Learning disabilities are typically diagnosed during the elementary school years. Some researchers report that approximately 15% of the population have learning disabilities. The most common, of course, is a reading disability or dyslexia. Although, there may be evidence of learning difficulties much earlier in a child’s development, a learning disability is difficult to accurately diagnose during early childhood. For example, young children with significant language delays specifically in the areas of expression and understanding of language may be at risk for a specific learning disability. Diagnostic criteria differs depending upon the venue in which a child is evaluated. A clinical psychologist utilizes a different, but similar, set of diagnostic criteria in determining the presence of a learning disability. Public schools evaluate and determine the presence of a specific learning disability based upon the Federal and State Education Codes. The diagnosis of a learning disability through a private evaluation does not automatically qualify a child for special services or special education services offered through public schools. The school district is obligated to consider the private assessment, but has the legal right to conduct its own evaluation, and to determine eligibility based on the state education code criterion. Following represents the Federal definition of a specific learning disability.
“A specific learning disability is a disorder in one or more of the basic psychological processes involved in understanding or in using language, spoken or written, that may manifest itself in an imperfect ability to listen, think, speak, read, write, spell, or do mathematical calculations, including processing difficulties in the areas of auditory processing, visual processing, attention, listening comprehension, sensory motor skills, and cognitive skills including cognitive expression, association, and conceptualization. However, learning disabilities do not include learning problems that are primarily the result of visual, hearing, or motor disabilities, of mental retardation, of emotional disturbance, or of environmental, cultural, or economic disadvantage.” 34 Code of Federal Regulations 300.7(c)(10)
The psychological processes that are evaluated as part of a special education assessment are as follows:
Auditory Processing is the ability to recognize and interpret auditory stimuli involving the use of auditory memory, auditory sequencing, and sound blending. It involves understanding/comprehending verbal instruction and remembering verbal instruction from either rote and/or retrieval recall ability for verbally presented information.
Visual Processing is the ability to recognize and interpret visual stimuli involving the use of visual memory and visual sequencing. It involves understanding/comprehending visual instruction and remembering visually administered instruction from either rote and/or retrieval recall ability.
Sensory-Motor is the ability to transform visual reception to motor production. Often this includes the ability to reproduce written material in the classroom, and sometimes penmanship skills.
Attention is the process of focusing on stimuli and sustaining or shifting this focus as required by the task or situation. It is complex and multi-faceted—often exhibited by short-term memory deficits and impulsivity. It is not simply the ability to sustain focus as much as it is the ability of the brain to filter out distractions which can hinder the ability to maintain focus. It is important to note that regardless of the student’s performance, under California Ed-Code, ADD/ ADHD is strictly a medical diagnosis—however, assessment in terms of the presence of behaviors typical of this disorder is evaluated as part of the initial assessment for special education.
Cognitive Association is the ability to join various objects or events because of some relationship, e.g. comparisons, linking, causal sequence, discriminations, grouping, sorting, and ordering. Association is also known as “fusion” or memory encoding/imprinting in the brain. It involves engaging both rote memory, and long-term storage and retrieval skills.
Cognitive Conceptualization is the ability to see basic similarities and differences, to draw conclusions, to make inferences, classify, categorize, summarize, and make judgments in multi-step operations. This involves a ‘higher level’ thinking and reasoning skill which commonly includes, but is not limited to, understanding/performing basic functions of arithmetic, as well as visual-spatial relationships.
Cognitive Expression is defined as the ability to communicate ideas through expressive language such as writing, gesturing, and speaking. Typically this is directly attributable to abilities (or lack of) in reading comprehension, and vocabulary, as well as basic writing skills.
The presence of a processing difficulty is not the only area that is considered in determining eligibility for special services within the public schools. A severe discrepancy must exist between cognitive ability and achievement in one or more of the following areas, or the child must demonstrate limited progress in attaining skills despite implementation of intervention services (Response to Intervention):
- Basic Reading, Reading Comprehension, Reading Fluency
- Math Calculation, Math Reasoning
- Written Expression
- Oral Expression
- Listening Comprehension
Probably the least, but one of the most important aspects of eligibility and placement in special education, is that the team must consider whether or not the child’s needs require specialized services, materials, and equipment consistent with the guidelines established pursuant to section 56136 of the Federal Education Code and that the needs cannot be met through general education and/or other services offered by the general education services.
The following general characteristics may be observed in children with learning disabilities:
- Reading: Difficulties with sounding out words, slow reading fluency, and difficulty understanding what they read
- Language: Difficulty expressing themselves when speaking and difficulty understanding language, concepts, and following instructions
- Math: Difficulty performing math functions such as adding, subtracting, multiplying, dividing, etc., difficulty remembering math facts, and difficulty with applying math concepts to solve a problem (ie: word problems)
- Written language: Difficulty with spelling, reading, and writing
- Organizational skills: Difficulty organizing their materials, prioritizing, time management, and other aspects of organizing their learning environment
- Reasoning: Difficulty organizing thoughts and difficulty with abstract thinking
- Uneven development in academic skills (Example: grade expected math skills, but well below expected reading skills)
- Hyperactivity and inattention
- Perceptual difficulties
- Difficulty with tests or difficulty with scoring consistently on tests
- Low tolerance to frustration
- Motor difficulties: Difficulty with fine motor development and gross motor clumsiness
- Social difficulties
- May need more time to complete tasks
The following instructional strategies are helpful in working with children with learning disabilities.
- Focus on the student’s strengths
- Provide structure and clear expectations
- Provide opportunities for the child to be successful
- Use appropriate accommodations and adaptations
- Provide positive feedback and immediate feedback for corrections
It is important to begin intervention and support as soon as the child’s learning disability is identified. There are a wide range of educational materials and programs available to support the academic development of children with learning disabilities. Please research options carefully. Not all programs are appropriate for all children.
Please see http://www.ldonline.org/ for more information concerning learning disabilities. This is a wonderful website. It has many resources for families to learn more about this area.