Learning Disability

General Information

A learning disability (LD) affects one or more of the ways that a person processes, remembers, understands, and/or expresses information, therefore LDs impact not only education but many areas of life. At the same time, it is important to remember that, by definition, a person with a learning disability demonstrates average abilities in many areas related to thinking and reasoning. LDs should not be confused with other disabilities, such as developmental delay/disability, autism, vision or hearing impairments, or behavioural disorders. Attention deficit/hyperactivity disorders and LDs often occur together, but the two disorders are not the same. LDs often run in families.

LDs are identified through psychological or psycho-educational assessment. These assessments use standardized testing tools to identify impairments in one or more processes that directly relate to learning and other areas of functioning. Assessments are conducted by qualified professionals, and a diagnosis of a Learning Disability is given by regulated health professionals, usually psychologists or psychological associates, who follow guidelines and criteria for making the diagnosis.

General Characteristics To Look For

A learning disability can affect people in many different ways and can range from mild to severe. Children may have difficulty expressing themselves, listening, and understanding; they may have trouble reading and understanding what is read. Writing may be difficult for them (from spelling through to written expression), or mathematics skills might be very weak (from computation to applying a variety of skills to solve mathematical problems). LDs may also affect a child’s ability to interact socially or stay organized. Difficulty with basic reading and language skills are the most common areas affected by a learning disability, but some people with learning disabilities may not struggle with reading and language but will struggle in other ways.

In the early years of schooling the following “signs” might be seen in students or in their school work. These signs might lead us to look more closely at how and why the student is struggling.

  • struggles more than is typical for his/her age to learn the connection between letters and sounds
  • transposes number sequences and/or confuses arithmetic signs
  • makes consistent reading and spelling errors, including substitutions
  • has difficulty learning and remembering facts
  • impulsive
  • has difficulty planning and predicting
  • slow to develop age-appropriate printing skills
  • has trouble telling time
  • poor coordination, unaware of physical surroundings
  • difficulty following routines (appears confused, forgets what to do, etc.)
  • loses belongings, messy

Some students may progress adequately or with only a few struggles in the early years, but in Grades 4 through 8 or beyond progress stalls or difficulties such as the following may emerge and/or become more significant:

  • slow to learn prefixes, root words, and other spelling strategies
  • weak spelling skills, frequently spells the same word differently in a single piece of writing
  • struggles to read aloud; makes many reading errors
  • has difficulty with word problems in mathematics
  • has difficulty with handwriting and may avoid writing
  • has trouble summarizing or making inferences when reading
  • performs poorly on tests
  • pays too little or too much attention to detail
  • weak memory skills
  • disorganized, books in a mess, loses things
  • social difficulties
  • anxious, withdrawn, low self-esteem
  • poor work habits and/or challenging behaviour—work avoidant, does not complete work; easily frustrated; angry; disengaged from school

Though these “signs” are commonly seen in students who have a learning disability, the list is not exhaustive, and it should be noted that they may also be associated with difficulties other than learning disabilities.

Impact On Student Success

Students do not grow out of LDs, but they can learn strategies and use their strengths to compensate for the LD, and benefit from ACCOMMODATIONS and assists to work around the LD, thus enabling them to achieve successes in life. Many people who work in the area of learning disabilities or who have LDs themselves use the term “learning differences” to support the notion that people with LDs are capable of learning but may need to do so in ways that are different from what is typical.

  • Promote success by providing interventions that meet a child’s individual strengths and needs, including instruction in specific skills; development of compensatory strategies; development of self-advocacy skills; appropriate ACCOMMODATIONS (including access to assistive technologies).
  • Understand the child’s strengths and needs in order to anticipate how their processing deficits might impact when a particular task is assigned or environmental demands are present.
  • Understand the student’s assessment findings as provided in the assessment report. The assessment will identify impairments in processing that relate to the difficulties in learning. The impairments could be in one or more of the following areas, therefore understanding what these are and how they impact learning is important: phonological processing; memory and attention; processing speed; language skills; perceptual-motor skills; visual-spatial abilities; executive functions (e.g., planning, monitoring, metacognition).
  • Provide supports and ACCOMMODATIONS that are tailored to suit the student’s current needs as indicated by assessment findings.
  • Consult with psychology staff and consultants to clarify which supports and ACCOMMODATIONS best fit the student’s learning profile.
  • Consider assistive technologies. These technologies are being used with increasing frequency to support students with LDs and can be used both to remediate (i.e., build skills) and work around areas of need.
  • Differentiate instruction and assessment practices to allow students of different abilities, interests or learning needs to experience equally appropriate ways to absorb, use, develop and present concepts as a part of the daily learning process.
  • Offer ACCOMMODATIONS that are specific to the areas of need. ACCOMMODATIONS are changes to the way tasks are presented and/or that learning is assessed that allow the student to learn and complete the same assignments as other students but in a different way or under different conditions.
  • Assist teachers in finding supportive consultation as needed.
  • Ensure solid transition planning between grades and provide opportunities for teachers, support staff and families to share knowledge/information about what works for the child.
  • Provide information about the child, including what motivates him/her, what interests him/her, what makes him/her special, what his/her strengths are, etc.
  • Help with transition planning and building consistency for the child in home and school expectations
  • Be a supportive advocate for the child.
  • Provide supportive consultation, resources, and referrals to other services if needed.
  • Make sure that schools and families are aware of supports available to children.
  • Work collaboratively with other community services to provide a “big picture” support system.
  • Engage in ongoing joint training initiatives.