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Learning Disorders

What is a learning disorder?

A learning disorder is when a child has trouble learning in certain academic areas. Your child may have trouble with reading, math, or writing. The child's ability to achieve in the specific academic area is below what is expected for the child's age, educational level, and level of intelligence. The child’s difficulty is severe enough to interfere with academic achievement or age-appropriate activities of daily living. About 8% of children in schools are classified as having specific learning disabilities and receive some kind of special education support.

What causes learning disorders?

Learning disorders are believed to happen because of an abnormality in the nervous system. This may be in the structure of the brain. Or it may occur in the functioning of brain chemicals. This difference in the nervous system causes the child with a learning disorder to receive, process, or communicate information in a different way.

Who is affected by learning disorders?

About 5% of school-age children in the U.S. have some type of learning disorder.

Learning disorders may run in families. Other things that may be linked to learning disorders are problems during pregnancy, birth or early infancy, and other general health medical conditions.  

What are the symptoms of learning disorders?

Each child may experience symptoms differently. Symptoms of learning disorders may include:

  • Reading disorder. This is when a child reads below the expected level given his or her age, grade in school, and intelligence. Children with a reading disorder read slowly and have trouble understanding what they read. They may have trouble with word recognition and confuse words that look similar. This disorder is sometimes called dyslexia.

  • Mathematics disorder. This is when a child has problems with skills related to numbers. These skills include counting, copying numbers correctly, adding and carrying numbers, learning multiplication tables, recognizing math symbols, and understanding math operations.

  • Disorder of written expression. This is when a child has trouble with writing skills. These skills include understanding grammar and punctuation, spelling, paragraph organization, or composing written information. Often these children also have poor handwriting skills.

How are learning disorders diagnosed?

The signs of learning disorders may be identified by parents or teachers when a child consistently has trouble with any, or all, of the following:

  • Reading, spelling, writing, or completing math problems

  • Understanding or following directions

  • Distinguishing right from left

  • Reversing letters or numbers (confusing b and d, or 12 and 21)

A full evaluation by educational and mental health professionals includes educational and psychological testing, as well as talking with the child and parents. Public schools have a responsibility to evaluate children with certain learning disabilities. And when it is appropriate, these schools must also offer treatment interventions. Check with your school psychologist or school principal to find out how to request an evaluation. A full evaluation identifies whether a child has a learning disorder. It also identifies learning strengths and weaknesses. The evaluation results are used to figure out the child’s educational needs, identify the best school placement, and determine the possible need for medicine to help with distractibility or hyperactivity. Results can also determine if any additional therapies might be helpful. These may include speech therapy or family therapy. These can maximize the child's learning potential and quality of life.

How are learning disorders treated?

Treatment will depend on your child’s symptoms, age, and general health. It will also depend on how severe the condition is.

Learning disorders can be treated. A coordinated effort between parents, teachers, and mental health professionals provides the basis for individualized treatment strategies. These may include individual or group remediation, or special classes or resources.

Prevention of learning disorders

It’s not known how to prevent learning disorders. But early diagnosis and treatment can make them less severe. This will also improve the quality of life for children with learning disorders.

Online Medical Reviewer: Ballas, Paul, DO
Online Medical Reviewer: Fraser, Marianne, MSN, RN
Date Last Reviewed: 6/1/2017
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