good about themselves. If they feel they can't cope with the demands of the people around them, they may withdraw from their friends and social activities. It is important for these children to understand that they are smart and that they just have a different way of learning. That is why learning disabilities are also called learning differences. Remind your child that there are many successful people with learning disabilities.
  • Give unconditional love and support. You can build up your child's self-esteem if you remind your child of his or her strengths. Do this regularly. Your child may need counseling to help change views and expectations about self.
  • Help your child to understand the problem. Talk about the problem. Help your child focus on coping skills rather than feeling like he or she is the problem. Sometimes talking with other children who also have a LD can help. Children may feel better if they realize they are not alone.
  • Help your child organize things. Help your child learn to organize toys and games as well as school notes and assignments. When your child needs to read or concentrate, have your child work away from the sounds of television, radio, or others talking.
  • Encourage your child to take part in other activities such as sports, choir, art, or a hobby. This can help your child discover other strengths. Be careful that your child does not take on too many activities but rather help your child focus on doing a few things well.
  • Take care of your child’s physical health. A variety off health foods, enough rest, play activities, and family outings will strengthen your child's body and mind.
  • Communicate with the school. Stay in close touch with your child's teachers, therapists, and other caregivers. Let your child's teacher know that you want to play an active role in your child's education. Ask how you can help your child at home.
  • Get professional advice on handling difficult behavior and feelings if needed.
  • Join support groups. These groups help keep you up to date with the latest information. It will also put you in touch with parents who have children with similar problems.
  • Be cautious of alternative treatments. Be sure to check with your healthcare provider before giving supplements, changing to a special diet, or using other kinds of alternative treatments.
Developed by Change Healthcare.
Pediatric Advisor 2019.4 published by Change Healthcare.
Last modified: 2019-09-03
Last reviewed: 2019-08-12
This content is reviewed periodically and is subject to change as new health information becomes available. The information is intended to inform and educate and is not a replacement for medical evaluation, advice, diagnosis or treatment by a healthcare professional.
© 2018 Change Healthcare LLC and/or one of its subsidiaries
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