From an early age, Luke Reilly (not his real name) could fix almost anything. When the bell on his bike broke, Luke — then age 4 — got it working again, even when his mom couldn’t.
Once Luke began school, though, he didn’t flourish the way his parents expected. He wasn’t hitting reading benchmarks; he couldn’t spell. By first grade, “Luke told me everyone else was smarter,” says his mother, Patty, whose heart broke when she spotted her son in the school-bus line, pretending to read a book. “A lot of our mornings were filled with tears.”
But Reilly refused to accept that Luke simply “belonged” at the bottom of his class. Instead, she searched for an answer — and found it after an evaluation in third grade revealed that Luke had learning disorders (LDs), including dyslexia, which made it tough for him to read, write, spell, and stay organized. And like a third of kids who have an LD, he also had ADHD, which means he had trouble paying attention on top of it all.
Reilly was shocked. “School was very easy for me,” she says. “I always thought ‘effort in’ equaled ‘results out.’ ” But that’s not how it works with LDs, which affect how a child remembers; understands; or processes new information, from decoding words to adding to figuring out what the teacher is saying. And for the estimated 1 in 10 kids who has an LD, those obstacles turn school into a tricky place to be.
Despite all these challenges, though, kids with LDs can thrive when they have someone to support them when they’re discouraged and, of course, get them the expert resources they need, says Rita Eichenstein, Ph.D., a pediatric neuropsychologist in Los Angeles who specializes in learning disorders.
The first step to overcoming any learning struggle — whether it’s been diagnosed or not — is to get informed. We spoke to parents and specialists to get the facts everyone needs to know.
1. Early warning signs can be missed.
Usually, there’s nothing you can do to prevent a learning disorder. That’s because many experts think these conditions are present before birth, thanks to genetics (LDs tend to run in families) or because a baby was exposed to toxins like lead while in the womb.
Clues can crop up in preschool, but they’re easy to overlook, since children learn at their own pace and go through many phases. Still, many kids with LDs have difficulty rhyming words; pronouncing new words; or remembering everyday routines, like how to zip a jacket.
For Julie Mangiaracinia, of San Antonio, TX, the first warning sign came when her daughter Marin was 3. “I had a hard time understanding most of what Marin tried to say. Relatives would talk to her over the phone and wouldn’t have any idea what she said.”
Marin faced new challenges in kindergarten. When reading didn’t click, her teacher assured Mangiaracinia that her daughter would eventually get it. But by third grade, despite twice-weekly tutoring, Marin was only reading on a first-grade level. “When Marin asked, ‘Have you ever felt like you were different from everybody else?’ I knew I had to do something,” says her mom.
She discovered that Marin was dyslexic when the girl was evaluated (see “When Your Child Needs Help,” below). Thanks to a special program, her daughter is reading more fluently. But Mangiaracinia is convinced that her daughter would be reading at grade level now had they gotten help earlier — and her self-confidence would be stronger.
“Parents need to trust their instincts. After all, we know our children better than anyone else does,” she says. As soon as you suspect an issue, she adds, bring it up to the school and get your child tested. The earlier the learning disorder can be identified, the sooner a child can get help from the school or from an outside specialist.
2. LDs have nothing to do with being smart.
Kids with learning disorders get unfairly labeled as stupid or lazy, but many are super-smart. It’s just that their brains work differently — and that gets in the way of their ability to learn, says Lois Kam Heymann, director of the Auditory Processing Center at the Center for Hearing and Communication in New York City.
For example, brain scans have shown that dyslexic kids mainly use the right side of their brains to read rather than the left, which is the part that controls language and analysis. When kids decode words, the information has to travel farther (from right to left) before it can be understood. That’s partly why dyslexic kids are slower readers. For many people with dyslexia, words can blend together — or the spaces between them can disappear. Some dyslexic kids can whiz through big words but struggle with little ones like “at” or “for.”
Brain differences can affect another type of LD known as auditory processing disorder (APD). A child with APD hears perfectly well, but she cannot accurately interpret the sounds she hears: “I picked an apple from the tree,” for instance, may sound like “I picked an ample frog tree.” Even the simplest instructions are difficult to decipher for these kids, especially when the classroom turns noisy.
3. LDs affect life in — and out of — the classroom.
A learning disorder doesn’t magically disappear when the last bell rings. Kids who spend all day struggling in school may act out at home. If they have trouble staying organized in class, the same is true when they get off the bus.
Besides dyslexia, Luke Reilly also has executive function disorder, so he struggles when he has to shift activities. To shore up these skills, Reilly gives her son a “to-do” list for the next morning that includes things most kids do automatically, including “put on your shoes.” She breaks down tasks for him step by step, has Luke repeat each step back before he does it, and reinforces the list with a chart. “The structure will eventually help Luke learn to do these things by himself,” explains his mom.
Still, it’s equally important to let kids figure stuff out on their own, particularly in areas they already shine in. “Luke is pretty intuitive and empathetic,” Reilly says. “I would never step in to help him in social situations the same way that I help manage his time and work.”
Reilly’s advice to parents: Have realistic expectations when dealing with the areas that a kid finds challenging. But set high expectations where kids show strengths and can stand on their own two feet. That’s another way to help boost self-confidence.
4. Kids with LDs have bright futures.
It’s normal for parents to feel anxious, angry, or crushed when their child gets diagnosed. The stats can be dire: 20 percent of kids with an LD drop out of high school, compared to 8 percent of other students, according to the U.S. Department of Education. Almost half of all high-schoolers with an LD have fallen three grade levels behind in math and reading.
But experts urge parents to reframe the situation. While learning differences can’t be cured, with the right tools, kids can excel and be successful, says Dr. Eichenstein. “Kids with learning disorders have the potential to change the world because of their creative, out-of-the-box thinking. The challenge is keeping their self-esteem strong and helping them find their unique talents.”
Parents can do that in all sorts of ways. First, it’s crucial to find the right type of help. To aid her 9-year-old with dyslexia, Dawn Clarke, of Gig Harbor, WA, located a learning center through the International Dyslexia Association. Their son Jones goes three times a week after school — and he’s gotten the encouragement and specialized program he needs to read well.
Clarke also gives her son plenty of opportunities to pursue other passions that come more easily. “I tell Jones his dyslexia gives him the ability to think visually, and that’s why drawing’s a natural for him.”
“Jones’s difficulties have really become an asset,” Clarke continues. “He’s a problem-solver and go-getter, and that comes from having to work so hard at things most of us take for granted, like reading. There are advantages to not being an average learner. Look at Steve Jobs!”
Is it a Learning Disorder — or Trouble Learning?
Struggling to master a subject doesn’t necessarily mean there’s anything wrong. Here, a few ways to tell the difference, from Rita Eichenstein, Ph.D., a pediatric neuropsychologist:
It's probably not an LD if your child . . .
- Used to do fine in school. Divorce, death, family problems, dealing with bullies, or getting used to a new school can all cause setbacks or cause a good student to suddenly fall behind.
- Benefits from short-term help. Extra attention from the teacher or weekly meetings with a tutor can get many kids over the hump.
- Is able to follow instructions. Even if kids forget a step now and then, they mostly know what to do when parents or teachers tell or show them.
It probably is a learning disorder if your child . . .
- Has had trouble with classwork from day one. A kid with an LD struggles with key academic skills, from reading comprehension to figuring out math problems.
- Can’t keep up with tutoring. These kids need frequent sessions with specialized teachers and effective methods to stay on track.
- Can’t get through a set of instructions. Kids find it difficult to remember all the steps they need to follow directions.
When Your Child Needs Help
All public schools must evaluate kids for free. These tips can get you started on the right path:
Make copies of your child’s report cards and tests, along with teacher comments and your observations.
Make a written request
State the reason your child needs to be evaluated in a letter or e-mail and send it to school officials.
A team of education pros will interview you and your child, observe her in the classroom, review her history, and administer tests. Afterward, they should explain the results and diagnosis to you.
Figure out the options
Kids diagnosed with an LD are entitled to an individualized education plan (IEP) that spells out special services (say, speech therapy) provided by the school free of charge. If your child doesn’t get an IEP, ask for a 504 plan, which gives kids with learning issues special accommodations, like extra time to finish tests.
Don’t give up
Every district has different requirements for IEP and 504 plans. If you disagree with the evaluation results or services, you have the right to another screening. You can also pay out of pocket for a third-party expert.