Questions & Answers

What are the characteristics of learning disorders?

A child with a Learning Disorder shows difficulty in acquiring competence in reading, mathematics, or written expression appropriate for age, schooling and level of intelligence. The major types of Learning Disorders are Reading Disorder, Mathematics Disorder, and Disorder of Written Expression. It is important to note that each area of learning involves many different skills. For example, a reading disorder may involve reading single words, speed, and/or comprehension. Disorders associated with deficient language are subsumed under the category of Communication Disorders and frequently co-occur with Learning Disorders. Various other disorders of learning may involve processing visual information, motor skills, and social skills. Nonverbal Learning Disability Syndrome, for example, reflects a combination of visual processing, sensory-motor, arithmetic and social deficits. Ten to 25% of individuals with Learning Disorders have associated problems such as Conduct Disorder, Oppositional Defiant Disorder, Major Depressive Disorder, or Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder.

How come some kids who are very bright and great at a lot of things like athletics and art, have trouble learning to read?

Intelligence is not just one thing. People are smart in certain ways, some can visualize things in space, some can use their hands for detailed work, some can understand plants and animals, some can understand the emotions of other people. But some kids have a deficit in a particular area like reading, math or writing things.

What causes learning disorders?

Learning Disorders are thought to be due to variations in brain structure and function. Underlying abnormalities in cognitive processing (e.g., deficits in visual perception, linguistic processes, attention, or memory, or a combination) often precede or are associated with Learning Disorders. Genetic predisposition, perinatal injury, and various neurological or other general medical conditions may be associated with Learning Disorders, but the presence of such conditions does not necessarily predict a Learning Disorder. Learning Disorders are, however, frequently found in association with a variety of general medical conditions (e.g., lead poisoning, fetal alcohol syndrome, or fragile X syndrome).

What happens if a child's learning problem is not diagnosed?

Many children with Learning Disorders may function at or near grade level in the early grades, and the Learning Disorder may not be fully apparent until the fourth grade or later. The manifestations of the Learning Disorder change with the demands required in school, as the need for more independent work increases. As these demands change, the effect of the problem also changes. Without help nearly 40% of children and adolescents with learning problems drop out of school.

Can a kindergarten teacher really tell if a 5-year-old has a learning disability? How is that possible?

Kids can be diagnosed as being at risk for learning problems at an early age, sometimes as young as 3 or 4 years. They may have difficulty in areas such as blending sounds, rhyming words and remembering nursery rhymes.

How are learning problems diagnosed?

Learning Disorders are typically diagnosed through psychoeducational and/or neuropsychological evaluations. Information is gathered from parents, teachers and the child regarding the issues at hand. Psychoeducational testing involves an assessment of the child's potential for learning and problem solving and examines academic skills development. Neuropsychological testing is helpful in some cases in evaluating other areas of concern (e.g., memory, language, attention) that may be associated with the child's learning disorder. Social-emotional assessment may be conducted to identify factors such as depression or anxiety or to examine social skills development. Other professionals, such as speech-language or occupational therapists may conduct evaluations as part of the process of identifying a learning disorder. A disorder is typically identified when there is a pattern of test scores that are below expected, given the child's age and/or intellectual potential.

What are some common treatments?

Generally, learning disorders are addressed through remediation, in individual, small group and/or classroom settings. Depending on a child's needs, anything from weekly tutoring to a special education classroom environment may be necessary. A thorough evaluation can identify the child's strengths and weaknesses to guide such interventions. For example, most children with reading disorders generally improve through intervention with a reading specialist, aimed at improving the child's awareness of and ability to work with the individual sounds of language, and apply those skills towards decoding individual words. The University of Kansas Center for Research on Learning has developed structured means of addressing writing skills in children with learning disorders, as well as other difficulties. Generally, adjunct treatments, such as individual, family or group psychotherapy or medication may be necessary to address other issues affecting the child's functioning.

How does a learning problem affect a child's life outside of school?

Since a good portion of a child's life is spent in school, if they don't do well they may develop low self-esteem and a sense of incompetence, as well as difficulties in social skills.

What does the future hold for learning-disabled 7- and 8-year-olds?

With early identification and intervention, the prognosis is good in a significant percentage of cases. Early identification can prevent or limit frustration and failure in school, which in turn may lead to emotional, social or family problems.