/ by Alissa Briggs, PhD, NCSP
Written by Alissa Briggs, a licensed psychologist and a locally and nationally certified school psychologist with expertise in assessing and treating neurodevelopmental and mood disorders.
Many children are now returning to school where they can learn and grow. But for some kids, absorbing information from class can be a challenge because of a learning disorder.
Determining whether your child has a learning disability can be confusing, partly because how they are diagnosed has changed in the medical world and the education world.
Let's break down what learning disorders are and how you as a parent and how your child's school can best support your child's growth.
What is a specific learning disorder?
A specific learning disorder is defined as difficulty learning and using academic skills in one or more areas for at least six months despite intervention. It also means that affected academic skills are significantly below those expected for the individual’s age.
These learning difficulties are not due to:
- Intellectual disabilities.
- Impaired vision or hearing.
- Other mental or neurological disorders (such as anxiety, depression or ADHD).
- Not speaking the language in which content is taught.
- Inadequate instruction.
A specific learning disorder can be in reading (sometimes called dyslexia), written expression and/or math (sometimes called dyscalculia). Within reading, the disorder can be in accuracy (reading words), fluency (rate at which words are read) and comprehension (understanding what is read). Within written expression, the disorder can be in communicating ideas in writing or spelling. Within math, the disorder can be in completing calculations or in solving word problems.
How is a specific learning disorder evaluated?
Many school districts in Kentucky use the Response to Intervention (RtI) approach. In this approach, students’ skills are monitored, and students who are not learning at an expected rate are provided evidence-based interventions targeted to meet their level of need while their progress is tracked. Students who continue to struggle despite these interventions can be diagnosed with a specific learning disorder.
If you would like more information on RtI, here are some resources:
- RTI Action Network: rtinetwork.org/learn/what/whatisrti
- Center on Response to Intervention: rti4success.org/
What should I do if my child has a specific learning disorder?
If you are concerned about your child’s academic skills, your first step is to talk to their teacher, ask for data on their academic skills, and ask if they are receiving any extra support or interventions.
Remember that it is your right to request an evaluation for special education eligibility at any time if you are concerned.
If you need guidance on how to navigate assessments for learning disorders in schools and the special education eligibility process, you may find the following resources helpful:
- Wrightslaw Special Education Law and Advocacy: wrightslaw.com/
- National PTA: pta.org/home/family-resources/Special-Education-Toolkit/Getting-Started-You-Are-Your-Childs-Best-Advocate
How to be proactive in your child's growth
Before you pursue an evaluation for a specific learning disorder, there are some important things to keep in mind:
- This cannot be diagnosed if vision and hearing have not been evaluated. Take your child for a vision and hearing exam, or ask for screening to be done at school.
- If a student is frequently absent from school, this may make it difficult to determine if the child is having difficulty learning due to a disability or lack of instruction. Make sure your child’s school attendance is regular.
- Mood disorders (like anxiety and depression) and attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) can make it difficult for a child to focus on and benefit from instruction. Make an appointment with your child’s pediatrician to determine if another concern may be affecting your child’s performance at school.
And remember, there is no harm in asking for more information regarding your child’s performance at school and expressing your concerns to your child’s teacher. You may be surprised by what is already being done to support your child, or you may alert the teacher to a concern that was otherwise overlooked.