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Learning Disabilities

Diagnosing a child’s learning problem isn’t easy. Start by reviewing these general guidelines.


How can you tell if your child has a learning disability? This is a tough question — mainly because the term "learning disability" covers so many different types of problems and conditions that affect learning in children with average or above-average intelligence. In addition, different school districts use different criteria to define, diagnose, and treat learning disabilities. And children who have learning problems also often have physical, behavioral, or social problems that can complicate both diagnosis and treatment.

In general, however, you or your child's teacher may suspect a learning disability if:

  • Your child's performance in reading, writing, or math is erratic, or is far below that of his classmates, and
  • Despite special help, he continues to have trouble with more than one of the following:

    • Getting and staying organized
    (managing his time, completing assignments, locating belongings, making decisions, setting priorities, and putting things in order, for instance)

    • Speaking and writing
    (especially when attempting to follow directions, pronounce words, learn new words, retell stories, answer questions, understand things he reads, or write stories)

    • Paying attention and remembering information
    (such as the letters of the alphabet or the multiplication tables, directions for assignments, or words he studied for a spelling test)

    • Sticking with activities and assignments until they're finished
    (especially if she frequently feels frustrated and lashes out, cries, or gives up when faced with a challenge, or she acts out in class to avoid having to do her work)

    • Making and keeping friends
    (due to poor social judgment, impulsive or aggressive behavior, poor sportsmanship, or an inability to read other children's nonverbal cues)

    • Completing physical tasks
    (such as cutting, drawing, handwriting, climbing, and running) due to poor coordination

None of these, on its own, is a conclusive sign of a learning disability. Rather, a combination of these (and other) symptoms may indicate that further testing is in order.

Diagnosing a Learning Problem
If a learning disability is suspected, the first step is to take your child to a pediatrician for a complete physical examination, to rule out medical problems like poor vision or hearing loss. The next step is to obtain neurological, psychological, and educational assessments (including intelligence, personality, brain function, and academic performance tests).

If the tests do not show a learning disability, you'll want to work with the school to find out why your child is performing below his ability level, or why he is having specific behavioral problems.

If a learning disability is uncovered, you'll need to see what the school can do to help. Depending on the type and intensity of the problem, your child may be given extra help at school or outside tutoring. Or, the school may recommend that he be placed in a special education class or be transferred to another school that is better suited to meeting his particular learning needs.

Whatever the recommendations are, your support of your child, and your acceptance of his disability, will have a major impact on his future success.

From What Really Happens in School: A Guide to Your Child’s Emotional, Social, and Intellectual Development, Grades K–5 by Ann E. LaForge Copyright © 1999 Ann E. LaForge. All rights reserved. No part of this book may be used or reproduced in any manner whatsoever without the written permission of the Publisher. For information address: Hyperion, 77 West 66th Street, New York, NY 10023-6298. To order, call 1-800-759-0190.

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