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Detecting Learning Disabilities in Children

Detecting Learning Disabilities in Children

Learn about the signs of a learning disability and and what you can do to help.


Signs and Effects of Learning Disabilities in Children and How to Intervene

Sometimes a child’s struggles in school are attributed to learning disabilities, which make it hard to read, write or solve simple math problems. Luckily, advancing educational resources make it possible for children with learning disabilities to focus on their learning strengths while also working on improving deficient skills.   

Background on Learning Disabilities

Children can underachieve academically due to a number of factors, including social distractions, problems at home and lack of motivation. Many students who struggle have a disability that prevents them from processing information in the same way as others, but by missing key signs of a learning disorder, a lot of these students are not accommodated for their learning needs and continue to struggle. Symptoms of a learning disability are consistently present in someone’s math or language arts performance, and they do not depend on someone’s engagement in the content. Learning disabilities are disorders that prevent people from comprehending words and numbers as easily as others. Most importantly, the effects of learning disabilities do not just go away or improve over time. Parents and teachers must work together to intervene and then modify the child’s education.

In order to first diagnose a learning disorder, there are two tests that should be administered. Children with suspected learning disabilities should be given an IQ test for intelligence and a standardized achievement test to evaluate reading, writing, math and oral language skills. Most children with learning disabilities have normal to above-average intelligence, but the results of their achievement tests do not reflect it. This makes it obvious that the child is capable of understanding the concepts, but gets confused by the presentation of the content.

If you feel that your child has not been performing up to their potential, organizations like Aspire Child & Family Services offer in-depth evaluations to test for learning disorders. Aspire utilizes input from the child’s school, family, healthcare professionals, our staff evaluations and, if age-appropriate, the child too. We manage all of this data in one place to create a complete picture of your child’s abilities. This way, your child’s diagnosis is more accurate and we can offer better options to accommodate their learning needs.    

Common Signs of a Learning Disorder

While every child learns differently and at different rates, there are baseline expectations for certain stages in a child’s development. If someone struggles to acquire basic skills expected of their age group, there is a reasonable chance they have a learning disability. Misunderstanding directions is another sign that the child’s brain just does not understand how to process the information, rather than not understanding the information itself. Another sign is having memory issues, so a learning disability may not affect someone’s rate of acquisition as much as it does their rate of retention. These memory issues also factor into another sign of a learning disability. Aside from forgetting about directions, someone with a learning disorder might often misplace things and forget where they are. In a school setting, this is easy to spot because of how many different assignments students are responsible for on a given day. Students with learning disabilities could also have noticeably deficient motor skills, like having trouble walking without tripping, holding a pencil or playing sports.

Along with some of the concepts in math and language arts, children with learning disabilities often do not understand how to tell time. Time is abstract in the sense that it does not physically exist. It was conceptualized by people, but people with learning disabilities struggle with relating to abstract ideas. Many of the skills in reading and writing require abstract thinking for analyzing a text or planning a written essay. Someone with a disability might struggle to translate their own thoughts into written word or apply outside experience to a story. In math, abstract thinking pertains to assigned functions of the operations, relationships between numbers and how to organize the work and answers on a page. On top of all this, many learning disability cases feature people with limited attention spans. They usually have a tough time focusing as a result.

Because it is so hard for people with learning disabilities to focus on and understand math and language arts topics in school, they may try to avoid anything involving reading, writing or calculations. Homework is not always the best indicator since so many students avoid completing it without any reason to. If a student continues to avoid homework, offer some help. Students with learning disabilities often want to complete their work but cannot because of how much they struggle and this may make them feel embarrassed. If you notice that your child only completes assignments when they get help from yourself or a teacher, that could mean they cannot process all of the information on their own. If a student avoids doing homework and participating in fun learning activities, this can be another indication of a disability. Teachers often facilitate games like “Sparkle” for spelling or have students race against each other to solve math problems on whiteboards. Most students focus on the game aspect and can get swept away in it, but if someone is still reluctant to participate, it could be because they are afraid of failing. Children with learning disabilities will be resistant to any form of math, reading or writing. They sometimes even have outbursts or defy the teacher’s instructions. Getting in trouble may be a way to get out of classwork for some, and for others, it could be involuntary. Someone with a learning disorder probably does not realize that their different perceptions of things cause a gap in understanding, so they could become excessively frustrated by school. Articles like this one, shows symptoms organized by age so you and your child can start learning about what specific challenges they will work to overcome.    

Learning Disorders Linked to Reading

Several of the defined learning disorders we know of only affect a single subject area. The Mayo Clinic identifies reading learning disorders that make it difficult for someone to perceive a spoken word as a combination of sounds. This affects reading because it can be harder to link letters to sounds or connect combinations of letters to words. Some of the skills someone with a reading learning disorder might struggle with include:

  • Reading at a pace with the rest of the class or one that does not meet typical expectations for someone in that grade level
  • Comprehending the meaning behind the words they read and not just reading through each of the words
  • Accurately remembering what was read
  • Using what they are reading to make inferences about the rest of the text
  • Spelling

Dyslexia, Auditory Processing Disorder and Dysphasia are some examples of learning disorders that specifically make reading harder for people. Dyslexia, one of the better known learning disorders, mainly affects reading but can also make writing, spelling and speech too. One of the signs to look for is slowed progress in schoolwork. If the child takes a while to think about reading or spelling, that could be a sign they have dyslexia and are struggling to process words.

Dysphasia is also called Aphasia, but Aphasia cases are typically more severe. Both degrees of this disorder affect someone’s ability to understand or produce verbal language. This means there are a couple varieties of signs to look for in your child. While listening to them talk, watch to see if they struggle verbally to tell stories or with their fluency. Also look for when they listen to someone else who is speaking; check to see if they struggle with directions or understanding the meanings of the words they hear.

Auditory Processing Disorder affects what someone hears, which actually makes an impact on learning to read. This learning disorder causes people to hear things slightly differently while listening to someone. Similar sounding words or phrases often get confused for what is being said. This leads to reading comprehension and retention problems.

Learning Disorders Linked to Writing

Learning disorders in writing affect someone’s physical writing ability and someone’s mental abilities to produce written content. The Mayo Clinic has a list of some of the struggles a learning disorder in written expression cause for people, including:

  • Labor-intensive handwriting that slows the child’s work progress
  • Handwriting that is difficult or near impossible to read because of motor skill difficulties
  • Struggling to put thoughts into writing
  • Creating text that is poorly organized or hard to understand
  • Trouble using correct grammar, punctuation or spelling

Dysgraphia is the officially recognized term for writing disorders, and it affects different areas of writing for different people. Many might struggle with coherence, organization, handwriting, spelling consistently or any combination of these. Having trouble copying words or sentences without any higher level thinking can be a clear sign that the student needs additional writing support. The National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (NICHD) also recognizes subtle cues that indicate a child is struggling with writing, like if they have to say the words they are writing aloud to themselves. In any case, the child might not talk about their struggles openly at first, so finding these signs is essential.

Learning Disorders Linked to Math

Math is another core subject that can be uniquely affected by learning disorders, regardless of intelligence. Again, the Mayo Clinic has excellent resources to help parents determine if their child is struggling with a learning disability or if it is because of another cause. Some of the problems a math learning disability might cause include the following:

  • Understanding how numbers work and relate to each other
  • Calculating math problems
  • Memorizing basic formulas or calculations
  • Using math symbols and operations
  • Understanding the concept of positive and negative numbers
  • Solving word problems
  • Organizing and recording math notes or work for a given problem

One of the common math learning disorders, dyscalculia, can be difficult to spot because reading and writing learning disabilities can also affect a student’s math performance. Comprehending written information is essential for most school subjects, so when diagnosing dyscalculia, doctors must evaluate a struggling student to find the root of the cause. If the child specifically struggles in math and requires substantial practice in understanding concepts like time and money, working through word problems or mixing up sequences of events in equations, it is very likely that a disorder like dyscalculia distorts how they perceive numbers. Parents and teachers should watch for these problems in students attempting to acquire new math skills, because if a given amount of practice cannot help them progress, there is probably a learning disorder holding them back, rather than a lack of effort or intelligence.

Getting Help for Children with Learning Disabilities

There are plenty of options for treating any given learning disorder, but in all cases, intervening early is essential. Children with learning disorders might have to use different or additional strategies to succeed academically. That means not all of the learning strategies they practice would be relevant to them.

Plus, if a student cannot succeed early on in school, they are much more likely to stay behind later on. One of the pillars of lesson planning is using a teaching strategy called “scaffolding” to align lessons so they work as stepping stones for the students, directing them upward to more advanced material. Teachers scaffold between grade levels, lessons and class periods; this way, students advance through content at a steady rate. The lessons from early years in your child’s education are meant to be the foundation of all the layers of scaffolding teachers will try to teach in later grades. In other words, failing to understand addition will be a major setback for a student in the future, because addition is an integral part of solving advanced equations. In order to keep up with new material, the old material has to be routine.

Treatment options work on a number of levels specially designed for a student. Therapists, teachers and other specialists will work together to design a path for your child that is catered to your child’s physical, mental and learning needs. Here are some options to treat learning disorders:

  • Professional Tutoring: This strategy adds a traditional learning intervention with oversight from a tutor specially trained to focus on your child’s diagnosis. Individualized instruction targets your child’s learning needs and makes accommodations for them by designing lesson plans that allow your child to acquire and retain information. These tutors create an ideal learning environment your child can progress in.
  • Individualized Education Program (IEP): All public schools are required to provide an Individualized Education Plan for students with disabilities. IEP’s help students set goals in school, and they help parents, teachers and administrators discuss which strategies and services would help the student reach their goal.
  • Classroom Accommodations: Accommodations can be made in the classroom to meet the student’s learning needs. Each accommodation is designed to address an area where the student cannot perform on grade level independently. Reducing test questions, changing seats and repeating instructions are all accommodations that can be made to create an ideal learning environment with a disability. This way they will be in a position to succeed and advance to standard grade level content.
  • Therapy: Especially at young ages, children need additional instruction to help implement these new learning strategies. A student can work with a counsellor to go over procedures or practice different strategies together. Occupational therapy addresses someone’s physical abilities and can help improve someone’s motor skills and handwriting. Lastly, speech therapy allows children to work with a language specialist and work on articulation and other speech issues.


Help for Your Child’s Learning Disability

Aspire Child & Family Services offers guidance, testing, and treatment for families affected by learning disorders. By sitting down for an evaluation, your child will be taking steps to understand their learning abilities, plan the most successful path for them to learn and discuss any adjustments that need to be made throughout their education. To schedule an evaluation for your child, call Aspire’s office at 267-388-0670 and talk to our staff about availability and services your child may be eligible for.

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