Written by: Laura Kenda Attachment: Information from the F-A-T (Frustration, Anxiety, and Tension) City Learning Disability Workshop hosted by Richard D. Lavoie
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1. What you should know about learning disabilities (LD)

  • Learning disabilities are real. A person can be of average or above-average intelligence, not have any major sensory problems (like blindness or hearing impairment), and yet struggle to keep up with people of the same age in learning and regular functioning.
  • LDs are not the same as mental retardation, autism, deafness, blindness, behavioral disorders or laziness. LDs are not the result of economic disadvantage, environmental factors or cultural differences.
  • Not all learning problems are necessarily learning disabilities. Many children are simply slower in developing certain skills. Because children show natural differences in their rate of development, sometimes what seems to be a learning disability may simply be a delay in maturation.
  • LDs can affect different aspects of learning and functioning. LDs can occur with other disorders (Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder – AD/HD, Information Processing Disorders).
  • Currently, almost 2.9 million school-aged children in the US are classified as having learning disabilities (LD) and receive some kind of special education support. They are approximately 5% of all school-aged children in public schools.
  • No one knows of a pill or remedy that will cure LDs. But they can be compensated for and even overcome through alternate ways of learning, accommodations and modifications.

2.What is a learning disability?

A learning disability (LD) is a neurological disorder that affects the brain’s ability to receive, process, store and respond to information. LD is not a single disorder. It is a term that refers to a group of disorders.
By law, learning disability is defined as a significant gap between a person’s intelligence and the skills the person has achieved at each age.

3. What Causes Learning Disabilities

Experts aren’t exactly sure what causes learning disabilities. LD may be due to:

  • Heredity – often learning disabilities run in the family, so it’s not uncommon to find that people with LD have parents or other relatives with similar difficulties.
  • Problems during pregnancy and birth – LD may be caused by illness or injury during or before birth. It may also be caused by drug and alcohol use during pregnancy, low birth weight, lack of oxygen and premature or prolonged labor.
  • Incidents after birth – Head injuries, nutritional deprivation and exposure to toxic substances (i.e. lead) can contribute to LD.

4. How Are Learning Disabilities First Identified?

Children reach certain “milestones” of development: the first word, the first step, and so forth. Both doctors and parents are watching for these developmental milestones. Learning disorders may be informally flagged by observing significant delays in the child’s skill development. A 2-year delay in the primary grades is usually considered significant.
While children can be informally flagged by using observation techniques, actual diagnosis of learning disabilities is made using standardized tests that compare the child’s level of ability to what is considered normal development for a person of that age and intelligence.
Among the symptoms commonly related to learning disabilities are:

  • Academic Symptoms – poor performance on group tests; reversals in reading and writing; difficulty in copying accurately from a model; slowness in completing work; easily confused by instructions; difficulty with tasks requiring sequencing.
  • Cognitive Symptoms – difficulty discriminating size, shape, color; difficulty with temporal (time) concepts; distorted concept of body image; poor organizational skills; difficulty with abstract reasoning and/or problem-solving; disorganized thinking; often obsesses on one topic or idea; poor short-term or long-term memory; lags in development milestones (e.g. motor, language).
  • Physical Symptoms – general awkwardness; poor visual-motor coordination; hyperactivity; overly distractible; difficulty concentrating; lack of hand preference or mixed dominance
  • Behavioral/Social Symptoms – impulsive behavior; lack of reflective thought prior to action; low tolerance for frustration; excessive movement during sleep; poor peer relationships; overly excitable during group play; poor social judgment; inappropriate, unselective, and often excessive display of affection; behavior often inappropriate for situation; failure to see consequences for his actions; overly gullible; easily led by peers; excessive variation in mood and responsiveness; poor adjustment to environmental changes; difficulty making decisions.

When considering these symptoms, it is important to remain mindful of the following: l) No one will have all these symptoms.   2) Among LD populations, some symptoms are more common than others.  3) All people have at least two or three of these problems to some degree.  4) The number of symptoms seen in a particular child does not give an indication as to whether the disability is mild or severe. It is important to consider if the behaviors are chronic and appear in clusters.

5. What Are the Types of Learning Disabilities?

Learning disabilities can be divided into three broad categories: developmental speech and language disorders; academic skills disorders; “other,” a catch-all that includes certain coordination disorders and learning handicaps not covered by the other terms. Each of these categories includes a number of more specific disorders.

Learning Disability: Area of difficulty: Symptoms include trouble with: Example:
Dyslexia Processing language Reading, writing & spelling Letters and words may be written or pronounced backwards
Dyscalculia Math skills Computation, remembering math facts, concepts of time & money Difficulty learning to count by 2s, 3s, 4s
Dysgraphia Written expression Handwriting, spelling, composition Illegible handwriting, difficulty organizing ideas
Dyspraxia Fine motor skills Coordination, manual dexterity Trouble with scissors, buttons, drawing

LDs can occur with other disorders – Information Processing Disorders, Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (AD/HD).

Information Processing Disorders Area of difficulty: Symptoms include trouble with: Example:
Auditory Processing Disorder Interpreting auditory information Language development, reading Difficulty anticipating how a speaker will end a sentence
Visual Processing Disorder Interpreting visual information Reading, writing & math Difficulty distinguishing letters like “h” and “n”
Other Related Disorders Area of difficulty: Symptoms include trouble with: Example:
Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (AD/HD) Concentration & focus Over-activity, distractibility & impulsivity Can’t sit still, loses interest quickly

6. Can Learning Disabilities Be Outgrown or Cured?

Even though a learning disability doesn’t disappear, given the right types of educational experiences, people have a remarkable ability to learn. The brain’s flexibility to learn new skills is probably greatest in young children and may diminish somewhat after puberty. This is why early intervention is so important. Nevertheless, we retain the ability to learn throughout our lives.

7. How Do Families Learn To Cope?

Every child needs to grow up feeling competent and loved. When children have learning disabilities, parents may need to work harder at developing their children’s self-esteem and relationship-building skills. But self-esteem and good relationships are as worth developing as any academic skill.

8. What Aid Does the Government Offer?

As of 1981, people with learning disabilities came under the protection of laws originally designed to protect the rights of people with mobility handicaps. More recent Federal laws specifically guarantee equal opportunity and raise the level of services to people with disabilities. Once a learning disability is identified, children are guaranteed a free public education specifically designed around their individual needs. Adolescents with disabilities can receive practical assistance and extra training to help make the transition to jobs and independent living. Adults have access to job training and technology that open new doors of opportunity.
The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act of 1990 assures a public education to school-aged children with diagnosed learning disabilities. Under this act, public schools are required to design and implement an Individualized Educational Program tailored to each child’s specific needs. An Individualized Education Program (IEP) is a written agreement between the parents and the school about what the child needs and what will be done to address those needs. Schools typically provide special education programs either in a separate all-day classroom or as a special education class that the student attends for several hours each week. Some parents hire trained tutors to work with their child after school. If the problems are severe, some parents choose to place their child in a special school for the learning disabled.

9. Making Modifications in the Classroom.


  • Break assignment into segments of shorter tasks.
  • Use concrete examples of concepts before teaching the abstract.
  • Relate information to the student’s experiential base.
  • Reduce the number of concepts presented at one time.
  • Provide an overview of the lesson before beginning.
  • Monitor the student’s comprehension of language used during instruction.
  • Schedule frequent, short conferences with the student to check forcomprehension.
  • Provide consistent review of any lesson before introducing new information.
  • Allow student to obtain and report information utilizing: cassette recorders,dictation, typewriters/computers, interviews, calculators, fact sheets.
  • Highlight important concepts to be learned in text of material.
  • Monitor the rate at which material is presented.
  • Give additional presentations by varying the methods using repetition, simplerexplanations, more examples and modeling.
  • Require verbal responses to indicate comprehension.
  • Give frequent reminders of homework assignments.
  • Provide clear, concise directions and concrete examples for homeworkassignments.
  • Assign tasks at an appropriate reading level.
  • Allow for the oral administration of tests.
  • Check assignment sheet for accuracy.


  • Use study carrels.
  • Seat student in an area free of distractions.
  • Use preferential seating.
  • Allow the student to select his/her seating.
  • Help keep student’s work area free of unnecessary materials.
  • Use checklists to help the student get organized.
  • Frequently check the organization of the student’s notebook.
  • Monitor the student’s use of his/her assignment sheet.
  • Check the assignment sheet for accuracy.
  • Provide opportunities for movement.


  • Increase time allowed for completion of tests or assignments.
  • Reduce the amount of work or length of tests.
  • Prioritize assignments and/or step to completing assignments for the student.
  • Space short work periods with breaks or change of tasks.
  • Consistently follow a specific routine.
  • Alternate quiet and active tasks.
  • Set time limits for specific task completion

i. Visual Motor Integration and Written Expression Problems

  • Allow for spelling errors.
  • Allow student to use either cursive or manuscript.
  • Set realistic and mutually agreed upon expectations for neatness.
  • Let student type, record, or give answers orally instead of writing.
  • Avoid pressures of speed and accuracy.
  • Provide copies of notes.
  • Reduce the amount of copying from text and board.
  • Accept key word responses instead of complete sentences.

ii. Visual Processing Problems

  • Highlight information to be learned.
  • Keep written assignments and work space free from extraneous and/orirrelevant distractors.
  • Avoid purple dittos.
  • Provide clear and well-defined worksheets.
  • Go over visual task with student and make sure student has a clearunderstanding of all parts of the assignment from the beginning.
  • Avoid having student copy from the board.
  • Have student verbalize instructions before beginning task.
  • Avoid crowded, cluttered worksheets by utilizing techniques such asblocking (blocking assignments into smaller segments), cutting (cutworksheets into sections, folding (fold worksheets into sections), andhighlighting, color coding or underlining.

iii. Language Processing Problems

  • Give written directions to supplement verbal directions.
  • Slow the rate of presentations.
  • Paraphrase information.
  • Keep statements short and to the point.
  • Avoid use of abstract language such as metaphors, idioms, and puns.
  • Keep sentence structures simple.
  • Encourage feedback from student to check for understanding.
  • Familiarize student with any new vocabulary before beginning the lesson.
  • Reduce the amount of extraneous noise such as conversation, radio, TV, outside noises, etc.
  • Alert student’s attention before expressing key points.
  • Ensure the readability levels of the textbooks are commensurate with the student’s language level.
  • Utilize visual aids such as charts and graphs.
  • Utilize manipulative, hands-on activities whenever possible.
  • Always demonstrate how new material relates to previously learned information.
  • Cue student by calling his/her name before asking questions.

iv. Organizational Problems

  • Provide an established daily routine.
  • Provide clear rules and consistently enforce them.
  • Contract with student and use rewards for completion of contract.
  • Check the student’s notebook to insure the use of dividers, assignment sheet, and calendar.
  • Provide due date on written assignments.
  • Provide a specific place for turning in completed assignments.


  • Utilize cooperative learning strategies when appropriate.
  • Assign a peer helper to check understanding of directions.
  • Assign a peer helper to read important directions and essential information.
  • Assign a peer tutor to record material dictated by the student.


  • Establish relevancy and purpose for learning by relating to previous experiences.
  • Shape approximations of desired behavior by providing direct reinforcement such as praise or immediate feedback of correct answers.
  • Seat student close to teacher.
  • Make a positive, personal comment every time the student shows any evidence of interest.
  • Make frequent checks for assignment progress/completion.
  • Give advance warning of when a transition is going to take place.
  • Use physical proximity and touch to help student refocus.


  • Give a personal cue to begin work.
  • Give work in smaller units.
  • Provide immediate reinforcers and feedback.
  • Make sure the appropriate books and materials are open to the correct pages.
  • Introduce the assignment in sequential steps.
  • Check for student understanding of instructions.
  • Check on progress often in the first few minutes of work.
  • Provide time suggestions for each task.
  • Provide a checklist for long, detailed tasks.


  • Provide clear and concise classroom expectations and consequences.
  • Consistently enforce rules.
  • Avoid the use of confrontational techniques.
  • Provide student with alternatives.
  • Designate a “cooling off” location within the classroom.
  • Assign activities which require some movement.
  • Use praise generously.
  • Avoid power struggles.
  • Ignore attention getting behavior for a short time.
  • Avoid criticizing the student.
  • Communicate frequently with parents.
  • Monitor levels of tolerance and be mindful of signs of frustration.
  • Speak privately, without the audience of peers, to student about inappropriate behavior.

Web sites for Learning Disabilities