Learning Disabilities: What to Do if You Think Your Child Has One

Does your child seem to struggle with homework and school work more than his peers, in spite of being obviously bright and curious? Are you beginning to wonder if he has a learning disability and, if so, what you should do next? Learning disabilities often stem from neurological issues that cause the brain to take in and interpret information differently-and techniques have been developed to help students work around their problems by finding ways to process information better, and successfully complete their education. The processing methods or tools they learn in school will carry them through so they can have a full career.

Most learning disabilities are diagnosed in elementary school as students fall behind their peers in writing, reading, math or organization. Learning disabilities are very common, with as many as 10 percent of school-age children having one or more. The sooner a learning disability is diagnosed and therapy begun, the more likely a student is to succeed in school. And, because students with learning disabilities may be teased or bullied and may have low self-esteem, early intervention is important for their mental health as well. Once a child is coached in methods they can use to help them keep up with their classmates, their confidence increases.

Recognizing a Learning Disability

A child can have one or more learning disabilities, including those most commonly recognized:

  • Dyslexia : Perhaps the most common and well known learning disability, dyslexia involves problems with letter recognition or organization and affects reading or understanding the printed word

  • Dysgraphia: Affects the ability to spell and write

  • Dyscalculia : Varies from person to person, but involves number recognition and concepts

  • Dyspraxia : Involves fine motor skills and the ability to complete tasks requiring them (writing, using scissors, etc.)

  • Executive Function : EF is the ability to remember details, organize, plan, and manage tasks--people with other learning disabilities often have problems with EF

There are several recognized risk factors for learning disabilities, including:

  • Genetics/heredity

  • Drug or alcohol exposure during pregnancy

  • Premature birth, low birth weight, or birth trauma

  • Head injuries

  • Chronic illness (such as asthma or diabetes)

  • Infections of the central nervous system

  • Poor nutrition

Taking Steps

Do one or more of these disabilities sound like your child? Does your child also have risk factors? What should your next steps be? It is important to remember that not all learning issues are defined as a "learning disability." For example, ADHD, visual and auditory processing, and the autism spectrum are not considered learning disabilities. But as you look for a diagnosis and therapy plan, the starting point is the same.

Begin a journal. Note assignments or projects that your child has particular trouble with, and any strategies you or your child have already developed (good or bad).

Talk to your child's teacher. Is he or she seeing the same issues? Depending on your school, a formal evaluation may begin with the teacher, or may need to go through school administration. In the U.S., public schools must provide evaluations and services for learning disabilities. Private schools may also do this, but are not required to.

Talk with your child's teacher about learning options while the evaluation process is underway. For example, can your reading-challenged child listen to audiobooks for book reports?

Contact your pediatrician. Have your child's vision and hearing checked, and ask about private evaluation services, if you choose to go that route in addition to or instead of a school evaluation.

Get after-school help. If your child is struggling with self-esteem issues related to learning problems in school, consider adding an after-school activity they enjoy or excel at: an art class, music lessons, sport, or volunteering. You might also consider an after-school tutor who can provide some one-on-one support and new learning strategies.

Check the National Center for Learning Disabilities website for checklists, resources, and advice (http://www.ncld.org).

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