Learning Disabilities

What are learning disabilities?

Raising boys
The term learning disability covers a wide range of problems. Your child might have problems learning to do one or several of these things:

  • Reading.
  • Writing.
  • Spelling.
  • Listening.
  • Speaking.
  • Math.
  • Social studies.
  • Motor skills and coordination (moving the body and being able to do such things as catching a ball or skipping rope).
  • Paying attention and being organized.
  • Taking tests.
  • Social skills (acting correctly around other people or in groups such as a school class or a party).

Researchers believe learning disabilities are caused by differences in how a person’s brain works. The brain has a hard time taking in what the child sees/hears and making sense of it. Children with learning disabilities are not “dumb” or “lazy.” In fact, they usually have average or above-average intelligence (ability to think and reason). Their brains just take in information differently. What they see/read may be different from what other people read.

For example, a common type of learning disability is reversing letters and numbers. The child with this disability might see the letter “b” and think it is “a” “d” or a “p”. Or they may see a “6” and think it is a “9”. A child may jumble the letters as well as reverse them. A child may read the word “pots” and think it says “stop” or “post.” This is but one example of a type of learning disability; other types will be discussed in this section.

What are some common signs of learning disabilities?

Learning difficulties have been called the “invisible disability” because they are not obvious like visual or hearing impairments. Children with learning disabilities often have a wide range of abilities and difficulties. For example, a child might have problems with reading, speaking to others, and writing, but do well in such areas as math, music and science.

Learning disabilities affect people differently. A learning disorder ranges from mild to severe. Some people have more than one learning disability.

Problems with behavior and attention are common in children with learning disabilities. They include the following areas. (Click on underlined words for more information.)

  • Hyperactivity: Your child can’t sit still for very long, starting to fidget, squirm and move around or get into things constantly.
  • Inattention: Not being able to pay attention or having a short attention span. This child is restless, easily distracted, or seems to be daydreaming all the time.
  • Perceptual impairments: Problems with understanding people’s emotions from their face, expressions, gestures, tone of voice or other clues to feelings. It also can be difficult guessing size, shape and distances. This is sometimes called non-verbal learning disabilities(meaning children don’t have a problem with words). Children with this disability usually can read and use speech well. They also have a good vocabulary (know lots of words and use them) and a good memory.
  • Easy to frustrate and doesn’t know how to react when things don’t go the way a child would like. These children may throw tantrums when they don’t get their way.
  • Problems in handling ordinary things: Such as greetings or riding a school bus, or other everyday activities and situations.

For more information on learning disabilities and early childhood (up to age 4), see the Learning Disabilities Association Early Childhood website. That includes information on testing for learning disabilities and practical ways to help your child. http://www.ldaamerica.us/aboutld/parents/early_childhood/index.asp.

What is not a learning disability?

Problems in school do not mean that your child has a learning disability. It may be another problem. Rule out other reasons your child may not be doing well in school, such as:

  • Emotional or family problems, e.g., a bad divorce or death in the family.
  • A basic need is not being met. For example, your child may not be getting good nutrition (enough healthy food) or be worried about having a safe and secure home.
  • Visual impairments (problems with eyesight).
  • Hearing loss.
  • Motor disorders such as cerebral palsy (difficulty moving or controlling body muscles).
  • Cognitive or intellectual disability such as with mental retardation (problems with thinking or reasoning or a lesser intelligence).

What can I do to help my child?

You have made an important first step by reading about learning disabilities. Another step you can take is to talk with other parents of children with similar problems. They have gone through what you are going through now and may be able to help. Research tells us that the earlier we begin to help children, the better the results for the child and family.

Below are some checklists to help your child. Remember, you are not alone.



Get my child evaluated (tested):

Be sure the child actually has a learning disability. Rule out other causes of delays or difficulties in learning that are not learning disabilities. The Florida Diagnostic and Learning Resources System (FDLRS) provides evaluations and assessments for special education programs.

Florida’s FDLRS Child Find


Statewide Contact:

Janie Register

Bureau Liaison

Florida Department of Education

(850) 245-0476

E-mail: Janie.Register@fldoe.org

Contact list: http://www.fdlrs.org/images/pdf/contactlists/ChildFindContactList5.5.15.pdf

Work with my child’s service providers:

A service provider is anyone who works with you and your child such as your pediatrician, a physical therapist, a teacher, a principal, a social worker or any professional. Remember you know more about your child than anyone else and are the main influence in your child’s life. Some tips for speaking with service providers:

  • Feel free to ask questions and make comments. Be specific about what you know about your child and what you want and need for your child. Be honest about what you expect, any worries you may have or about anything you don’t understand.
  • If you think your child needs something in particular (like accommodations or assistive technology), keep asking until you get it or until you learn why it is not needed.
  • Work with professionals your child’s school to write your child’s IEP (Individualized Education Program) to reflect his or her needs and abilities. The plans should include related services such as assistive technology (tools to help people with disabilities). Children with learning disabilities can often use assistive technology to help. Things like a talking book for a child who has problems reading or a calculator for a child with a problem with writing numbers.

Your child may need a Section 504 educational plan to make sure your child’s educational and health care needs are met. Section 504 is part of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973. This federal law allows qualified children with disability to have special services or supports in their schools. For more information on Section 504, see the following website: http://www.hhs.gov/ocr/504.html.

Your child may be qualified for more services under IDEA. Check with your child’s school.

Talk with my child’s teacher:

Ask the teacher to talk with you often about how your child is doing at school. If your child is having trouble with schoolwork, ask your child’s teacher to:

  • Provide advance schedules or tools to help your child stay on track
  • Provide appropriate accommodations/modifications or changes to the curriculum. (Your child may be eligible for these through IDEA or Section 504 discussed above.) For example, ask your child’s teachers to adjust the amount of work if necessary or to make changes in how your child’s teacher gives your child instructions.

Get more information: Visit more websites. Read a book or watch a video about learning disabilities. Talk with another parent. Help Me Grow can help you meet other parents and get services.

What everyday things can I do to help my child?

There are many ways to combine what you do in an ordinary day with what will help your child’s development. Bath time, mealtime, shopping, traveling in the car and family outings are great times to do this. Look below for some suggestions, and click on Parents Are Their Child’s First Teachers for more detail on how to use these suggestions.

Speak with my child regularly: Use short sentences with simple words your child can imitate you. Show your child how to use speech correctly. Make sure to show the right way to use grammar and to pronounce words. For example, if your child says, “Ball baybo,” you can respond with, “Yes, the ball is under the table.” This lets you show your child the right way to say something without sounding as though you are “correcting” him or her.

Read to my child: Bedtime stories are a wonderful way to bond with your child and build happy memories. The next day you might ask a question or two in a low-key way about what you read to see if your child understands what the story was about. Learn more about reading skills and children with learning disabilities by looking at National Dissemination Center for Children with Disabilities fact sheet on Learning Disabilities.

Sing with my child: The old nursery rhymes are fun for everyone. Wee Sing has a collection of children’s songs and comes with an illustrated song book. The audio packages teach new and classic children’s songs. Great for the car or home. Little Language Songs for Little Ones by Laura Dyer is a CD collection written with a specific language goal in mind.

Help my child focus attention and get rid of distractions: Avoid things that cause noise or flickering lights. For example, your child should not have a TV or radio on while doing homework.

Keep my child on a regular schedule: Set specific times for waking up, eating, playing, doing homework, watching TV and going to bed. Talk with your child about the schedule and write it down. Put it on a bulletin board or something similar.

Teach my son or daughter how to be organized: Show your child how to break down big tasks into easy-to-do small steps. This helps keep a child from being frustrated and anxious, and also can let your child finish things. This gives your child a feeling of success at completing a step so as to keep going.

Be consistent: Make clear, fair rules and be clear about what will happen if rules are broken. Praise your child when behaving well. Don’t reward with toys, food or money. Your time, affection and attention furnish the most valuable reward your child can receive.

How can I deal with all this?

Having a child with a learning disability is hard work. Strange as it may seem, some parents sometimes feel worse finding out their child has a learning disability than learning the child has mental or physical disabilities. This is because parents of children with physical or mental disabilities find out much earlier — many times while the child is still a baby. But a child with learning disabilities may not seem to have problems until pre-school or later.

Preschool or elementary school teachers are usually the first to notice a problem. When told of the problem, a parent’s first reaction often is to deny that the child has a learning disability. (For more information on how learning disabilities affect parents, click on the following link from the Child Development Institute .)

Being told your child has a learning disability can be upsetting, but also the first step in helping your child. Taking steps to manage the disability often can help your child’s self-esteem and confidence. But before you can take care of anyone else you need to be kind to yourself. Taking care of yourself is not selfish, but instead necessary. You can’t help your child if you are overworked and overstressed.

Figure out how to take care of your own needs. The next time friends or family say, “What can I do to help?” let them babysit or lend a hand so you can have some time to yourself. Below are some things you can do to “recharge your batteries”: Do something that makes you feel happy: It could be going out with a loved one or friends, taking a long bath, or a creative project.

Exercise also is vital for your mind, body and spirit. That could be long walks, lifting weights, bike riding or an aerobic class. Make sure it is fun.

Talk with other parents of children with disabilities Help Me Grow is a great place to start to help with practical tips, cheer you up and be a source of strength.

How common are learning disabilities?

As many as one of five people in the United States has a learning disability. About three million children (ages 6 to 21) have some form of learning disability and receive special education in school. In 2001, 1% of non-Hispanic white children and 2.6% black African-American children were receiving learning disability-related special education services, according to the National Research Council.

More than half of all children who receive special education have a learning disability, according to the U.S. Department of Education. These numbers do not include children in private and religious schools or home-schooled children.

What causes learning disabilities?

Families reading
Experts don’t know exactly what causes learning disabilities. A learning disability is not a disease. Some causes:

  • Heredity: Learning disabilities often run in families. Frequently parents or other relatives have similar difficulties.
  • Problems during pregnancy and birth: Learning disabilities might be caused by illness or injury during or before birth. Other possible causes include drug and alcohol use during pregnancy, low birth weight, lack of oxygen, and prematurity.
  • Problems after birth: Head injuries, poor nutrition and exposure to toxic substances such as lead can contribute to learning difficulties.

What are some other ways to describe learning disabilities?

Below are the main learning disabilities. Click on the underlined name for more information and tips on how to help a child with this type of learning disability. You may hear the terms below from your doctor or others.

  • Dyslexia: A problem with using language and reading. Letters, numbers and words often appear backward or reversed. Or the child may read at a level much younger than his or her age. The child also may have very poor handwriting.
  • Dyscalculia: A problem with doing math problems and understanding the ideas behind certain types of math.
  • Dysgraphia: Where a child’s handwriting cannot be read easily.
  • Dyspraxia (also known as a Sensory Integration Disorder): A problem with such movements as walking, running or eating. It can look like clumsiness.
  • Central Auditory Processing Disorder: A problem understanding and remembering things that the child is told to do. For example, you tell your child to do something, and he or she seems to ignore you or walks away, seemingly forgetting what you just asked the child to do.
  • Non-Verbal Learning Disorders: A problem understanding things not spoken — like understanding how people feel by their faces or their body language. It also may include problems with coordination (like the ability to skip rope or catch a ball) and may look like your child is clumsy.
  • Visual Perceptual/Visual Motor Deficit: A problem where a child sees and reverses letters or can’t seem to copy things correctly off a board. Children may lose their place when reading, or may complain that their eyes hurt or itch.
  • Language Disorders (Aphasia/Dysphasia): A problem with speaking or understanding what is said. There children may sound as if they are speaking gibberish or words backwards or use the wrong word. They also may hear things that don’t make sense to them, giving them problems understanding what they read.

What effect do learning disabilities have on my child?

That depends on how severe the problem is. Children learn by getting and understanding information. They are graded in school on what they can show they understand and remember via tests, reports and projects. A learning disability can make things hard to do. Your child may feel lonely or isolated from other children. Learning disabilities can cause your child to have lower self-esteem. It can make them more likely to drop out of school. Sometimes it can make them feel depressed or act out and do things that are illegal such as drugs and alcohol.

Why does learning disabilities sometimes cause behavior problems?

Children with learning disabilities often have behavior problems. They might have average or above average intelligence, but still have difficulty learning what comes easily to others. These children may be frustrated, lashing out in anger.

Some research says children with learning disabilities may sometimes also have attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). This problem makes it hard for them to concentrate and stay focused on tasks. This makes a learning disability even harder to deal with for children with both. A child with a learning disability and an attention problem will need to be treated for both.

Is there a cure or treatment for learning disabilities?

There is no cure for learning disabilities because it means your child has a problem where there brain doesn’t “see” information the same way as other children. But many treatments and devices can help your child learn.

This country has a law that says children with disabilities must get free, appropriate (right for them) public education. The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) means your child can get services through the school for learning disabilities. Services can be provided through the school years (3 to 21) if necessary.

Interventions can be very different:

  • Medications: Some children will be prescribed medicine by doctors to help improve attention and the ability to focus. Medications also help children control risky or impulsive (acting without thinking) behavior as well as the need to be in constant motion that makes it so hard for them to sit still in school (hyperactivity).
  • Assistive Technology: Has improved and increased much in recent years. Many more devices help people with disabilities of all kinds. Assistive technology can help your child to be more independent. (An example could be books on tape or talking books for a child with a problem reading.)
  • Accommodations/modifications in your child’s school: Accommodations are changes made to the environment (surroundings) or ways the teacher supports your child’s learning. Examples of this would be giving your child extra time for homework or an exam, letting your child work on a computer, or type assignments. Another example of this may be to take an exam orally (out loud) instead of written. Other examples are having your child use study guides, use a book on tape, or a book with more pictures.

Modifications are changes in what your child is expected to learn. Whenever possible, accommodations are used. Modifications are usually used in more serious learning disabilities. An example would be changes made in the lesson plan to make it easier for your child to learn. Other changes to course materials may make them shorter; or your child may be asked to do less class work. Another example would be if your child did not have to take standard tests.

Accommodations and modifications may be especially important for older children.


  • Educational therapy: A plan to fit the learning needs of your child. It can include many accommodations or modifications to help with different problems. Some examples are:
    • Beginner classes in reading and how to pronounce certain words.
    • Teaching your child different ways to memorize and organize information; example, using memory tricks or other reminders
    • Using a computer to help with problem areas, e.g., typing homework instead of writing it.
    • Taking tests out loud instead of on paper.
  • Relaxation therapy: Helping your child relax. This can be helpful for children with behavior problems. A therapist teaches the child to do deep-breathing exercises and how to relax different muscles. This gives the child a better chance to control frustration and anger.
  • Behavior management therapy : Includes social skills training (how to deal with other people), counseling and ways to deal with behavior problems.

Who are some professionals my child may need to see?

Your child may need to see many different health care specialists. For example:

  • Pediatrician: A doctor who specializes in treating children. The word “pediatric” in front of a professional’s title means he or she works with children.
  • Pediatric neurologist: A doctor who specializes in treating children with disorders of the brain and nervous system. Some learning disabilities are caused by how the brain takes in and puts out information, and a pediatric neurologist may be able to help.
  • Pediatric psychiatrist: A doctor who specializes in the diagnosis (finding) and treatment of disorders of thinking, feeling and/or behavior.
  • Pediatric or child psychologist: A professional who specializes in evaluating (testing) and treating of emotional and behavioral problems and disorders in children.
  • Social worker and counselor: A professional who provides counseling and emotional support for the child and family, and may help coordinate services, too.
  • Care coordinator: An individual responsible for organizing the details across agency lines and serving as your contact to help you and your family get services and assistance.
  • Special-education teachers: Specially-trained teachers focus the attention on your child’s development, and work to help you learn techniques to benefit your child.

What are some websites where I can learn more about learning disabilities?

ERIC Clearinghouse on Disabilities and Gifted Education http://ericec.org/faq/ld-faq.html Provides an overview of learning disabilities.

NICHCY (National Dissemination Center for Children with Disabilities) http://www.parentcenterhub.org/repository/ld/ Has fact sheets and useful information on disabilities in infants, toddlers, children and teens.

LDOnline http://www.ldonline.org/parents.htm Has information for parents and professionals. You can share your experiences with other parents, ask questions, get and give advice.

Learning Disabilities Association of America http://www.ldaamerica.org/ Offers conferences and courses for parents and professionals as well as information on learning disabilities, practical solutions and a comprehensive network of resources.

LD Resources Online http://www.ldresources.com/ This website, a community of parents and individuals with learning disabilities, offers personal stories, links and news about learning disabilities.

What are some books about learning disabilities?

This is only a sampling. Check your local library, bookstores and the websites above for more suggestions.

Reading David: A Mother and Son’s Journey Through the Labyrinth of Dyslexia by Lissa Weinstein, Ph.D. A story about a mother and son as he learns to read and overcome a learning disability.

Learning Disabilities: A To Z: A Parent’s Complete Guide To Learning Disabilities From Preschool To Adulthood by Corinne Smith and Lisa Strick. This book includes special techniques for detecting learning disabilities early and also looks at causes of learning disabilities and developing educational programs.

Family Guide To Assistive Technology by Katharin A. Kelker. This guide helps parents understand assistive technology and how it can help children. It also offers suggestions for finding and paying for different types of assistive technology.