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Does your child have a learning disability?

Published on: January 01, 2008

Wouldn’t it be great if all kids could learn math, reading and writing seamlessly, with just the right amount of effort, in just the appropriate amount of time? It would certainly make a teacher’s job easier.

But the reality is that every child learns differently. Some learn visually; some, spatially; some learn best by listening.

For another subset of children, learning is much more difficult. These kids aren’t simply coping with various study styles. They have problems processing data, which make it harder to grasp academic subjects. Educators call these kids “learning disabled.”

According to the National Center for Learning Disabilities or NCLD, a learning disability (LD) is a “neurological disorder that affects the brain’s ability to receive, process, store and respond to information.” About 5 percent of all children in public schools in this country — that’s 2.8 million kids — have LD, according to the NCLD.

Does your child have a learning disability? Figuring that out isn’t easy, says Dr. Elizabeth MacKenzie, a child and adolescent psychologist in West Seattle. “Learning disabilities can be difficult to diagnose before children are in first grade,” she says. “With very bright kids, it’s even harder to diagnose early.”

Signs that point to potential learning disabilities include speech and language difficulties, and persistent problems with learning to read or to use fine motor skills, MacKenzie says.

Dr. Katrina Rayls, a pediatric psychologist at Mary Bridge Children’s Hospital & Health Center in Tacoma, says parents should also consider the possibility of LD if their school-age child:

• Has difficulty recognizing or connecting letters to sounds

• Shows significant frustration with schoolwork or homework

• Demonstrates poor academic performance despite hard work and motivation

• Shows loss of interest or motivation to do schoolwork

• Has difficulty learning new games or puzzles

• Has difficulty paying attention or following directions

• Has problems completing schoolwork

• Makes comments about being “dumb”

Helping every child learn

Children with LD generally have average or above average intelligence, according to the NCLD. And while kids with autism and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, or ADHD, may also have specific learning disabilities, autism and ADHD are considered separate disorders, says Rayls.

In 2004, the U.S. Department of Education redefined specific learning disability to include “the imperfect ability” to listen, think, speak, read, write, spell or do mathematical calculations.

That’s not all educators have redefined. According to Dr. Sheldon Horowitz, director of professional services at the NCLD, pretty much everything’s changed lately in the LD world. “Schools have become much better at knowing that a learning disability is not something that precludes a child from having high levels of success,” says Horowitz. “The message that’s gotten through is, while LD is a learning challenge, it need not result in failure.”

In the past, LD students would get extra help in school pullout programs. “The kids would go out to their special classes, then return to their social studies class and crash and burn,” says Horowitz. “The general education teachers were not familiar with what was needed to make these kids successful.”

These days, schools work to help every child learn, including kids with LD, Horowitz says. “If a teacher sees a child who is struggling, he or she will ask, ‘What is it about my instruction that is not getting through to this kid? How do we gather the resources that will help us understand why this child is not successful?’”

Perhaps most important, today’s educators believe in taking action as soon as they — or parents — suspect a student has a learning disorder. That kind of early intervention helps a child’s self-image, says Horowitz. “If these kids are left alone, they begin to doubt themselves, and teachers begin to figure that child can’t learn.” Discouraged and disheartened, these kids often lose their drive and enthusiasm for learning, says Rayls.

And as Horowitz points out, kids who don’t master skills such as reading run the risk of never catching up. His advice? “If you suspect your child has a learning disability, don’t wait. Move on it quickly.”

What to do

Get involved with your child’s school, suggests Mackenzie. Observe the class, offer to help out and develop a collaborative relationship with the school. “The school needs to know you are supportive,” she says. “You will be asking for more for your child.”

Next, talk to your child’s teacher, MacKenzie advises. “Describe your concerns, solicit input and ask how your child’s progress compares to grade standards.”

Then, arrange for testing through your child’s school district. A team of educators can translate the test results and create an individualized education program (IEP) for your child. Under the U.S. Department of Education Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), kids with an identified learning disability are entitled to special instruction and accommodations.

Parents can also opt to consult private psychologists to glean more information about their child’s cognitive skills and abilities.

Finally, be patient with your child and support them. “Make learning fun by keeping frustration to a minimum,” says Rayls. Take homework breaks, and don’t focus on academics only.

Make sure your child excels at something, says Horowitz. “It can be about how well they draw or how well they tell stories. Find things they can celebrate about themselves.”

For tips on helping your learning-disabled child, visit

Resources (a listing of Seattle and King County area resources for children with learning
disabilities or delays in development).

National Center for Learning Disabilities:

U.S. Department of Education Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA):  

Learning Disabilities Association of Washington:


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