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Learning Disabilities

What are learning disabilities (LD)?
If your child is not doing as well in school as they have the potential to, they may have a learning disability. Having a learning disability means having a normal intelligence but a problem in one or more areas of learning.

A learning disability is a neurobiological disorder; people with LD have brains that learn differently because of differences in brain structure and/or function.  If a person learns differently due to visual, hearing or physical handicaps, mental retardation, emotional disturbance, or environmental, cultural or economic disadvantage, we do not call it a learning disability.

Some people with LD also have attention deficit hyperactivity disorder or ADHD.

LDs can affect many different areas:

Why is early diagnosis and treatment so important?
When LDs are not found and treated early on, they tend to snowball.  As kids get more and more behind in school, they may become more and more frustrated, feeling like a failure. Often, self-esteem problems lead to bad behavior and other problems.  High school dropout rates are much higher for students with LDs than for those without [1].   These educational differences, in turn, affect the job and earnings prospects for people with LDs.  When LD is not noticed or not treated, it can cause adult literacy problems.   By identifying LDs early, your child will get the help they need to reach their potential.

How common are learning disabilities?
Educators estimate that between 5 and 10 percent of kids between ages 6 and 17 have learning disabilities [2]. More than half of the kids receiving special education in the United States have LDs [3]. Dyslexia is the most common LD; 80 percent of students with LDs have dyslexia [4].

What causes learning disabilities?
Because there are lots of kinds of learning disabilities, it is hard to diagnose them and pinpoint the causes. LDs seem to be caused by the brain, but the exact causes are not known. Some risk factors are:

LDs are not caused by environmental factors, like cultural differences, or bad teaching.

When your child is diagnosed with a LD, the most important thing is not to look back and try to figure out if something went wrong. Instead, think about moving forward and finding help.

How can I tell if my child might have a learning disability?
Know the warning signs to look for in preschool through teenaged kids. Some LDs emerge before kids even start school, while others go undetected until as late as middle or high school.

What should I do if I suspect my child is having trouble learning?
If you think your child may have an LD, do not delay in getting help for your child.  Trust your instincts—you know your child better than anyone else.  Lose your fear—once you figure out how your child learns differently, you will be able to help them learn better.  The sooner you get started, the more of your child's potential may be reached.  The first step is to talk to your child's doctor and ask for a referral, or to contact your local school system.  Sometimes a sight or hearing problem, family stress, worry, or communication problems can affect a child's ability to learn well.  

What can the school system do for my child if I suspect an LD?
You can ask your school system in writing for an evaluation of your child. They are required to provide it, at no cost to you. The purpose of an evaluation is to find out why your child is not meeting their developmental milestones or not doing well in school. A team of professionals will work with you to evaluate your child. If they do not find a problem, you can ask the school system to pay for an Independent Educational Evaluation (IEE). There are strict rules about this, so you may not get it. You can also have your child tested again privately, and pay for it yourself. But check with your school district first to make sure they will accept the private test results. By law, the school system must consider the results of the second evaluation when deciding if your child can get special services.

If testing shows your child has a learning disability, the school system will start your child in either an early intervention or a special education program, depending on your child's age.

What is early intervention?
Early intervention is designed to identify and treat a learning disability or developmental delay in an infant, toddler, or preschooler as early as possible. The services are offered through public or private agencies and are provided in different settings, like the child's home, a clinic, a daycare center, a hospital, or the local health department. Early intervention services can range from prescribing glasses for a two-year-old to developing a complete physical therapy program for an infant with cerebral palsy. It often involves physical, occupational, and/or speech therapy. Even young babies may benefit from early intervention. Today, we have many ways that didn't exist just a few years ago to help babies and toddlers. We have a better understanding of the treatment of many problems. Doctors and nurses, hearing and speech therapists, nutritionists, and physical therapists are constantly developing more effective treatment programs. If you live in Michigan, your doctor may refer you to the Early On Program in your local school district. (Outside Michigan, you can find your state's early intervention services through the NICHCY website.) Early On (and all states' early intervention programs) offer many different services and will help set up an individualized program for your family. It is called an Individual Family Service Plan (IFSB).

What is special education?
Special education means "educational programming designed specifically for the individual." It can really help your child do better in school. If your school-aged child qualifies for special education, they will have an Individualized Education Program (IEP) designed just for them.

What is transition planning for high school students?
Transition planning means planning to get your child ready to lead a rewarding life as an adult.  As your child gets closer to adulthood, they may have an IEP transition plan.  Transition planning begins at age 14.  It is part of the IEP every year after that.  At age 16, planning will begin for how your child will transition from school into the community.  The goal is for your child to become as independent as possible. Your child should take part in the planning, because their input will help make the plan more successful.  For a thorough discussion (28 pages when printed) of the transition plan, see Transition Planning: A Team Effort, from NICHCY.  You should also check out this information on Learning Disability: Life after High School. Find out more from these resources about the transition from school to school, college or work. Get ideas on how to decide between college or training programs.

What are some tips and resources for college-bound high school students and young adults with LD?
These pages offer advice and resources:

What do I need to know about special education laws? What are our rights?

What are some parenting tips for parents of kids with LD?

How can I help my child with school?

Where else can I find information and support?
Learn more about learning disabilities:

Specific populations:

Specific learning disabilities:

Related topics on YourChild:




Written and compiled by Kyla Boyse, RN. Reviewed by faculty at UMHS.

Updated November 2012


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