Tuesday, 4 February 2014

Understanding Learning Disabilities

Understanding Learning Disabilities

Reprint of my article published by MedHelp.org on Jan 18th

According to the National Center for Learning Disabilities, 2.4 million children in the United States are diagnosed with a learning disability and receiving special education services.  Within this staggering number, you might be wondering if your child’s poor grades, lack of interest in school or other intellectual or emotional problems are something more than poor study habits and boredom.  If you are concerned that your child may be suffering from a learning disability, read on.

Learning disabilities encompass a number of specific conditions, ranging from mild to severe.  Learning disabilities are different from other disabilities, such as intellectual disability (also known as mental retardation), autism and sensory (vision/hearing) problems.  Most people who are diagnosed with a learning disability have average (or even above-average) intelligence, but they struggle with certain skills in particular areas. 

The main sign of a learning disability is a disconnect between a person’s level of ability versus his or her level of achievement.  For example, a child may be perfectly capable of learning the alphabet, yet he or she struggles to say the letters in order.  Or a person might be on the developmental level of learning to read, but for some unexplained reason, he or she cannot seem to get through a paragraph.  Learning disabilities tend to affect abilities in one (or more) of the following areas:

Deductive reasoning
Executive Function

Many times learning disabilities are hereditary; if a family member (such as a parent or sibling) has LD, the child is more likely to suffer from one.  Other causes of LD include problems during pregnancy (i.e. drug/alcohol use during pregnancy, premature birth or low birth weight and prolonged labor, which could lead to a lack of oxygen), head trauma and poor nutrition. 

If you notice changes in your child’s school performance or behavior, you may want to consider having your child tested for a learning disability.  Even a mild learning disability can have a major impact on your child’s education and self-esteem.  The sooner the problem is discovered, the sooner a plan (often known as an Individualized Education Plan (IEP) or Individualized Service Plan (ISP)) can be developed and implemented. 

Start by keeping a log of your child’s behavior and school performance.  This helps you (and your doctor) determine if there are any patterns in his or her behavior/performance and what could be triggering them.  You can also schedule a meeting with your child’s teacher(s) to discuss any problems or concerns they may have.  Getting everyone in your child’s life on the same page is an important first step towards determining if your child does indeed have a learning disability. 

Prior to any formal testing being completed, you and your child’s teacher(s) might be able to devise and implement interventions to assist your child academically, behaviorally, or both, if necessary.  Just because your child is struggling in some areas of learning does not necessarily mean a diagnosis of LD is inevitable.  However, if after the implementation of a plan your child still struggles, you might want to consider more formalized testing to determine the nature of the problem. 

There is not one specific test to determine if your child does indeed have a learning disability.  In fact, your child may require several screenings, tests and/or diagnostic interviews to determine the cause, type and extent of the problem.  Most testing starts with some form of intelligence testing, such as the Stanford-Binet Intelligence Scale or the Wechsler Intelligence Scale for Children.  An intelligence test helps educators and psychologists determine your child’s intellectual functioning; it can also provide clues as to what areas your child may struggle or have a deficiency in.  After intelligence testing is complete, your child may be given other, more specific screening tools/tests to assess his or her ability in a particular area. 

Once the area of deficiency is identified and your child’s level of functioning is determined, you will sit down with a team – who usually consists of you, your child (if old enough), your child’s teachers, a psychologist and anyone else who will be working with your child – to develop a plan of action to assist your child.  This might include modifications to your child’s education (such as being given more time during a test or using visual aids to help your child learn more effectively), as well as perhaps a teacher’s aide or tutor to help keep your child on task and focused.  These modifications might start off rather heavy-handed to help your child reach his or her potential, and they can be gradually tapered off as your child gets older or learns more skills. 

Remember, you are your child’s best advocate.  If the school does not seem to believe there is a problem or refuse to test your child, you can always seek a second opinion.  Speak with your child’s pediatrician if you have concerns that are not being addressed.  He or she can usually write out a referral for formalized testing; you can then show the results of this testing to the school for further action. 

Image Credit: http://www.flickr.com/photos/jstar/4418249819

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