One in five children has a learning disability, according to the Learning Disabilities Association of America. Some go undiagnosed for years, and can cause tremendous academic stress and struggles.
To learn how to recognize if a child may have a learning disability, and what to do if he or she does, we reached out to Emily Hyman, a teacher at the Janus School, an independent K-12 day school that serves students with learning differences.
Central Penn Parent: What different types of learning disabilities are there? What are the most common?
Emily Hyman: There are many that span across all academic subjects, impact attention, and influence social cognition. Some focus on just one area — like dyslexia, which impacts reading — while others can have a broader range, like an auditory processing disorder impacting most aspects of a child’s life. The most common learning disabilities, from my experience, are dyslexia, dysgraphia [the inability for the brain to process and enable writing correctly], dyscalculia [difficulty in understanding numbers, particularly the ordering system they function in], and auditory processing disorder. Other disorders, like high-functioning autism and ADHD, while not categorized as solely learning disabilities, are common and often impact academics.
CPP: Is there a specific age when most learning difficulties are diagnosed?
Hyman: There can be a lot of variance here. Some learning difficulties are recognizable when a child is very young. For example, high-functioning autism — formerly known as Asperger’s — can be diagnosed and early intervention strategies used before the child turns 2. Most difficulties become more apparent once a child begins school and enters the academic world. Still other children may not be officially diagnosed with any learning difference until they are into high school or even enter adulthood. It really depends on the individual case.
CPP: Do schools regularly screen students to determine if they might have a learning disability? Or does the request for diagnosis follow concerns from parents or teacher?
Hyman: The amount of screening depends greatly on the school or district a student attends. At The Janus School, we complete several screenings with new students to gauge their academic levels, social cognition and emotional health. Regardless of school or district, all teachers are constantly observing their students in the classroom and evaluating academic work. Their observations and evaluations can lead to requests for additional assessments, which could lead to a diagnosis.
Parents advocating for their children and requesting more evaluation are an immensely powerful, and necessary, means of procuring a diagnosis. Public school districts provide screenings and evaluations upon parent or guardian request.
CPP: How difficult is it for parents to get a firm diagnosis for their child?
Hyman: In the best-case scenario, [it] can be quite seamless. With observations from both parents and teachers, and some evaluations by a professional, a diagnosis can be made quickly and accurately. However, sometimes it can be more challenging to get a diagnosis. Age and the specific learning disability can both be factors.
At times, a child may have built up defenses or coping mechanisms to manage their learning difference without support, making an accurate diagnosis challenging. Other times, one learning disability may present itself in a similar manner to another, which could result in some difficulty receiving an accurate diagnosis.
CPP: What are some of the signs that a child might have a learning disability?
Hyman: The most common sign is difficulty in school. They might struggle in reading and math or need extra support in the classroom. The work may be challenging for a child or it might take them an extended period of time to learn or complete work. These academic challenges could also cause a child to be frustrated or immensely anxious when given work to complete. Some children may avoid their work, create disruptions during work time, or declare that they hate school or a particular subject to an extreme degree. Still other students may be quiet or withdrawn in the classroom. Students may have trouble with remembering or recalling previously learned information, following directions, or staying organized.
CPP: What problems may arise for a student with a hidden learning disability?
Hyman: [They] can have a challenging road to travel throughout their life. Without being given the proper tools and accommodations to manage their disability, they may struggle through school and develop a distaste for learning. They may have difficulty reaching or be unable to reach their full potential. Some students can develop other disorders, such as anxiety and depression. Their time in school can be filled with challenges and setbacks, and this can also flow into their careers and life years beyond their education.
CPP: What should a parent’s first step be if they think their child may have a learning disability?
Hyman: In terms of procedure, the first step should be to start taking action toward getting a firm diagnosis. Talk with your child’s doctor to get them a referral for evaluation. Talk with your child’s school and teacher for their policies and recommendations on obtaining a diagnosis. Make notes and observations of your child’s behavior. You can start doing some research on different learning disabilities, but be careful not to fall down the rabbit hole and diagnose your child on your own.