Overcoming Learning Disabilities in Children

Understanding the nature of a learning disorder is imperative for anyone who’d like to be a successful teacher, counselor, psychologist, coach, or parent – a list certainly not exhaustive of all the leadership and mentorship roles important to children’s success.

Knowing what to expect and what signs to look for with a learning difficulty can often mean the difference between a child going without the help they need and a student having access to the support and resources that can help ensure developmental success.

7 Common Learning Disabilities in Children

  1. Auditory Processing Disorder
  2. Dyscalculia
  3. Dysgraphia
  4. Dyslexia
  5. Language Processing Disorder
  6. Nonverbal Learning Disabilities
  7. Visual Perceptual/Visual Motor Deficit

 Children living with learning disabilities often face distinct disadvantages – in school, in sports, in relationships, and other areas of their lives. This is especially true if the adults in their lives aren’t familiar with the signs of learning disabilities, and aren’t trained with the appropriate coping strategies and mechanisms that help children ultimately be successful.

While learning disabilities cannot be “cured,” they can be managed effectively with the right kind of support and intervention.

Children who deal with learning disabilities are eligible for specialized educational services and accommodations at school under the Individuals with Disabilities in Education Act and the anti-discrimination law known as Section 504. Many schools perform their own testing for learning disabilities to determine whether a student needs intervention, though in some cases, an evaluation from a healthcare professional may be needed.

Above all, it’s important for parents, healthcare providers, and schools to work collaboratively to find the right interventions and treatment to ensure a student’s success. When all parties work together to develop an Individualized Education Program, it’s highly probable that the student will be successful in school and beyond. Children with diabetes, and kids who have other physical health conditions, can manage these conditions through various strategies. Children who deal with learning disabilities can put plans in place to help them manage their learning differences.

What Are Child Learning Disabilities?

When a child has a learning problem, the underlying cause can be a learning disability caused by genetic or neurobiological factors that alter brain functioning and impair one or more of the vital cognitive processes associated with foundational learning. Such processing difficulties can impede the learning of fundamental skills such as reading, writing, and math.

Learning disabilities can also interfere with high-level executive skills including abstract reasoning, time planning, organization, long-term or short-term memory, and focus. When left undiagnosed and untreated, learning disabilities can affect a child’s life well beyond school subjects and have the power to impact relationships with family, friends, and colleagues.

This is why it’s so important to recognize how children’s learning disabilities manifest, so they can be recognized and treated early.

It’s also important to recognize what learning disabilities are NOT, which includes the following:

  • Visual, hearing, or motor handicaps
  • Intellectual disability – a child must have an IQ of at least 85 to be diagnosed with a learning disability
  • Behavioral or emotional disturbance
  • Attention Deficit Disorder – either ADHD or ADD
  • Environmental, cultural, or economic disadvantages

All these other conditions must be ruled out before a learning disability can be diagnosed. Typically, children with learning disabilities are of average or above-average intelligence. They simply possess a neural processing difference that results in a gap between the child’s potential and the child’s actual achievement.

Learning disabilities have absolutely nothing to do with a child’s level of motivation or desire to achieve. Children with learning disabilities simply have brains that are wired differently from the conventional norm, and this difference affects how they receive and process information.

7 Learning Disabilities in Children

Though a child’s learning difficulty can come in many different forms, here are the most commonly diagnosed learning disabilities in children.

1. Auditory Processing Disorder

Kids with an auditory processing disorder have difficulty processing sounds. Children with APD may confuse the order of sounds or lack the ability to filter different sounds. For example, a child may have trouble distinguishing a teacher’s voice from background noise in a classroom setting. With APD, the brain misinterprets information that is received and processed by the ear. The ability to effectively hear things greatly impacts the ability to read, write and spell. Not being able to judge nuanced differences in sounds makes it challenging to phonetically sound out words and understand basic, foundational concepts of reading and writing.

Approaches to treating auditory processing disorder may include steps like modifying the classroom environment to eliminate, or at least reduce, competing sounds, teaching the child appropriate listening skills, and working with an audiologist to treat the auditory deficit.

In some cases, a patient may be able to use an electronic device to help with listening. Other compensation strategies may be as simple as helping students become comfortable asking for clarification or to have the teacher repeat instructions.

2. Dyscalculia

The term dyscalculia includes a family of learning disabilities related to mathematical calculations. Children learning math may struggle to understand the concepts and reasoning if they have dyscalculia.

Kids with dyscalculia may also have difficulty counting money, telling time, remembering math facts, identifying patterns, and solving mental math problems. And since these basic skills are necessary for high-level math problems, quantitative reasoning often suffers for children with dyscalculia. It’s not uncommon for children with dyscalculia to be able to complete complex math problems one day, but then seem completely confused when asked to solve the same problems the following day.

While there’s no one standard approach for dealing with dyscalculia, multisensory instruction shows a lot of promise. This form of therapy uses sight, touch, hearing, and movement to teach skills and understand mathematical concepts. Multisensory math techniques have shown success in helping children with dyscalculia better comprehend what numbers and symbols represent.

Some schools use this type of instruction as part of a special education program or as part of educational intervention like RTI. Private math tutors and educational therapists also use these techniques.

3. Dysgraphia

Students with dysgraphia often struggle with converting their inner thoughts into writing or drawing. Poor handwriting is a key hallmark of dysgraphia, and sufferers may also have difficulty with spelling, critical thinking, grammar, vocabulary, and memory. Students with dysgraphia may struggle with poor motor planning, spacing of letters, and spatial awareness, and they may have difficulty thinking and writing at the same time.

Common observable symptoms of dysgraphia may include omitting words in sentences, speaking words out loud while writing, and having trouble with grammar and syntax structure. Researchers believe that dysgraphia is rooted in an overall difficulty with storing and retrieving letters and numbers. Children with dysgraphia also may struggle with executive functions like organizing and planning.

Occupational therapy is often employed to help children with dysgraphia. This type of therapy might include manipulating various objects to build hand and wrist strength and practicing cursive writing, which can be easier for some children than printing letters.

Sometimes, simple repetitive movements, like taking pegs out of a pegboard and putting them back in, can help children with dysgraphia build strength that makes the physical act of writing easier and more natural for them.

4. Dyslexia

Dyslexia is a language processing disorder that can have profound impacts on reading, writing, spelling, and reading comprehension – and approximately 2%-8% of school-aged children have a reading disability that may fall under this umbrella. Children with dyslexia may have difficulty decoding words or they may struggle to identify individual sounds within words as they learn to read. Dyslexia often is characterized by a deficit in accurate and fluent word recognition.

Reading comprehension often suffers for children with dyslexia because of poor word recognition skills. It’s not uncommon for dyslexia to go undiagnosed for several years, which may result in significant setbacks related to reading, grammar, spelling, reading comprehension, and other foundational language skills.

Once dyslexia is diagnosed, there currently is no known way to correct the underlying brain abnormality that causes it. A child with dyslexia will always have dyslexia. However, many behavioral strategies can help a child overcome the challenges dyslexia brings. For example, classroom teachers may use techniques that include hearing, vision, and touch to help a child improve reading skills.

Teaching a child to use several senses in the learning process – like listening to a recording of a lesson and tracing with a finger the shape of the letters used and words spoken – can also help them process information. Tutoring sessions with a reading specialist also have proven very helpful for many children with dyslexia.

5. Language Processing Disorder

Language processing disorder is a category of auditory processing disorders that arises when a child has specific difficulties in processing spoken language. These challenges typically impact both receptive and expressive language. Children with language processing disorder also may have difficulty attaching meaning to the sound groups that form the building blocks of words, sentences, and stories.

Speech-language therapy is often helpful for children with language processing disorder and typically focuses on fundamental cognitive skills like listening comprehension, listening accuracy, short-term memory, and focus.

6. Nonverbal Learning Disabilities

Children with nonverbal learning disabilities may struggle to decode the nonverbal behaviors or social cues of others. NVLD sufferers often have trouble translating facial expressions, body language, and tone of voice, along with other nonverbal aspects of communication. By some estimates, up to 5% of children with learning disabilities display characteristics associated with nonverbal learning disabilities.

Treatment for nonverbal learning disabilities typically is tailored to the student and may include occupational therapy, social skills training, and daily accommodations at home and school.

7. Visual Perceptual/Visual Motor Deficit

Visual perceptual/visual motor deficit often manifests as poor hand-eye coordination. Motor deficit specifically refers to problems with coordination and movement, which could relate to fine motor skills, like writing and cutting, or gross motor skills like running and jumping.

Problems with visual perception include misperceiving depth or distance, missing subtle differences in shapes, reversing letters or numbers, skipping lines, skipping words, or struggling with hand-eye coordination. Children who struggle with this learning disability also may easily lose their place while reading and often have difficulty using scissors, pencils, crayons, or glue, along with participating in other fine-motor activities. They may at times confuse similar letters, have a poor sense of direction, or show unusual eye movement when reading or completing assignments.

Accommodations and treatment may include steps like using large-print books or allowing students to dictate assignments, employing books on tape, letting students use special pencil grips, and playing visual and memory-based games.

Understanding Learning Disabilities in Children

While learning disabilities represent distinct challenges for some children, depending on the type, severity, and potential combination, when parents, teachers, coaches, and other adults in students’ lives pay close attention and identify early the signs of a potential learning disability, it’s highly likely that the student will get the support, accommodations, and coping strategies she needs to be successful.

If you think your child may have a learning disability, speak with your child’s doctor and your child’s teacher, along with potentially reaching out to a diagnostician who can help you determine what your child is facing and how to accommodate for any learning differences. With early and thoughtful intervention and accommodations, your child can look forward to years of academic achievement.