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Learning Disabilities: Definition, signs, and how to support children

One of the most common questions that parents ask our assessment psychologists is, “does my child have a learning disability?” In this post we break down what a learning disability is and when you should seek help.


What is a learning disability?

A learning disability is a term that is used to describe a range of learning and thinking differences that influences how the brain processes information [1]. Learning disabilities include diagnoses of specific learning disorders and attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) [1].


Learning disabilities are neurodevelopmental disorders. This means they have a neurological (brain-based) basis. Neurological dysfunction contributes to disorder and disorganization [2], meaning that a child with a learning disability has a brain that is wired differently [3]. Therefore, learning disorders do not reflect problems with intelligence or motivation, and children with learning disabilities are often extremely smart [3]. Further, a diagnosis is not the parents’ fault [2].

What are some potential signs of a learning disability?

Learning disabilities don’t always look like learning problems at first. Often the first signs are behavioural. For instance, children may withdraw or act out when a task becomes too demanding for them [2]. Although it may appear as though a child may have behavioral problems, it may be the case that they are confronted with difficulties with completing a task successfully [2]. If a child claims that they “hate” something (such as math) it may be that math is too difficult for them [2]. Likewise, what children enjoy can serve as identifying a strength for them [2].


Although learning disabilities are not identified until the elementary years, there are some early signs that may cause you to keep a close watch on their learning development. Some signs that your preschool child may have a learning disability include:

  • Delays in language development and trouble with speech[1], including difficulties rhyming and following directions [3]

  • Trouble learning colors, shapes, letters, days of the week, and/or numbers [1, 3]

  • Coordination challenges [1], and trouble with buttons, zippers, snaps, or learning to tie their shoes [3]

  • Short attention span [1]

  • Difficulty learning routines [3] and frustration or anger when they are trying to learn [1]

Some signs that your school-age child or adolescent may have a learning disability include:

  • Difficulty following directions and understanding verbal directions [1]

  • Trouble following classroom discussions [3]

  • DIfficulty explaining information clearly with speech or writing [1]

  • Troubles with learning facts and remembering information [1]

  • DIfficulty with reading, spelling, or sounding out words [1]

  • Challenges with writing clearly or poor handwriting [1,3]

  • Difficulty doing math calculations or word problems [1]

  • Troubles focusing on and finishing schoolwork [1]

  • Challenges with staying organized [1, 3]

  • Dislikes reading and writing and may avoid reading out loud [3]


How can parents/caregivers support a child with a learning disability?

There are various ways that parents and caregivers can support children with a learning disability. Some strategies include:

  • Focusing on their strengths and helping them learn how to use their strengths effectively [1]

  • Developing their social and emotional skills. Children with learning disabilities may become angry or withdrawn due to the challenges they face each day. Provide them with love and support, and let them know that you understand learning is hard. Finding clubs or teams that focus on friendships and fun can also be helpful in building confidence [1]

  • Helping your child develop self-awareness and confidence, as these are important skills [3]. You can do this by working with your child on activities that are within their capabilities, helping them develop strengths and passions, and encouraging them to talk to adult about learning disabilities [3]

  • Helping your child with perseverance. This can include talking with your child about times that they have persevered and what it means to keep going even when things are not easy [3]

  • Making sure that you plan ahead. Help your child plan for adulthood and encourage them to think about their strengths and interests when making career decisions. Many colleges have programs in place to help students with learning disabilities [1]

  • Helping your child set realistic and attainable goals. You can set short-term and long-term goals with your child, discuss your own goals with them, and celebrate when they achieve their goals [3]

  • Demonstrate how to ask for help, share examples of when people need help, and help your child develop strong support systems [3]

  • Help your child handle stress. This can look like using words to identify feelings, asking your child how they would describe stress, and encouraging your child to engage in activities that decrease stress [3]

  • Remember that you are not alone. There are resources and support groups available to support you and your child [1]

These are some of many strategies that you can try to help support your child with a learning disability. Pick one or two to start and see how you and your child respond. If those do not work, try something else from the list. It is important that you determine what is best for your and your child. Every child is different and will respond to different strategies in different ways.


Key Takeaways

It is important to remember that children with learning disabilities can still succeed [4]. Most kids with learning disabilities are just as smart as their same-age peers, they simply need to be taught in ways that better suit their learning preferences [4]. Maintaining a positive attitude and focusing on your child’s strengths and interests will be extremely beneficial to their learning, confidence, and self-esteem.


If you have concerns about your child’s learning, functioning, or if you think your child may have a learning disability, please email us at info@highpointpsychology.com to discuss the assessment process or to schedule an assessment. For more information on the assessments we provide, please visit our website at: https://www.highpointpsychology.com/pricing


Blog post written by Kassandra Burk and reviewed by Dr. Andrea Stelnicki.


*The information contained in this blog post is based on a narrative review of available literature. Some studies may have been unintentionally omitted. You are advised to speak with a healthcare professional to determine if the information is appropriate to your specific circumstances.*


References

[1] Zubler, J. (2021). Learning disabilities and differences: What parents need to know. American Academy of Pediatrics. Retrieved from https://www.healthychildren.org/English/health-issues/conditions/learning-disabilities/Pages/Learning-Disabilities-What-Parents-Need-To-Know.aspx

[2] Smith, S. L. (2022). Parenting children with learning disabilities, ADHD, and related disorders. Learning Disabilities Association of America. Retrieved from https://ldaamerica.org/info/what-do-parents-of-children-with-learning-disabilities-adhd-and-related-disorders-deal-with/

[3] Kemp, G., Smith, M., & Segal, J. (2023). Learning disabilities and disorders. Help Guide. Retrieved from https://www.helpguide.org/articles/autism-learning-disabilities/learning-disabilities-and-disorders.htm


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