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What Every Parent Should Know About Learning Disabilities

September 11, 2018

The term “learning disability” is thrown around pretty loosely these days, yet it’s hard for most of us to come up with an accurate definition of what is actually meant by those words. It’s important for parents to have some idea, though, of what learning disabilities are and what can be done about them. This knowledge will equip you to recognize a problem and get the appropriate help in a timely manner if your child does suffer from a learning disability. 

What Is a Learning Disability? 

Learning disabilities are sometimes called invisible disabilities because they are often difficult to detect, and there may be no physical clues to indicate that a child is not functioning normally. It’s a general term that encompasses many different disorders that describe a person’s unexplained difficulty acquiring certain academic skills. Some experts define it as the gap between what a person is intellectually capable of learning and the level at which they perform academically. 

Learning disabilities are a general way of naming problems your child may have with acquiring skills in reading, writing, math, listening, speaking or reasoning when these difficulties are not caused by physical problems (such as blindness or hearing impairment), psychological problems or social/emotional problems. 

This umbrella term encompasses specific diagnoses such as dyslexia, auditory processing disorder, language processing disorder, visual perceptual/visual motor deficit, dyscalculia and dysgraphia. Other disorders that often coincide with learning disorders (but are not learning disorders) include Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), dyspraxia and problems with memory and executive functioning. (Definitions and more in-depth information on these diagnoses can be found here.) 

What Should I Do If I’m Concerned About My Child? 

Parents are usually the first to sense that something isn’t right with their child. After all, we’re with our kids day-in and day-out, observing how they behave in every circumstance and also how they compare with other kids their age when they mingle with friends. 

Here is a list of signs that could indicate a learning disorder, courtesy of the Learning Disabilities Association of America. But keep in mind, it’s not an exhaustive list. Also, remember that many children may exhibit some of these signs from time to time — it’s when they show several of them consistently over time that help should be sought. 


  • Difficulty recognizing words that rhyme
  • Trouble learning letters, numbers, days of the week, colors or shapes
  • Trouble with pronunciation
  • Problems getting along with others
  • Difficulty following directions or learning routines
  • Difficulty in handling pencils, crayons or scissors, or trouble buttoning, tying or zipping

Grades K-4

  • Trouble making the connection between letters and their sounds
  • Mixing up basic words
  • Consistent reading and spelling errors
  • Trouble learning basic math concepts
  • Difficulty learning the concept of time
  • Problems with memorizing facts 

Grades 5-8

  • Poor reading comprehension or math skills
  • Difficulty spelling
  • Mixes up letter sequences (i.e. using the word left for felt)
  • Trouble with time management
  • Difficulty completing assignments in a timely manner
  • Disorganization
  • Poor handwriting 

High School and Adults

  • Struggles with reading and writing assignments
  • Trouble with timely completion of assignments
  • Poor memory skills
  • Difficulty with open-ended questions on tests
  • Struggles with abstract thinking
  • Difficulty intensely focusing on details
  • Misreads information 

If you notice these or other symptoms, here are your next steps:

Contact your pediatrician and schedule an appointment. It’s important to express your concerns to your child’s doctor because there may be medical problems that could account for a child’s academic struggles. For example, if a child has had hearing loss from a young age and it has gone unnoticed, she could be slow to develop speech and language. A child who is visually impaired will struggle with reading and writing. Someone experiencing social, emotional or mental health issues may find it challenging to learn in the classroom until those issues are addressed. 

It’s crucial to utilize your doctor’s expertise in order to rule out physical and mental health issues that could contribute to a child’s difficulty in achieving academic success.

Tutor helps boy with learning disability

Contact your child’s school. Public schools are federally mandated by the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) to provide appropriate education for children with special needs. Schools are equipped with specialized personnel trained to identify learning disorders and formulate plans to help children learn to the best of their ability. 

Your child’s school can conduct the appropriate testing and, in consultation with parents, devise what’s known as an Individualized Education Program (IEP) that outlines the specific interventions the child needs to succeed, as well as goals for the school year. Even if your child is not currently enrolled in your neighborhood public school, he may still be eligible for some services offered at that school, so it’s worth looking into.

Reach out to local or national organizations. If your child is diagnosed with a learning disorder, educate yourself on the topic. Join local advocacy or support groups. Get to know other parents who are experiencing the same things. This can become an invaluable way to share resources, become aware of federal provisions or protections for your child, find out about special services and where they can be accessed, and many other benefits. Some well-known national organizations include the Learning Disabilities Association of AmericaNational Center for Learning Disabilities and International Dyslexia Association

If you’re concerned your child may be suffering from a learning disorder, seek help right away. The sooner a problem is identified, the sooner it can be addressed, and your child will be able to fulfill his or her potential inside and out of the classroom. 

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